Being the fourth largest city in the country, when it comes to construction, Houston, Texas often operates like a small town. Everyone knows everyone, and this suits Alicia Jimerson well.
The daughter of a well-known and respected contractor grew up in Houston, Jameson had no intention of getting into construction. But because of fate, she began to help in the office of her father’s company, and after graduating from college, she decided to try her hand at work.
Instead of running her father’s company, Jameson hung her own shingle in 1989 to take advantage of minority-owned business provisions. Soon after, I hired two veterans, Tony Bonner as general supervisor and Tom Nugent as project manager. Today, it has 45 employees, runs a $7-10 million business in Stafford, Texas, and is one of the Equipment worldWinners of the Best Contractor Award 2021.
But her first venture into the world of bidding didn’t go as well as she had hoped. In a meeting with Houston’s largest general contractor, she says, “He chewed my ass.” “He told me my numbers were good, but the next time I made an offer, I’d better bring some guys with me, and if I didn’t, someone would take advantage of the price.”
Jameson didn’t win the bid that day, but she kept her head low and worked hard. “It was hard for the doors to open. I don’t think I could have done it without the support of Tom and Tony.”
Societies are gold
From the start, Jimerson knew something many contractors would learn the hard way, if at all. I understood that the key to getting a job as a small startup business is building relationships, meeting your peers, shaking lots of hands and handing out business cards.
Thirty years ago, construction in Houston might have been a good boys’ club, but that world has been changing, in large part due to the persistence of women like Jimerson. She joined the Houston Contractors Association and was elected to the board of directors in 2008, then was elected president in 2011. She was also a founding member of the Houston Women’s Contractors Association.
Just as the relationships that developed in building societies were important to the success of Jimerson Underground, so was the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. With over 100 commissions and 37,000 volunteers, this is the largest cattle show and rodeo in the world. It unites everyone from billionaires from city oil tycoons to multinational corporations, civic groups and local entrepreneurs in a common purpose – generating more than $500 million in scholarships for young people since 1932.
Jameson joined one of the committees in 1989 and worked steadily her way to the position of vice president. “You would be surprised at the number of contractors involved in rodeos,” she says.
To keep up with the demand for its services, Jimerson hired Dennis Wolford in 2006 to add some bandwidth to the management side. He’s now the vice president and keeps all the different departments working together smoothly.
In addition to maintaining relationships outside the company, Jimerson Underground has done well by maintaining strong relationships with its employees. “Nurturing the relationships you have with the people who work for you is important,” says Wolford. “It is not a one-way street. They work for us, but we also work with them. People who have lived here for 20, 30 years know that.”
Equipment world“Your employees aren’t just employees, they are family members,” Jimerson says. “Yes, you are here to make money, but you are also here to make sure their families are taken care of. That’s what families do, and long-term employees know this is home.”
This focus on the relationships and skills and knowledge of 30-year-old veterans like Nugent and Bonner impressed Nelson Blackwell of Vaughn Construction, a general earthmoving contractor that deals with Jimerson Underground. “They can be relied upon,” Blackwill says. “They will be there for you year after year. To them, it’s more than just the bid price. They are the people you want on your team.”
The 2008-2011 recession was a stark reminder of how important this philosophy is to the company. Employees went without bonuses, and executives went without pay for a while, but the company made it through without resorting to layoffs.
The only thing that has changed during the recession is her philosophy around equipment management. Before the recession, the company was running the equipment “until the paint flakes off,” Jimerson says. But the slowdown in business and the lack of cash flow made it necessary to sell off most of the assets that were not vital to the business on hand. Today, Wolford says, decisions to buy and dispose of equipment are more strategic.
Jimerson Underground has also been strict about sticking with what he does best. Sometimes you’ll be doing some on-site work for a long-time friend or client, but the primary work is underground utilities – basic water and sanitation facilities.
“Our guys know water and sanitation,” Wolford says. “From the office to the estimator to permits to the field, everyone knows exactly what to do.”
Evidence for the success of this philosophy comes from client Falin Ishee at Turner Construction. “It was a positive impression from the start,” Ishii says. “They are great to work with, from the office staff to the field. Dealing with facilities is always a hassle, but she makes it easy. They are one of the outstanding contractors.”
Volunteer to win
After breaking through the glass ceiling at one of the country’s most male-dominated businesses, Jimerson’s advice to those who want success is the same as for men or women – build relationships.
It is essential not only to join local building and civic organizations, but volunteer and join committees in those organizations, Jimerson says.
“This is how you meet other suppliers and contractors that you might work with one day,” she says. “Even if it’s just a 5-second introduction and a handshake, they will at least know who you are. Once you step in, you’ll get out of it what you put in it.”