It's 9 a.m. and there's a 30% chance of rain. Inside a cream-colored Cadillac headed out of Syracuse, N.Y., Billee Huggard squints at the clouds, impatient to reach the site where a crew of eight is at work resurfacing a stretch of Highway 81. At the wheel is Dominic Giresi, a lawyer who has made a career of helping struggling companies climb into the black and is currently Hugard's corporate secretary and overall right-hand man.
Huggard scans oncoming traffic for the trucks she hired to haul base mix from the asphalt plant. "If the plant starts on time," she asks, "and if the rain holds off, and the trucks make fast runs, how many tons of asphalt can we lay today?"
"If!" Giresi scowls. "This business is a dice game." Asphalt is perishable, and if it rains, paving must stop and Huggard will be struck with tons of useless material. On the other hand, lost time costs money, too, so the trucks have been ordered to roll.
Billee Huggard is a veteran of over 20 years in the dice game of the paving business. Five years ago, she took over as majority owner and president of Reed Paving Inc., then a floundering company with only one $2,000 contract and some beat-up equipment. Today, Reed has over $3 million in annual sales, employs 45 to 50 people in season, and owns an office building and a two-bay shop full of heavy equipment and parts. In May 1981, Huggard was named New York State's Small Business Person of the Year by the Small Business Administration in Washington, and this year the SBA named her Women in Business Advocate of the Year for the Syracuse District.
There are some in her industry who would say that the dice are loaded in favor of Billee Huggard. "If you think affirmative action has brought me a lot of business, you're wrong," retorts Huggard. "Last year, no more than 15% to 20% of my work came as a result of hiring guidelines. That's nice, but it's really not much. It's not enough to survive on. Last year, the State Department of Transportation guidelines for women-owned business were revised down to 2%. That did less than nothing for us. Every job we got this year, we got on merit."
Huggard started in the paving business as a secretary to a contractor when she was just out of high school." Everything fascinated me," she says. "I wanted to learn the whole operation." When she came to Reed Paving nearly 20 years ago as office manager, she convinced the boss that she'd handle the office work better if she understood what went on at the site. In time she became a field supervisor, shuffling crews, expediting equipment, ordering parts. Then, as general manager, she handled customer relations.
When her boss became seriously ill, Huggard became involved in a struggle to keep Reed Paving alive. She scraped together enough capital to buy the distressed company, but the business had been in a year of decline, and she found she was starting from scratch. As a first-time owner, Huggard had no credit line and no bounding, so Reed could no longer qualify for government contracts for highway paving.
The company's first jobs under the new president were tiny -- a small parking lot, someone's driveway -- but Huggard made sure the work was first-rate. "Don't make a customer, make a friend," she told her staff, and she always called the client after the work was done to make sure it was satisfactory. Eventually an SBA loan came through, giving Reed the leverage to push for bigger jobs and higher volume. After three years, the company was bondable again and eligible for the highway paving jobs it now does both as subcontractor and as prime contractor.
"When I first took over at Reed, a lot of bets were made," Huggard says. "'She won't last two months.' 'She'll be out in a year.' They kept extending the deadline and we're still around, thank you. People are ready to believe a man knows what he's doing, but a woman still has to prove it."
When Huggard and Giresi reach the paving site, rain is still threatening. She immediately shows that she's in charge of the company, walking the shoulder of the road, greeting everyone from the state highway inspector to the general contractor's superintendent to a paving trainee. Her engineer, Rocco Luiere, is supervising, so she just watches and jokes with the crew. It's clear that everyone knows she can operate every piece of equipment and quote union rules with the best of them.
Creered by the visit to the site, Huggard decides to think positively: "With any luck," she tells Luiere, "they'll lay 1,400 tons today."
Her daily site visits serve as a way to watch costs and check contract compliance, but she is also aware of their importance for morale-building. "There are two ways to operate in this industry," she says. "You can go in with a hard-core attitude or you can run things family style. I talk to my people and listen to their problems. I let them know how the company is doing, what our goals are. They feel part of the operation. They want Reed to succeed." She shares every success -- a client's compliment, the purchase of a new piece of equipment -- with the staff, and she's generous with praise. When a job runs late, Huggard often buys the crew dinner, and she throws several company parties a year.
