Huggins, Larry 1950–
Larry Huggins 1950–
As a Chicago construction worker in the 1970s, Larry Huggins had a compelling goal: to become a general contractor. In 1985, Huggins created Riteway Construction Services and developed the concrete and rough carpentry business into a million-dollar company by 1995. The role of general contractor has rarely been assumed by minority-owned businesses, but Huggins, as its president, determined to collect contracts for Riteway and its more than 200 employees.
After attending Washburn Trade School in Chicago and working at a number of construction jobs, Huggins started work as a painter for Brown’s Drywall, a small black-owned company, in 1975. Huggins told Francine Knowles of the Chicago Sun-Times, “During that time I saw in the African-American community the need for more African-American general contractors, and my goal was to become one. As a general contractor you’re able to give back to your community by providing contracts and employment for others.”
In 1983, Brown’s Drywall developed into Riteway Painting and Decorating, a joint venture created with Murray Brown. With Huggins as its president, the business grew fast—perhaps too fast. As its original staff of 25 painters expanded to almost 100 painters, the company battled financial difficulties. After six years of struggle, Riteway Painting and Decorating declared bankruptcy in 1989. Despite the company’s financial problems, workers were able to finish every project started and Huggins maintained a good reputation in the construction industry.
In 1985, while Riteway Painting and Decorating struggled, Huggins started Riteway Construction Services. Rather than yield to defeat, he took advantage of affirmative action programs. These programs, started in the 1970s, were designed to give qualified minorities a chance to compete in the white-dominated business world by setting aside business for them. Huggins told Ebony, “Affirmative action really opened up the doors for minority contractors to grow.” He also claimed that before these programs, “We were limited to work in outlying areas of the inner-city.”
For three years, Huggins used a large majority contractor, Tribco Construction Services Inc., as a mentor to learn the general contractor level of construction. Newsweek reported that Riteway was provided with “technical advice, hands-on supervision and crucial support in its dealings with banks.” Robert McCollam, president of Tribco, worked with Huggins before the affirmative action program, though. He had already known Huggins as a “cooperative” man who “got the job done on time” and “never griped.”
Another large contractor, Turner Construction Company, lent Riteway Construction Services its project manager
At a Glance…
Born in 1950. Education: Washburn Trade School, Chicago, IL, 1971-72.
Career: General contractor. Ecker Company, 1971-72; R. S. Bailey & Associates, 1975-90; Riteway Painting & Decorating Co., president, 1975-90; Riteway Construction Services Inc, president, 1985-.
Addresses: Office— Riteway Construction Company, Inc., 1030 East 87th Street, Chicago, IL 60619.
for a year to help the company develop. With the help of these companies, Riteway was able to snag numerous large projects, which included the Harold Washington Library, the United Airlines terminal at O’Hare Airport, and the Chicago Board of Trade building. Affirmative action was important to Huggins’s success, and through it he acquired the knowledge and experience he needed to obtain contracts for large projects.
One project Riteway obtained was the result of joining forces with another minority-owned company, Alert Construction, in 1995. Nelson Carlos, the Hispanic owner of Alert, was to be the subcontractor while Huggins acted as the general contractor for Unicom Thermal Technologies Inc., the six-million dollar district cooling plant. This was a unique project in that 35 percent of the work was to be done by minority-owned businesses. This percentage included 15 percent women-owned participation.
Huggins, continually aware of his own minority status, has been open to hiring other minorities; in fact, Riteway, one of the largest black general construction companies, employed more than 200 workers in 1998, 70 percent of which were minorities. When challenged that affirmative action is “charity for the black middle class,” Huggins responded, “We don’t turn around and discriminate against white workers.” He told Newsweek that he feels a responsibility to train people from his community and believes that a diverse work force is best. According to Huggins, people do not care” whether they work for a black firm, a Hispanic firm or a white firm.” In 1998, Huggins hoped to shed his minority label, explaining that it limits minority participation. He has been determined to break the glass ceiling that might thwart the future growth of his business.
Riteway has continued to obtain contracts for a variety of projects because Huggins stays tuned to his community. After the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) acquired a huge apartment complex that had defaulted in 1991, HUD sold it to a community complex comprised of the Ginger Ridge residents, Calumet City, and several community organizations. In 1997, Riteway obtained the massive remodeling job that was partially funded with federal and state monies. The project, completed in 1998, converted the predominantly one-bedroom units to larger apartments in order to attract families to the area.
The rise of Riteway has not been without controversy. In 1998, the company was often in the news due to its joint venture with the Walsh Construction Company, which presented the sole bid for the new, nine-floor Cook County Hospital building. A local preference ordinance was enacted in 1997 which required half of all county construction project employees to be county residents. Also, local firms were to be favored if their bids were within two percent of the low bid. Objections were raised because few local firms were large enough to handle the project, and outside firms were prohibited by the conditions of the ordinance.
The Chicago Tribune reported that “Matt Walsh, head of Walsh Construction, argued that large projects often only attract one bid”. Because of the outcry, the Cook County Board of Commissioners waived the ordinance. Refurbishing and expanding the hospital had been a political goal of Cook County Board President John Stroger. Despite claims that he was biased by contributions Walsh and Riteway made to his political campaign, Walsh-Riteway still secured the contract for the 300-million dollar project and promised its completion by 2002.
During this controversy, Huggins decided to involve himself in more than just construction. In 1997, he became the first minority person to sit on the Chicago Transportation Authority’s commuter rail service board, Metra. Citizens were encouraged, via the Chicago Tribune, to contact the board members, including City of Chicago director Huggins, with their complaints and praises.
In 1997, Ebony author, Kevin Chappel, described the new breed of African American millionaire, as a “second generation of Black elite.” Chappel also stated, “They not only give generously to worthwhile causes, but in many cases, have also created their own vehicles to deliver good works to the less fortunate.” Millionaire Huggins came from a single-parent home in a difficult Chicago community, Englewood. Continuing to live in a modest, black-majority neighborhood in Cook County, Huggins believes, according to Ebony, that he has “moral and social obligations as an African-American man to be a role model.” He uses his wealth as an example of what good money can do.
For example, each year, Huggins gives scholarships to students who come from single-parent homes. In 1996, he bought $7,000 worth of toys for the children of his childhood neighborhood, Englewood. That same year, Huggins helped organize a group of black truckers to deliver construction material to rebuild ten churches in South Carolina that were destroyed by arsonists. Chicago Alderman Terry Peterson commented that Huggins, “doesn’t toot his own horn. He doesn’t seek recognition. He simply looks to help wherever he can.”
Chicago Defender, April 20, 1995; July 8, 1996, p. 4; December 29, 1997, pp. 8-11; February 11, 1998, p. 3.
Chicago Sun-Times, August 10, 1995, p. 45; July 22, 1997, p. 15; February 6, 1998, p. 8; February 10, 1998, p. 3.
Chicago Tribune, September 15, 1997, p. 1; October 17, 1997, p. 1; November 10, 1997, p. 1; November 22, 1997, p. 5.
Civil Engineering, August 1, 1998, p. 21.
Ebony, August 1995, pp. 46-50; March 1, 1997, p. 76; December 1, 1997, pp. 124-129.
Newsweek, April 3, 1995, pp. 26-32.
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