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Calls for equity in construction is about more than addressing discrimination

 Ozanne Construction is renovating the former Blanket Mills building into a mixed-use development of apartments and commercial space.
Ozanne Construction
Ozanne Construction is renovating the former Blanket Mills building into a mixed-use development of apartments and commercial space.

Dominic Ozanne, president and CEO of Ozanne Construction Co., doesn’t mince words when relaying the origins of his Black-owned family business. When Ozanne’s father Leroy incorporated the company in 1956, he surmounted police-enforced segregation by harnessing a southern Louisiana upbringing where quitting was never an option.

“Dad was out bidding work and getting performance bonds,” said Ozanne. “He overcame all of that with determination and skill and a southerner’s attitude.”

Today, opportunities for minority contractors are out there, though not at the level that some observers hope for. A Cuyahoga County-led disparity study found gaps between the number of local minority- and women-owned shops and the contracts awarded to them. Among other findings, the 2020 report revealed that only 4.6% of primary construction contracts – or about $51.5 million of $1.1 billion in total spend - were given to minority- or women-run businesses.

In 2021, former county executive Armond Budish issued four executive orders intended to address disparities, including expansion of a small business enterprise program that reserves bids for underserved companies. The orders aligned with contracting-related recommendations from the Citizens’ Advisory Council on Equity, created in 2020 when Cuyahoga County declared racism a public health crisis.

Any gains from this effort did not prevent demonstrators from protesting the lack of Black contractors as key partners in the construction of the new Sherwin-Williams downtown headquarters.

Yet, Cleveland minority entrepreneurs maintain that the environment for their fellow builders is more complex than an all-encompassing word like “discrimination” can convey. Ozanne Construction, a multi-disciplinary firm that does business throughout the Midwest and southern U.S., is among the 31 minority-owned companies engaged in development of Sherwin-Williams’ new R&D Center in Brecksville. The paint and coating manufacturer is collaborating with another 37 minority businesses on its $600 million global HQ. An additional 13 firms are involved as “non-construction project partners” on both the headquarters and R&D projects, Sherwin-Williams spokesperson Julie Young said i
n an email.

Despite demonstrations to the contrary, Dominic Ozanne believes Sherwin-Williams and other Cleveland corporations are making an honest effort to bridge the opportunity gap. Issues arise when corporations treat minority contractors as commodities rather than trying to build a more substantive connection. This largely “transactional” atmosphere is compounded by an unfriendly payment cycle that makes growth difficult for new entrepreneurs, said Ozanne.

“Construction is already challenging, then you want smaller firms to wait 45 days before they get paid,” Ozanne said. “Owners can put a ten-day payment cycle in place so smaller firms don’t have to carry payroll and cost of materials. That’s a huge obstacle.”

The work is out there

Over his long career in the industry, Adrian Maldonado has been in rooms where people grumbled about equity in construction projects. However, most malcontents Maldonado meets are not decision-makers - this latter group has been much more receptive in taking inclusion seriously, he said.

Adrian Maldanado and Associates
Adrian Maldonado is the owner of the construction company Adrian Maldonado & Associates.

Maldonado’s company, Adrian Maldonado & Associates, has contributed to notable developments including the MetroHealth campus transformation and the forthcoming Fairfax Market in Cleveland’s Innovation District. The firm, which provides staffing and management support, has also enjoyed relationships with local industry leaders such as Turner Construction and Gilbane Building Co.

A mentor-protégé agreement with Turner sees the builder giving the ten-person firm vital developmental assistance. Outcomes of this association include revenue growth from $300,000 in 2020 to a projected $1.15 million this year.

“If you don’t have these kind of relationships, it’s real tough,” said Maldonado, who is Hispanic. “But just because people give you the opportunity, that doesn’t mean you’re set. You still have to perform.”

The landscape for small minority businesses can be bleak without outreach, added Maldonado. To that end, the Berea-based entrepreneur urged fellow owners to constantly make phone calls about project availability. He also suggested completing contract preregistrations for jobs that seem out of reach. Preregistrations can be essential in teaching inexperienced entrepreneurs about taxes, insurance premiums and other next-level facets of the industry, he said.

Maldonado is chairman of the Contractors Assistance Association, a group that directs minority contractors to projects, industry events and other community resources. Intentionality around inclusivity means there is work to be had for smaller companies like his, he said.

“It’s part of the DNA (for big builders),” said Maldonado. “They know if there’s going to be a goal (around equity) when bidding for government work. They know who’s out there and who can perform.”

Considering an equitable future

Getting more minorities involved with construction should be an industry goal in the years ahead, said Dominic Ozanne. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly 90% of the construction workforce in the U.S. is white and male. As of 2019, Cleveland’s construction workforce was 79.7% white, 12% Black, 4.6% Hispanic, and 3.6% Native American, Asian and Pacific Islander, per a report on Greater Cleveland’s construction workforce from the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research.

Youth sports is one possible pathway to improvement, due to that demographic’s physical ability and propensity for hard work, Ozanne said. Since 2020, Ozanne Construction has also brought in minority enterprises for nearly a dozen jobs – among them I PROMISE Housing in Akron and the Cleveland Play House demolition in Midtown.

“We’ve worked with just about everyone out there on multiple projects,” said Ozanne. “We try to lead in a positive manner, and try to help Black, Hispanic and female firms at every opportunity.”

David Wondolowski is among those “hyper-focused” on building a better Cleveland with marginalized businesses on board, he said. Wondolowski is executive secretary of the Cleveland Building & Construction Trades Council, an umbrella organization for the 29 local unions working in the Greater Cleveland area.

David Wondolowski is the executive secretary of the Cleveland Building & Construction Trades Council
David Wondolowski
David Wondolowski is the executive secretary of the Cleveland Building & Construction Trades Council

Wondolowski has a straightforward view on the need for diverse construction talent in Northeast Ohio.

“We are at a point and time where we have a shortage of workers,” Wondolowski said. “We don’t have the luxury of excluding anyone.”

While most local companies are well-intentioned in balancing the diversity scales, Wondolowski would prefer more effort around minority access to capital as well as the technical upskilling needed to run a business.

Wondolowski recently traveled to Akron to learn more about the Minority Contractor Capital Access Program (MCCAP), an effort started by the local port authority for underrepresented Summit County-based construction startups. Each MCCAP member must be at least 51% owned by women, veterans, people with disabilities, members of the LBGTQ+ community or racial or cultural minorities.

Participants receive technical assistance along with training around bidding and government contracting. Cleveland would be wise to use the Summit County program as a template, Wondolowski said, considering the wealth of work coming online.

“There’s a lot of good things happening and projects being discussed,” Wondolowski said. “We can’t miss the chance to bring more people into the workforce and help develop the contractors of tomorrow.”

From an economic standpoint, Cleveland has no choice but to tap into the skill and ability proliferating locally, noted Adrian Maldonado, the Berea construction entrepreneur.

“I’m a small business contributing well over $400,000 in payroll a year, and focused on creating jobs for people of color,” said Maldonado. “I’d like to have a diverse workforce so I’m more appealing to those big companies, because they’re looking to diversify and meet their own targets and goals.”

Corrected: March 29, 2023 at 12:07 PM EDT
An earlier version of this story incorrectly credited Dave Wondolowski with helping to launch the Minority Contractor Capital Access Program. He is looking to replicate the Summit County program in Cleveland.
Douglas J. Guth is a freelance journalist based in Cleveland Heights. His focus is on business, with bylines in publications including Crain's Cleveland Business and Middle Market Growth.