"A crew with a poor attitude can make a job bid at one month stretch out to four," she says. "Discord in the field can put a multimillion-dollar company out of business." The personal approach, she says, allows her to push for extra effort and demand overtime without incurring resentment. When Reed was working on perhaps its most technically difficult and tightly scheduled job to date, paving the playing floor of Syracuse University's new covered stadium, the Carrier Dome, crews worked nights until nine to finish in time for the first football game of the season.
As president, Huggard spends a good deal of time working on bids. A serious bid involves studying the job specifications, measuring the site, estimating every aspect of the work, predicting hidden costs, negotiating favorable prices from suppliers, and generally psyching out the competition. Large jobs and government work require surety bonding up front, which ties up capital each time a bid is made. When a company wins a bid, it has to float all its job costs -- contractors don't get paid until their work it complete and subcontractors have to wait until the prime contractor is paid. A retainer, a percentage of the final payment, is held for a year after completion to cover work that may have to be redone, such as paving that cracks the first winter.
Huggard has seen bigger companies than hers go out of business because of the tough conditions of construction contracts, and she's become something of an activist on the side of small businesses. "It's not lack of ability that forces small businesses out of the market," she says. "My biggest problems stem from the fact that I'm a small businessperson trying to make it in a system set up for big business.
"In 1979, for example, oil price increases pushed asphalt costs way out of line. We were doing jobs bid at 1978 prices. Maybe big firms can absorb a 35% increase, but in small firms that wipes out your entire profit margin. I wanted relief, so I went directly to my state senator to ask for a retroactive asphalt escalation clause in state contracts. He introduced a bill that went all the way to the governor's desk. I expect it to be reintroduced this session.
"Several months ago, I was invited to speak before the State Senate Subcommittee on Small Business Concerns. I made it clear to them how the retainage system hurts small firms. By law, the state holds 5% back from the general contractor until a public works job is completed and approved. The general contractor is free to hold back the 5% from his subcontractor. Now there is legislation in the works that should encourage the state to pay that retained fee very promptly.
"Lobbying takes a lot of time and energy and follow-up. But if small business won't fight for its own interests, who will?"
Government contracting has also put Huggard's firm in a curious position. "We've been on both sides of affirmative action," she explains. "When Reed bid a state highway job, we had to meet affirmative action goals. And as a woman-owned business enterprise, Reed was often supposed to be on the receiving end.
"As an owner, I've never found affirmative action to be a burden," Huggard says. "We recently bid a state job where the guidelines called for $17,000 to be subcontracted to minority firms. By now we know several black-owned firms that do trucking, supply highway barricades, haul blacktop. They do a good job for us. It's no problem to meet our guidelines.
"Affirmative action may help smaller firms get their foot in the door, but only competence will see you through and make someone want to hire you again. Ultimately, you have to make it on your own."
Huggard has also worked hard to develop good financial connections. She now deals with a bank loan officer who knows the construction industry and a bonding company that is willing to discuss her specific needs. Her representative at Credit Alliance arranges equipment financing, but also serves as a consultant and sounding board, advising her on lease-purchase deals and helping plan the company's growth. The company began to show a profit in the second year under Huggard's management, and all profits so far have gone into additional equipment and facilities. She believes the company can double its current sales to $6 million, be profitable, and still maintain high quality.
At the end of the day, Rocco Luiere reports to the office, where Huggard and Giresi wait to hear how the work on Highway 81 has gone. There was rain after all, a problem at the plant, and a new trucker missed filling the paver when he dumped his load. "Too many delays," Luiere reports. "We managed just over a thousand tons."
Giresi looks morose, but Huggard is quickly convinced that Luiere and the crew did their best. "Who could beat 1.8 miles on a lousy day?" she brags.
Then she get a promise of 1,400 tons for tommorrow.