BD+C: You’re a second-generation contractor, aren’t you?
Sundra L. Ryce: My dad is 66, and he’s owned W.C. Roberson Plumbing and Construction Corp. here in Buffalo for over 30 years. I started working for him as a teenager, learning basic business practices, especially about integrity. He taught me that if you say you’re going to do something, do it. He also had a very diverse company, and that has translated into our business. He’s my number one mentor.
BD+C: Right from the start, in 1996, you made a conscious decision to go into the commercial sector. Why?
SLR: I had a vision of growth, and I wanted to position the company to become a medium-size or larger firm. That’s the path we’ve taken. To date, our largest project, which is in excess of $16 million, is with the New York State Power Authority. So we are fulfilling our vision.
BD+C: How’s business?
SLR: We employ about 30 people, with revenues expected to exceed more than $25 million this year. About 10-15% of our work is CM, 20% is design-build, but our mainstay is general construction. We’ve been doing work for the Federal government for the last 12 years. We have worked with the Army Corps of Engineers, building their Military Entrance Processing Station at the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station, and, more recently, a renovation project for the Navy, in Erie, Pa. As far as design-build work goes, we see the Federal government moving more into that arena as well. They want you to bring the team to them and deliver the whole project—one-stop shopping.
BD+C: Your firm qualifies doubly as an MWBE, a business owned by a minority member or woman. Which is better for business, the M or the W?
SLR: The M helps me more, because in a lot of the projects, with the hiring goals that are set, there’s a greater capacity for minorities; for example, it may be 25% minority-owned, vs. 7% for woman-owned. Do I use it? Yes, especially for bidding on the larger projects. Fortunately, we have earned an excellent reputation for providing exceptional general construction services over the years. That is what we lead with when presenting ourselves, while highlighting that we are an MWBE after that.
BD+C: Your company is part of a consortium that’s doing $1 billion of work for the Buffalo Public Schools. What have you learned from that experience?
SLR: When you’re working with government entities, it’s really important to have a highly trained team with the skill sets to deal with the bureaucracy on all levels. Most agencies are meticulous about their paperwork, and that has been a stumbling block for many small or medium-size firms. At SLR Contracting, we quickly learned how to satisfy those requirements by providing all the appropriate documents necessary to complete those kinds of projects.
BD+C: During a recent radio interview you said you thought you were seeing light at the end of the economic tunnel. Enlighten us!
SLR: One of the things that has given us hope as a company is that in western New York, we are seeing projects come back to life. In Buffalo, the city is redeveloping the Erie Canal and the harbor, a $75 million project. And when you talk to the bankers, and looking at business trends, there is a small amount of growth. It’s a light, not a total recovery.
BD+C: You participated in a public forum in which you asked a question of President Obama. What did you ask him?
SLR: My question was about how to successfully run a small business. I specifically asked about the education programs offered to small business owners and how they should effectively negotiate contracts. I wanted to know what his administration is doing to implement new educational practices which support small business enterprises.
BD+C: And what did he say?
SLR: He answered for eight minutes. [Laughs.] He said they are looking at going into colleges and high schools to implement programs for entrepreneurial degrees, so that when people get to the point where they’re able to start a business, they have the tools.
BD+C: Are you feeling pressure from larger firms coming into your turf?
SLR: It’s kind of flipped around for us. Because of our growth, we’re moving into other markets, and it’s been a surprise to some businesses in those areas. For example, with the Erie Canal Harbor Development project, a larger firm [Hunt Construction] actually asked us to partner with them, and it’s been a great relationship for both of us.
BD+C: What’s your toughest challenge?
SLR: Balancing the opportunities that come to us. Once you get a name as a good contractor, you have to be really selective, to be fiscally responsible, to deliver those projects, get rave reviews and repeat customers. You’d love to take all the jobs, but you can’t. We want to grow smart instead of just growing fast.