His life is living proof state set-asides work

From reform school to top contractor, a Latino needed help

April 01, 2001|By Andrea K. Walker | Andrea K. Walker,SUN STAFF

When Richard Colon took over the operations of Mace Electric Co. in 1983, the Baltimore County company had a heap of debt and was on the verge of closing.

Colon knew it was a risky venture, but he had a plan to turn the company around.

As a manager at the now-defunct H. P. Foley Electric Co., Colon had found subcontractors to help his employer comply with laws that called for greater participation of minority- and women-owned businesses in publicly financed projects.

The son of a Colombian mother and a Puerto Rican father, Colon saw a gold mine in government contracts.

More than 20 years later, the man who learned the electrical trade at a school for delinquent boys has turned his company into a multimillion-dollar operation that had a hand in lighting Camden Yards and the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront Hotel.

He did it by taking advantage of contracting goals set up by the city and state to steer business to minority companies.

Today, Mace Electric in Arbutus is one of the biggest minority companies that does business with the state - about a third of its revenue comes from those contracts.

And although developers now hire Mace Electric for its track record, Colon said he believes that contracting goals give minorities access to deals that otherwise would be unavailable to them.

"I've used him for minority participation, but I would use him whether I needed that or not," said John Speights, project manager and chief contractor for CAM Construction Co. in Timonium. "I don't think he needs that or pushes that."

Colon is a vocal supporter of minority goals. "My company wouldn't be where it is if it wasn't for the goals," he said.

As chairman of the Maryland Minority Contractors Association, he testified before the General Assembly as lawmakers debated Gov. Paris N. Glendening's proposal to raise from 14 percent to 25 percent the state's contracting goal for businesses owned by minorities or women.

The bill passed with bipartisan support and little debate last month, a resounding victory, said Colon, who anticipates that the law will bring more business his way. More important, he hopes the law will send a message to other minority firms that aren't taking advantage of the available work.

"Hopefully, they'll see that there are more opportunities and we can convince them to latch on to them," Colon said.

Colon grew up poor in Miami, the second-oldest of six children. His father worked various jobs at the old Pan American World Airways while his mother stayed home with the children. Colon shared clothes with his four brothers and the family's dinners were often donated by the Roman Catholic Church.

"If you didn't get up and get dressed early enough for school, there might not be enough socks or whatever for everybody to wear," said Colon's brother, Robert.

Even as a child, Colon seemed to have a fascination with electricity, pulling apart toasters and irons, trying to figure out which wires did what.

But Colon had no dreams of becoming an electrician, or anything else for that matter. A headstrong child who often skipped school, Colon was an admitted troublemaker. His antics landed him in the Florida Industrial School for Boys at the age of 12.

There, forced to study a trade, he unwillingly learned how to be an electrician. "I hated it," he said. "I saw it as punishment and thought it was difficult."

Colon stayed at reform school for two years, eventually earning a high school equivalency certificate. But it was the electrical skills that he loathed so much that would be his ticket to success.

It was 1961 and Colon, then 17, saw an ad in the Miami Herald. A strike had paralyzed the electrical industry in Baltimore and workers were in demand. Colon packed some clothes in a paper grocery bag and hitchhiked north.

Baltimore still had many cobblestone streets then and the Inner Harbor was a "dump." But Colon found work almost immediately with H. P. Foley.

Over the next 21 years, he went from apprentice to journeyman electrician, foreman, superintendent and manager. Then, he became restless.

Colon wanted his own business. He was tired of working for others but lacked the collateral to get a loan to make the break.

Then a union buddy told Colon that businessman Otis Mace was having money problems and close to shutting down his company, Mace Electric, after almost 40 years. Mace had put up most of his assets as collateral to cover the debt with the bank and was about to go out of business.

Colon went to Mace and told him that he didn't "have a dime." Then Colon made what he knew was a bold offer: He would run the company under Mace's ownership until he made enough to pay off the half-million-dollar debt, then Mace would sign the company over to Colon.

"I didn't know what he would say, but I knew I didn't have the resources to do it any other way," Colon said.

Mace thought it an outrageous idea at first. But he was ready to retire and didn't have children to take over. There wasn't much to lose.

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