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A strategic alliance: Pride Enterprises CEO partners with Iraq war veteran to build a growing business.

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CRAIG T. WILLIAMS WAS READING A NEWSPAPER HE DOESN'T NORMALLY READ WHILE dining in a restaurant that he normally doesn't frequent when he came across an article that would have a profound impact on two lives. Through the article, the CEO and president of Pride Enterprises Inc. (No. 95 on the BE INDUSTRIAL/SERVICE COMPANIES list with $22.5 million in revenues) learned about how a young, black Iraq War veteran was injured in combat, displaced in the economy, and working as a security guard at the University of Pennsylvania.

For Williams, reading the article proved fortuitous. While Norristown, Pennsylvania-based Pride Enterprises had fairly steady revenue gains, the building, construction management, and consulting firm generated nearly 35% of its revenues at that time from projects for the Department of Veterans Affairs. And a lot of those revenues were being shifted toward companies led by military veterans. "Almost overnight [business with the department] went down to zero," Williams recalls. "We looked at that situation and thought, 'Man, we have to figure out a way to replace that revenue stream.'"

Williams concluded that if his company was to continue to do business with the Department of Veterans Affairs, he needed to partner with a veteran and establish a new business. The veteran, Richard Bennett, seemed tailor-made for the task. After all, he studied architecture and the article stated his interest in a career in the construction industry. "I thought, my God, this is my guy. So we tracked him down through the author of the article and set up an initial meeting," says Williams, 44. "I brought him in and told him what I was thinking, and we talked about it for a while." During that period, Bennett worked for Pride Enterprises as an estimating coordinator and Williams' mentorship role began.

In less than a year, Bennett and Williams felt they could do business together and formed Fidelis Design and Construction L.L.C. in 2009. Bennett has a controlling ownership stake in Fidelis; however, Williams, who owns less than 40%, shares in the profits. "I helped him develop the branding strategy, and he came up with the name, came up with the logo, and we collaborated on the business plan," recalls Williams. A little more than two years later and Fidelis Design & Construction generates just more than $10 million a year. And Williams, whose firm is a newcomer to the BE 100s, may well help usher in one of the next generation of BE 100s CEOs.

FATHER FIGURE

Pride Enterprises, whose clients include the General Services Administration, the Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Air Force, and the Department of the Interior, was founded in 1996 after Williams himself benefitted from a familial mentorship. Currently, some 90% of the company's revenues come from government contracting. A graduate of Syracuse University with a bachelor's degree in business management, Williams joined his father's construction business, Robert I. Williams & Associates Inc., in 1990. Over seven years, Williams worked his way up from laborer all the way to vice president of the company. "I guess it's fair to say that I was on the inside track," Williams says.

While working for his father, Williams would sometimes handle small projects for local restaurants or churches that weren't really core to R.I. Williams. "So because he wasn't paying that much attention, he let me tackle those projects as kind of a side venture." That side venture, which later became Pride Enterprises, began to grow when Williams realized that focusing on the government space could prove lucrative. "The development of my company became a focus, and I relied on my father, as I always did, for advice and support."

By working with his father, Williams gained insight into customer relations, corporate culture, motivation, and leadership. "So many of the qualities and abilities that a corporate leader needs, I learned directly from my father," Williams says. "Fostering a family atmosphere within a company and really developing that all-for-one, one-for-all mentality all came from my dad." Williams, whose father died in 2001, would later impart these lessons to Bennett.

A SOLDIER'S STORY

As a combat engineer for Bridge Company, 8th Engineer Support Battalion, Pfc. Bennett was accustomed to hard work. A Marine, Bennett was part of a unit responsible for facilitating movement and support of friendly forces. This included everything from building bridges to carrying out demolitions and working with explosives. While fulfilling those duties, Bennett's unit came under a mortar attack while helping move a 700-pound panel for a bridge. "There were about eight or 10 of us lifting it while we took mortar fire," recalls Bennett, a native of Montego Bay, Jamaica.

By the time Bennett--who received several unit commendation awards and medals--was discharged from the Marine Corps, he ended up with traumatic brain injuries and a spinal injury that left him 80% disabled. When he'd met with Williams, Bennett was hoping to find a surgeon willing to attempt the high-risk surgery of fusing or replacing his spinal disks so he could return to duty. Williams, however, had other plans. "The good thing about me partnering off with Craig was he's been helping me to hone my skills more on the business side," says Bennett.

Both Williams and Bennett say the relationship is mutually beneficial. It gives Pride Enterprises restored access to a revenue stream while Fidelis (whose name hails from the U.S. Marine Corps motto, "Semper Fidelis") benefits from the support and business experience of a more seasoned management team. "One of the keys to the relationship Craig and I have is a mutual respect for not just each other's personality but for each other's ideas," says Bennett. "If we evaluate something and come up with two different results, we'll pretty much sit and discuss it and figure out what happened, why we didn't arrive at the same end result. From there the logical answer is clearer."

With nine contracts completed, the largest of which was a $5.85 million renovation of the Philadelphia VA Medical Center, Fidelis is projecting $13 million in revenues for 2011. "My plan, as far as a relationship with Pride Enterprises, is to buy out Pride's minority ownership interest and continue moving forward with them using them as a consultant, obviously maintaining the relationship and friendship I have with Craig as my mentor," Bennett says.

STIMULUS PROJECTS

For Pride Enterprises, Williams sees slow but steady growth ahead. For 2008, the company generated $12.6 million, which dipped slightly to $12.3 million in 2009. Revenues for 2011 are expected to rise some 10% to $25 million. "Oddly enough, we've managed to grow in this environment, partly because of the stimulus dollars that the government spent," says Williams. "We've also managed to evolve and stay in front of the money, if you will. With those strategies of diversifying within the niches of the federal government, we've managed to grow our business."

For Pride Enterprises, the challenge ahead is diversifying its revenue streams. "Having the majority of our eggs in one basket feels risky. The potential for a government shutdown is real, which could disrupt our operation," Williams concedes. As the economy recovers, he intends to re-establish clientele in areas outside the government--corporate clients, churches, and small businesses. Having completed projects with solar energy components, Pride Enterprises is exploring strategies to enter the solar market and may acquire an electrical contracting firm as part of that plan.

In the meantime, Williams will continue his mentorship role while maintaining the partnership with Bennett. "Clearly, what made Richard attractive to me was, he was a construction-oriented person. This is a guy who had the experience and interest in this industry, in addition to being a veteran. It wasn't that I could just find any veteran walking down the street to pursue this with. This guy was tailor-made for me."

Pride Enterprises' revenues were given a boost with the help of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, an economic stimulus package signed into law in 2009. Among the projects were:

* A $4.57 million contract to renovate all six floors of Building 343 of Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in New Hampshire for a nuclear submarine mission.

* A $2.7 million contract for the isolation and removal of various buildings from the base-wide steam heat system at Dover Air Force Base and the installation of energy-efficient heat boilers and domestic hot water tanks in the now independent buildings.

* A contract valued at $907,000 for surveying the building, design, and installation of a new primary and secondary electrical system, switch gear, and electrical panels at Air Station Cape Cod.

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Title Annotation:Be 100s The Nation's Largest Black Business; Chief Executive Officer Craig T. Williams
Author:Hughes, Alan
Publication:Black Enterprise
Article Type:Company overview
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2012
Words:1437
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