How one woman of color transitioned from utility executive to construction industry leader

Profile: Stephanie Hickman, Trice Construction Co.

Stephanie Hickman spent 25 years as an attorney, lobbyist, and utility executive before taking the reins of her family’s 40-year-old construction company in 2006. With her business acumen and industry knowledge, Stephanie transformed Trice Construction from a small residential construction company into an award-winning firm serving Fortune 500 corporations and Top 100 General/Infrastructure Contractors.

Recently, her firm worked with IFF on The Hatchery, a massive new business incubator for food incubators located on Chicago’s west side.

Among her many accomplishments is becoming the first African American woman-owned construction firm awarded prime contracts on Exelon/ComEd projects. And yet – growing a small business is never easy. Learn about her journey in this month’s leadership profile.

 

IFF: Was your decision to leave “corporate America” difficult?

Stephanie Hickman: It was not difficult, but I conducted a lot of due diligence leading up to it. I knew that it would take a while for the company to be able to support me; and, in fact, I didn’t take a salary for about the first 2.5 years of the business. So I paid off all my bills, and I put money away. And I was fortunate that, coming out of a corporate position as an executive, I had some resources. By the time I left corporate America, I had only one obligation – my mortgage.

Part of my due diligence included talking to people I trusted to basically ask: If there was a firm like this out there, would you do business with them? At that point, I was sitting on a national board for an industry association, and I was able to talk to people who were decision makers about that kind of thing. What’s the profile? What are you looking for? How can people serve you? What’s the gap? Who else in the market is doing this? Are there other diverse firms that are doing this? I learned a lot from doing those kinds of surveys.

I also knew I was going to have to build up my relationship capital. The utility energy industry is very very insular. And while I had a great network of national contacts, my relationships here in the City of Chicago weren’t at that same level. So I did two things. First, I took on an assignment to support some legislative activity and spent just over a year in Springfield as a registered lobbyist for ComEd. Second, I was nominated and selected to participate in Leadership Greater Chicago. Those two things really accelerated the development of my network outside of the utility industry.

 

IFF: What was your main motivation for making the move to Trice Construction?

Hickman: Carrying on my family business was the biggest part of it. But here’s a true story that I tell all the time – it’s one of those memories that you can summon up like it was yesterday.

I was sitting in a budget meeting at Exelon, and there was a line item for concrete. It was a really big number. I figured it couldn’t possibly be right, so I even confirmed it with the person next to me. At that point, my family had been in concrete construction for almost 40 years, and I thought: That’s a lot of concrete. A lightbulb went off over my head. I remember thinking if we could just do 10% of that number, it would be awesome.

I think that was the moment I decided I was going to leave. I realized there was a way to take my utility industry experience and combine it with what my family had done successfully for nearly four decades.

 

IFF: Why did your father and three uncles start the business in 1967?

Hickman: When they started the business, their main motivation was a desire to have steady jobs. They were working primarily on the south and west sides of the city, doing a lot of residential garages that took them into the neighborhoods. They did not necessarily start off to grow a business into what Trice is today; it started off just about steady jobs and was based out of our home for a while – but once they got that stabilized, they kept growing.

But they were four black men. Under the age of 30. With young families. In the ‘60s. On the south side in Chicago. When Chicago was the most segregated city in the country. I always think about what audacity it took to say: I’m not going to work for these people. We’re going to work for ourselves, and we’re going to control our own destiny. And that’s exactly what they did.

 

IFF: Do you have any memories of the business from those early days?

Hickman: I remember that I never wanted it to rain during the week, because I knew that meant they couldn’t work. Other kids would sing, “rain, rain, go away” on the weekends, but I’d be singing that during the weekdays instead. I also remember that we never took summer vacations – and I still don’t know how to do that.

 

IFF: What advice do you give to other women or minorities who are just starting out in the industry?

Hickman: I’ve given this question a lot of thought, and I have a few ideas.

  • Number one, I advise you to do your homework before you jump out there because it’s harder than you think, it’s going to take more money than you think, and it’s going to take longer than you think. With all the due diligence I did, with all the networking and the positioning, and having the financial pieces in place…it still took longer than I thought it would to gain momentum.
  • The other thing I suggest is to have a good handle on what part of the industry you want to play in. For me, it was clear – we had been doing concrete for 40 years, so I wasn’t going to start doing roofing. But understand the dynamics – Who are your competitors? What are the expectations? What do the pricing models look like? I spent a lot of time downloading IDOT bids online to look at what people were charging for the work.
  • And of course – network. Get involved in industry organizations. For women, and particularly for women of color, in construction we are singular – you go somewhere, and there’s going to be one of you. Across my career, I’ve worked in male-dominated environments, so this is normalized in my experience. But if you’re not coming out of that, it can be very intimidating. I remember going to my first industry event. I knew no one. In a past life, I would have ordered a vodka-and-tonic. But when I looked around the room, I noticed that most people were drinking beer out of the bottle, so I got a bottle of beer and waded in and said ‘hey fellas, how you doin’, I’m Stephanie.’ We all know people do business with people they know and trust. So, intimidated or not, join one of these organizations.
  • Also, understand and line up access to capital. That’s an ongoing issue for people in our industry and for small businesses generally. It gets tougher if you’re a woman, and even tougher if you’re a woman of color. Knowing what a bond is, understanding lines of credit, dealing with term loans – these are all things you need to know in construction. I was very fortunate to know a banker who taught me how to ‘speak bank.’ I remember when I first went out to banks, I was giving them my sales pitch. They don’t care about the sales pitch. While they care about what you have lined up, what they care about most are your results.
  • Another piece of advice – find a mentor. The owner of Wight and Co. has been that mentor for us. He is a part of our board of advisors, and that relationship has been great. The fact that we are working on The Hatchery at all springs from that relationship. They don’t ‘give’ us work by any means; we still have to compete. But he’s been a great mentor to help me develop the company.

 

IFF: You serve on a number of Boards, including for the nonprofit Teen Living Program. How’d you get involved in that, and why is that work attractive to you?

Hickman: For me it’s important to give back, to engage, to connect with what’s going on in your community, and to be part of solutions. I like being able to bring my business acumen to the table, and also to make sure there’s diverse representation on boards.

Teen Living Program is an organization that supports the needs of homeless teenagers on the south side – so it’s very very focused. This is the third organization I’ve been involved in that deals with issues of homelessness. I’m not sure why that one touches me so, but it does. You kind of look at people and wonder what their story is, and you realize that – but for the grace of God – you could be in that position.

With young people who are dealing with issues of homelessness, a lot of that can be resolved with jobs and access to opportunities – and stable jobs are exactly what initially motivated, and ultimately made a difference for, my dad and my uncles. I like being able to pull that together, especially where there are opportunities to train for careers in construction.

 

IFF: If there was one thing you could change about the construction industry, what would it be and why?

Hickman: I would like to see more women and more people of color in the decision-making positions about who has opportunities on projects. It’s all about who’s in the room. There’s still not a lot of diversity at those levels – project executives, project managers, superintendents, etc. If access to capital is one half of the circle, the other half is access to contracts and opportunity. Those two things go hand-in-hand. We need to increase the ability for women-owned construction firms and minority-owned construction firms to have better access and opportunity.

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