Tevin Wade grew up—as he puts it—“not having much.”
He and his four siblings were raised by a single mother, and the family moved around a lot, from the 70805 zip code in north Baton Rouge to the Gardere, Fairfields and Sherwood Forest neighborhoods.
But he learned something from his upbringing that stuck with him. Wade’s mother supported her five children as a real estate agent running her own firm. She was driven and persistent, Wade says, two traits he would eventually pick up as he, too, launched a career and company of his own.
After taking high school elective courses with the local Associated Builders and Contractors chapter, Wade began working for Sun Electrical following his 2008 graduation and received his electrical certification in 2011. He later became a project coordinator with ISC Constructors while also earning his associate degree in construction management from BRCC.
At 25 years old, Wade secured his state contractor’s license under his limited liability company, Core Electrical Contractors. He left ISC about a year later, just after the August 2016 flood, when he was getting calls for residential work and decided it was time to go out on his own.
Since then, Core Electrical has grown, with a fluctuating staff of 10 to 15 employees, working both residential and commercial jobs, including retailers, restaurants and other businesses around Baton Rouge. But Wade has bigger plans for the future. He wants to move into industrial work and one day become a household name in the industry, like ISC, where he once worked.
There are challenges, though, that come with being a young, African American man trying to make a name for himself in an industry dominated by well-established companies.
And the two biggest challenges go hand in hand: 1) Getting a foot in the door with general contractors for opportunities to work on big projects and 2) access to enough capital to handle those projects.
Even for a business owner with a decade of electrical experience and growing revenue, Wade still struggles to secure the financing and contracting opportunities he wants to scale his business.
“You don’t always get the results you want. I still haven’t,” Wade says. “I’m still putting down my own money. When you talk about some bigger contractors, they’re getting $150,000 lines of credit. We’re being offered $10,000 to $15,000 lines. You can’t pick up a $300,000 to $500,000 job with a $10,000 line of credit.”
And then, even if you have all the financing in the world, Wade says, it doesn’t matter if you’re not getting the contracts to compete.
In reality, though, it’s a chicken-or-the-egg quandary of which comes first: Having the proven capability and revenue to land larger job opportunities, making loans easier to secure, or getting the opportunity in the first place?
City-parish and community leaders have launched efforts in the past year aimed at helping small businesses tackle these issues, and Wade is willing to give them a try. If anything, they’ll help establish relationships and resources.
At the end of the day, though, he knows the key to success goes back to what he learned early on from his mother—persistence. Wade doesn’t back down and he doesn’t take no for an answer, whether it be from banks, general contractors or even himself.
“Even though we have these challenges, that’s not going to hold me back,” Wade says. “Any wall can get broken through. You just have to be persistent.”
In early May, Wade stood alongside Mayor Sharon Weston Broome and city officials at the Baton Rouge Area Chamber as they announced, along with nonprofit MetroMorphosis, the launch of a public-private partnership to assist women-, minority- and veteran-owned small businesses with contracting opportunities.
The Baton Rouge Procurement Opportunity Partnership, or BR-POP, is in the process of forming a “procurement council” that meets bimonthly and involves several private partners, including Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana, Coca-Cola, ExxonMobil, Jacobs, Our Lady of the Lake, Turner Industries and others.
Wade spoke at the press conference as one of the minority-owned companies that will participate. The partnership, he said, could help businesses like his bridge the gap with larger contractors and build relationships.
“This helps us scale our business,” Wade told the small crowd, “and when it helps us scale, it helps us hire people from the community where I’m from.”
MetroMorphosis President and CEO Raymond Jetson says the partnership is a critical step forward for his organization’s LaunchBR initiative, which also assists small businesses in disadvantaged communities and has worked with Wade as well. BR-POP will bring together all the different entities working in the small business development space.
“What happens now is Tevin, or someone not quite as accomplished as Tevin, is going to five or six places getting pieces of what they need to grow their business,” Jetson says. “We’re trying to bring that ecosystem together and serve as navigators to help connect the dots, making certain the end result is that these folks do business.”
Meanwhile, the city-parish disparity study is underway, to be completed this fall and expected to provide data on “the level of disparity among minority-owned businesses” in Baton Rouge, officials say. It’s not certain yet, though, whether the study will actually provide any sort of plan to address the disparity.
While Wade is hopeful these efforts will help businesses like his, he’s also realistic and a bit circumspect. He’s attended seminars and events in the past for similar purposes and hasn’t always come away with much.
“You have a lot who say they will work with you,” Wade says, “but nothing comes out the initial meet and greet.”
Sometimes a large vendor will let smaller contractors on the bid list but then either send bids at the last minute, not giving enough time to respond, or not give them any work, with no feedback as to why or how they could get the work next time, Wade says.
He’s begun traveling out of Baton Rouge recently to find work in New Orleans, which boasts higher participation of minority-owned businesses in public contracts.
When he recalls commercial jobs his company has done in Baton Rouge, most have come from out-of-town vendors or national chains, like Starbucks, Dollar Tree and Domino’s.
“I haven’t thought about that,” Wade says, pausing for a minute. “It says a lot. I’m doing work in Baton Rouge, but a lot of work hasn’t come from contractors in Baton Rouge.”
A story this summer in the New Orleans Advocate-Times Picayune said that even minority-owned businesses with up to $5 million in annual sales often run into lending roadblocks.
The article cited a study that found black and Hispanic loan-seekers faced more scrutiny and were more often denied, compared to whites who presented the exact same credentials on paper to 17 different banks. The study was conducted by Sterling Bone of the Jon M. Huntsman School of Business at Utah State University and four other researchers.
“Both academic and private-sector research reveals that minority small business owners are denied credit from traditional banking services at higher rates than white small business owners,” the study reads.
Wade has already achieved early levels of success with his company Core Electrical, and yet he, too, still faces challenges when it comes to financing. For example, Wade says, he would like to obtain unsecured lines of credit from a bank, but so far has only been offered secured lines, which means he must put down an asset, like a home or a car, as collateral.
“The issue is just getting banks to be more open to working with minorities and smaller businesses on securing lines of credit and loans,” he says, while adding the business owners also must be willing to risk rejection and make the ask, which they are oftentimes afraid to do.
Lending struggles aren’t the only financial challenges that small or minority businesses face. Even if a business owner is able to secure financing, if they’re competing against big companies with capital on hand, they’re still at a disadvantage.
Major firms with cash on hand don’t get eaten up by interest rates, so that’s more money going toward their bottom line, says Kahli Cohran and Eric Dexter, of Civil Solutions Consulting, a Baton Rouge minority-owned engineering firm founded in 2013.
“They can keep that money as profit and build up the company or invest it in their people, offices, insurance—They can invest back in their business at a faster pace,” Dexter says. “It’s hard to compete. When you’re up against competition that’s been here for 50 years, it’s a different ballpark.”
Wealthier companies can also offer better pay and benefits than smaller firms, which makes it difficult to attract serious talent, Wade says. He has something of a solution planned, though.
Core Electrical is working on constructing a new office building on Plank Road, with a training facility. Wade is a certified electrical instructor and hopes to attract talent to Core by offering both training and employment.
But his motive isn’t purely about staffing his company. Wade wants to provide stable jobs to people in communities, like the ones where he grew up.
“Most minority businesses hire people out of minority communities,” he says. “One of the biggest goals in my life is to grow my company to hire people from the community I came from and provide them with a way of living because that will in turn help fix the income deficit, poverty and crime in lower-income areas.”