Getting ahead the honest way - on talent. Is it possible in Philadelphia?

Roots and wings -- that's Angelo Perryman's story. Young African-American man in rural Alabama, where it might have seemed that race would have been an obstacle. But there's a twist on it, one that tells the old story of what happens when racial barriers are more subtle.

In my executive Q&A interview published in Sunday's Philadelphia Inquirer, Angelo Perryman, chief executive of Perryman Building and Construction Services, talked about why here are so few minority contractors in Philadelphia. He said there's no room in the middle for a fledgling company to grow. Larger companies dip into the middle-market meaning that smaller companies, including minority companies, are shut out and never get the chance to show off their chops or even stretch into more skills.

I asked Perryman how he got his start in the business. In some ways, it's the usual story -- grandfather, then father. But there are other twists.   

"When my grandfather was working, in those days you helped your children understand how to take your job. So my grandfather was working for a bridge builder, and my dad decided to volunteer for the Korean War, where he was a Bronze Star and Purple Heart recipient. When he came back he was of the assumption that a job was going to waiting for him at the bridge building plant. But his exposure to so much of the world made him a little bit less than the ideal choice.

Question: Less than the ideal employee?

Answer: Yes. He just had more exposure with the world and understanding integration. They were a little bit concerned about that. He had to revert, as most people do. So, you go to your toolbox and say, `What else can I use to farther my life and career?' I don't know if they even called it a career then. He had built up a lot of trade skills in plumbing, carpentry, and masonry.

Q: So, he literally turned to his toolbox?

A: He turned to his toolbox. Then he turned a lot of trade skills into a business, utilizing the GI Bill to help him with just the educational component of managing your business, and became very well respected in a very large region of Alabama. If you had to put it in common day, Perryman Building was the Driscoll of Philadelphia. That was our legacy of how the business all began.

Q: Why didn't you stay? Weren't you then prepared to go into that business the same way?

A:  Well, I had two older brothers. So the thought process was I have a brother that is a PhD nuclear engineer and one that is a master electrician. I more stayed on with an administrative and back of house kind of arrangement. The thought was that when I went off to school, then I'd pick up more skills, come back, be able to take the business over. When I left to go to college, then I had a detour where I decided to go to work for some larger firms.

Q: That's pretty common, isn't it, in family businesses, for the next generation to go elsewhere to sharpen skills?

A: When I went with those firms, I just started seeing all the opportunities that were out there.  Outside the geographic area. I started believing that we could grow the business even bigger. You start hearing name recognition. When I hear you say Turner Construction is a family business. They got across their financial hurdles by going public. Bechtel, family business. So we saw ourselves like that. 

Q: You talked about the role the Blount family played in your life. Winton Blount III, who died in February, 2015, was a politically-connected white man who not only headed a construction company but led the Alabama Republican party. His father worked in the Richard Nixon White House, a president you credit with moving the bar more quickly than other presidents in setting up systems for opportunities to allow African American business people to compete and excel. You worked for him.

A: They came with a different perspective on how to utilize the talent that was in their portfolio, regardless of what this person looks like, if they were the right person. My reputation was I was a troubleshooter for projects, a project troubleshooter. So I was dispatched to many first-of-a-kind industry projects. 

Q: Construction of a paper factory, a prison, an oil facility in Alaska. That's an array of experience. So how did you get here?

A:  How I came to Philadelphia was that Philadelphia was just making a transition from manufacturing to hospitality, and the Pennsylvania Convention Center was the new big project in town in a transformational means. So they did a national search. One of their initiatives was how do we get a much more broad utilization of talent out there, and in many cases, I must admit it's still the belief that it comes through ethnicity, not through capability.  So I was one of three names that was picked to because I  had big job experience, first of a kind background, those kind of things. So that's how I came to Philadelphia.

Q: Going back a bit, how did you get your first break in construction after working for your Dad?

A: One of my memories is when I first was interested in working for Brown & Root Construction, working on a huge project. I wasn't a part of a management team. I was just looking for a job at that time.

Q: As a carpenter?

A:  Yeah. That's actually it. It must have been a 1,500-car parking lot that was created for all the workers that were going to be working on construction. They had set the employment hour to 9:00. Obviously, the workers started at 7:00. So anybody there at 9 a.m. was looking for a job. Myself, as well as two or three other young folks, were walking towards the hiring shack, along with one of the guys who had worked for Brown & Root for years. At that time you had a slip that you'd bring with you and any Brown & Root project that you went to, you got moved up a notch. So he was just coming to this location the first time and applying. He'd worked for Brown & Root before.

Q: OK, then what happened?

A: So, we're all walking up together, and I'm listening to the conversation. The young kid says, `I don't really know what I'm going to get hired for, but I'm just looking for a job.'

The more experienced guy tells him this:  "Look, I'm going to give you my wrench. Take the wrench. Put it in your back pocket and tell them you want to be hired as a pipe fitter helper." And we go to the shack, the process works like this: `Who's looking for carpenter job? Who's looking for pipe fitting helper job. Who's looking for...' You raise your hand and they give you an application to fill out. Well, I'm still waiting for them to say the right name for me. The name never came. The position name never came.

Q: What was it?

A: This would have been the carpenter or carpenter helper. Never came up, right? But the guy who said `I'm a pipe fitter helper' and had zero experience, got hired that day.

Q: The fact that he had a wrench in his pocket sealed the deal?

A:  Sealed the deal. At the same token, I ended up: `They said, `Look, I got a laborer's job. Take it or leave it.' I said, `I'll take it.'

Q: Wow.

A: So I went from carpenter to laborer because I didn't understand the process. But the good part of this story is, is that it took only a week of me being a laborer that somebody said, you have no business being here. I went from laborer to assistant superintendent.

Q: Really?

A: In a week.

Q: That's incredible.

A: But it took somebody having to see it.

Q: What did you do on the job site that made you be noticed?

A: I had leadership skills.

Q: Like what?

A: Organizing. Even though there was a foreman for the laborer crew, I knew things that were beyond that. How to organize. What materials were needed. I just knew stuff and didn't have to be managed.

Q: Because of your dad?

A:  Yeah.

Q: This was your first chance right there.

A: This was my first chance on big jobs.

Q: Right. Before your experience had been with your dad, so that was it?

A: Yeah. I know how that feels to be a smart person, clearly smarter than the people you're around and still be not allowed to have a shot. That's real world. I'm not creating no part of this story. I'm sitting up here shaking my head, saying, 'This ain't going to work. Put the wrench in his pocket.' He said, 'Pipe fitter helper.' `Sign up, you hired.' What? I was just dumbfounded. I was actually dumbfounded.

Q: But then it also worked out for you? 

A:  Within a week. Went from laborer to assistant superintendent. 

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