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Entrepreneur brings company back to Minneapolis

Two Thor Construction employees joke with each other in August as they smooth cement on the site of the company's new headquarters in north Minneapolis. (Evan Frost/Minnesota Public Radio via AP)

Two Thor Construction employees joke with each other in August as they smooth cement on the site of the company’s new headquarters in north Minneapolis. (Evan Frost/Minnesota Public Radio via AP)

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Desperation drove Richard Copeland into business.

Newly married and with a baby on the way, Copeland found himself unemployed — booted from his father’s trucking business after an argument. It was 1980. He was 25 years old.

“I didn’t know what I was going to do,” Copeland recalled. “All I had was a pickup truck, a shovel and a hammer. I would just drive around all day, hoping to find yard work.”

His neighbors in north Minneapolis dubbed him “Sanford and Son,” a barbed reference to the 1970s TV comedy about an irascible junkyard owner and his hapless son, who also drove an old pickup.

Copeland, however, refused to follow that script.

Instead, he built his one-man, one-shovel operation into a landscaping company, then a construction firm. Now it’s Thor Companies, a holding company with 200 employees, $375 million in revenue and projects throughout the country, making it one of the largest black-owned businesses in the U.S.

MPR reports that 37 years later, Thor is headed back to north Minneapolis, blocks from where Copeland had grown up. His plan? To bring investment and jobs into a corner of the Twin Cities that desperately needs both.

His company now has a $35.9 million headquarters building under construction in north Minneapolis. The investors in the project include Target.

Copeland says his goal is to spur an economic renaissance in a part of the city that was crushed by the Great Recession and is still struggling to recover nearly a decade later.

“We see north Minneapolis as an asset, not a liability,” he said.

Ravi Norman, Thor Construction CEO, left, poses in August for a photo next to Richard Copeland, company founder and chairman, in front of the company's future headquarters in North Minneapolis. (Evan Frost/Minnesota Public Radio via AP)

Ravi Norman, Thor Construction CEO, left, poses in August for a photo next to Richard Copeland, company founder and chairman, in front of the company’s future headquarters in North Minneapolis. (Evan Frost/Minnesota Public Radio via AP)

Copeland is also on a mission to wake up Minnesota to the struggles and prospects of minority-owned entrepreneurs. His company has done far better winning contracts outside the state than inside, a reality he says is driven by racial discrimination.

State officials don’t disagree.

“Thor’s experience isn’t unique,” said Minnesota Human Rights Commissioner Kevin Lindsey. “I think it is the case that discrimination, unfortunately, still exist in the state of Minnesota. And it exists as it relates to employment and it also exists as it relates to state contracting or contracting opportunities between individuals.”

Copeland’s new headquarters is a big part of Hennepin County’s multimillion-dollar plans to redevelop the area around Penn and Plymouth avenues and bring in more employment opportunities. Target, the master lease holder for the property, was instrumental in the deal.

Copeland and others, though, see the headquarter as more than just a new building. They believe it will show the local construction industry that it’s good business to be in north Minneapolis and to hire minority workers.

“As African-Americans, I think we have a distinct responsibility,” said Ravi Norman, Thor’s chief executive officer. “It may only be a $35 million building. But it’s an investment with intentionality in a very specific part of the neighborhood.”

The local construction industry, he added, “is recognizing that the chasms that exist between whites and communities of color are something that’s not going to be a sustainable model for Minnesota,” Norman said.

The number of minority businesses in Minnesota in Minnesota at a much faster pace than that of white-owned firms. The state’s older workforce and tight labor market mean prosperity will increasingly depend on workers of color, said Gary Cunningham, president of the Metropolitan Economic Development Association, an organization that aids minority entrepreneurs.

“That shift means we’re going to have to figure out how to ensure that people of color are thriving because they are the future consumers of products that being sold and they are the future workforce,” Cunningham said.

The state agrees and has been moving in recent years to aid minority businesses. Minnesota officials recently established a set-aside for diverse businesses of any size — a change that Thor, a big company, had long sought. Separately, state officials have boosted their goals for employing minorities and women on state construction projects.

Government contracts have been a big driver of Thor’s growth.

“When we were small and there were inclusions efforts made to have minority-owned businesses do state work, we participated in that work and bid on that work,” Copeland said. “It helped us a lot.”

Copeland, though, said the company eventually became stuck in an odd place. It was too big to still qualify for assistance through the state’s inclusion programs. But it was too small to outmuscle Minnesota’s construction giants for business.

Because of its longstanding partnership with Mortenson Construction, Thor has worked on some massive projects in Minnesota, including the U.S. Bank Stadium and TCF Stadium. Even so, Thor’s work in Minnesota makes up only a sliver of its total, more than 85 percent of which comes from out of state.

Copeland said race has played a role in how his company is viewed by Minnesota’s construction industry. He said his advocacy for inclusion, which has led him on occasion to call out agencies and companies, has contributed to his company’s dearth of contracts.

While seeing relatively slow growth in Minnesota, the company has prospered elsewhere. It has worked, for instance, in California and Nevada with the likes of Disney and MGM Grand. It also has the distinction of being the only black-owned firm to have a building on the Las Vegas Strip that it can say it helped erect from the ground up, Copeland said.

Norman and Copeland said they can’t exclude discrimination from the possible reasons why success of a similar sort has been elusive in the Twin Cities.

Race has mattered from the beginning, said Copeland, who was reminded of that early on when a white competitor scrawled “Thor” on Copeland’s pickup truck. Thinking that the hammer-wielding Norse god would make a good mascot for a construction company, Copeland decided to adopt the name.

“I always say people like to do business with people they are comfortable with. So when the population over the years has been predominantly white, there’s also going to be relationships on a localized level that are going to be white to white,” Norman said.

“That has its own connotation of all the things that go into race and class and everything else,” he added. “So as you’re trying to find your way in that space with just those competitive dynamics and demographics, it’s going to be tough to win some market share.”

As its north Minneapolis building rises, Thor is poised to have its best year with both projects around the country and an increasing number in Minnesota.

Copeland and Norman are working now to increase Thor’s community involvement and visibility. Norman, for instance, sits on 11 corporate and organizational boards, including the influential Itasca Project.

Thor also, in recent months, has expanded from being a general construction company to a being a holding company that offers development, architectural design and consulting services. This expansion makes Thor a one-stop shop and increases its chances of both winning more contracts and employing more people of color, Norman said.

James Burroughs, the first inclusion officer hired by Minnesota, said he is hopeful that Thor will help bring black Minnesotans’ average income more in line with white residents’.

“They tend to employ more people of color on their projects, therefore we’re creating an economic impact that’s doubled up because we’ve got a minority-owned business that’s getting money and resource and they’re employing people in the community,” he said

 

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