(Taken from an article appearing in the Kansas City Small Business Monthly, October 2002.)
A Friend's Conviction
Reasons small business owners give for starting a business vary, but in Paul Rodriguez's case, it was the support and encouragement of a friend. The friend, who was also a colleague, believed in Rodriguez so strongly that he even put up collateral to help him start the business.

"I was working for a plumbing contractor and I loved what I was doing," Rodriguez said. "A friend and business owner, Seneca Marquez, told me I should go into business for myself. I hadn't really thought about it until then."

One day, Marquez, owner of Marquez Electrical, asked Rodriguez to take a day off from work. "He took me to his bank," he said. "He knew I had no collateral, so he put up $10,000 of his own money in my name. He thought that much of me to do that."

Rodriguez, then age 28, founded Rodriguez Mechanical Contractors Inc., with the assistance of his wife, Maxine. At that time, the couple had four children. Now they have six children and seven grandchildren, with two more on the way.

"Those were the good years," said Rodriguez. "Yet they were also extremely tiring. I was a workaholic, rarely taking time off from work and even working on some holidays. In the first 2 1/2 years I only took off 20 days from work. I often worked all night and even worked one Thanksgiving. I guess you could say I had a fear of failure.”

In its early years, the company specialized in residential plumbing. “When the weather was good, you had to work,” Maxine acknowledged. “Paul did work a lot of long hours then. But he really didn’t have any choice.”

Expanding the Pipeline
Although the company initially specialized in residential plumbing, Rodriguez knew that Rodriguez Mechanical needed to diversify to grow and thrive.

“The housing market always fluctuated, so I wanted to get into commercial work,” Rodriguez explained. “At that time, it wasn’t common for large construction companies to give minority subcontractors an opportunity to work with them on large projects. But J.E. Dunn Construction, general contractors, gave us our chance to expand into the commercial market.”

It was the big break the company needed. Revenue grew from less than $2 million to $12 to $13 million annually since the break came five years ago.

Steve Dunn, chairman of J.E. Dunn Construction Company, said timing was everything when he and Rodriguez connected. “We were seeking good quality minority- and women-owned contractors and suppliers at the same time Paul was seeking to break into the commercial market,” he said.

Dunn provided Rodriguez the break he needed, and Rodriguez provided J.E. Dunn with high quality work delivered on time and under budget. “We gave Paul an opportunity, but he did a great job,” he said. “It’s been exciting to see Paul’s business grow and prosper. He’s a great guy and a hard worker.”

From Pipelines to Lifelines
In addition to hard work, Rodriguez knew that to succeed he needed expert business assistance. “I didn’t have much of a business background (when starting the business), so I sought out the missing parts when I needed them,” he said. “And Maxine did the accounting and bookkeeping, which kept us out of trouble.”

Rodriguez has developed associations with four local unions to gain the skilled workers needed to expand the business. “Unions provided the qualified and trained staff to create an exceptional workforce,” he said.

Family members helped complete the staff. Two of the couple’s three sons, as well as several siblings, work at the business. Their son, Danny, is the company’s purchasing manager, and Joseph works as project manager and estimator.

Rodriguez has also invested time and money to stay current with technology. Instead of estimating projects using blue­prints, pencil and paper, the company now uses the AutoCad software program to streamline the process.

“The cash outlay for a small business owner to stay current with technology is expensive, but it’s been worth it,” he said. “Computerization has helped us hone in on exact costs when bidding a job.”

And, because the federal government is moving toward a paperless environment, Rodriguez has had to learn how to down­load blueprints from a computer diskette. “We have to stay technologically current or we’ll miss out on opportunities,” he said.

Working in an industry where safety is a primary concern, Rodriguez knows the importance of seeking outside expertise to stay current of changing regulations in this area. In recent years, the company hired Craig Safety of Overland Park as its safety consultant. “There’s been a significant change in the number of safety rules and regulations and by hiring an expert in the field, we’re assured of staying up-to-date with the changes,” he said.

Rodriguez also relies on the expertise of an insurance company familiar with construction performance and payment bonds as well as expert accounting and legal staff to provide the business expertise the company needs to succeed.

Becoming Certified
A minority contractor, Rodriguez was accepted into the SBA’s 8 (a) program, a program for economically disadvantaged businesses. Rodriguez said that although he hasn’t participated heavily in the program, it has served as a tool to developing better business practices.

“We’ve only done four jobs through the program in the eight years we’ve been involved,” he said. “And we had already been in business 15 years when we joined the program. But instead of using the program to start our business, we’ve used it to improve our administrative skills.”

“The few jobs we did helped us immensely in terms of teaching us administrative skills, handling the enormous amount of paperwork involved in today’s jobs and scheduling,” he added. “We learned what we needed to know to run a successful business.”

Instead of focusing on federal contracts, Rodriguez used his newfound skills to help him succeed in the private sector. “There are businesses that succeed in the 8 (a) program, but don’t build their private business and end up going out of business,” he said. “Our goal is to continue with private business and not focus solely on federal contracts.”

Pete Jenks, senior project manager with RAU Construction, described Rodriguez Mechanical as “the best plumbing contractor in the Kansas City area.” Jenks has relied on the company’s services since 1989.

“He worked on my first project in the River Market area and I’ve been working with him ever since,” he said. “He’s a great guy who does outstanding work. I can’t say enough about him and his business.”

Linda Cruse is managing editor of Kansas City Small Business Monthly.

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