Stephen and Pam Coleman finally realized their new company was going to be taken seriously one day in 2009, six months after they had unfairly lost a bid for a critical contract.
The Colemans had submitted a proposal for a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers job they felt perfectly suited for. Their company, Northstar Contracting, met important criteria as a veteran-owned business and could demonstrate its competency to do the work.
But instead, the job was granted to another firm.
“We were the second bidder on the contract,” Pam says. “We protested the award, because the first bidder was not a legitimate veteran-owned company. It took about six months, but we were eventually awarded the project.”
Why was that moment so important?
“We fought to get a project we knew we were entitled to, and we got it after the Corps investigated and found we were right,” Pam says. “It was a time when we had just finished a big project, and we really needed the work.”
Since then, the trajectory for the Cleveland-based Northstar has been steadily upward. Founded in 2006 — which the Colemans describe as a leap of faith at the beginning of a recession — the company has continued to grow.
“I never doubted that Northstar would be successful,” says Stephen. “I just questioned how fast we would realize success.”
Doubling the growth
“If you look at our numbers the first year, they doubled the second year, and the third year we almost doubled,” says Pam, who serves as Northstar’s director of office management and human resources. “So it’s been steady growth, and it’s a lot of repeat customers.”
The company, which employs an average of 25 to 30 team members, may seem like an unlikely pairing with the Colemans’ previous careers. Stephen, the company’s president, spent more than 20 years in the U.S. Navy — including four years as a Navy SEAL and several years at the Pentagon, working for the Department of Defense Acquisition, Technology and Logistics. Pam spent 20 years in the Air Force, the last 10 of those in government contracting.
After his 2003 retirement Stephen spent three years working in Washington, D.C., for private industries. But with three children, the Colemans decided Washington was not the best place to raise a family. So after Pam’s retirement in 2006, they moved to Cleveland, her hometown.
The Colemans had long discussed starting a business after their retirement, and their firsthand knowledge of government contracts convinced them that money was available for the right company.
The result was Northstar, a general contractor with a specialty concrete team. Split about 50-50 between the two sides of the business, Northstar claims a place as one of the few American companies doing pre-cast engineered concrete work for structures such as sewer shafts.
“We have people from Europe, Japan and Canada coming to Northstar for this work,” Stephen says.
Using family as a resource
While contracting may not have been in the Coleman’s background, it certainly was in the family tree. And that’s one place they turned.
“My father and brother were in housing construction,” Pam says. “My brother (Phil Hathcock, who now manages Northstar’s concrete team) had worked for one of the few companies in the specialty concrete field. He joined us and brought a couple of employees with him.”
“We surrounded ourselves with people who knew general construction,” Stephen says. “We did lots of research.”
As aging underground infrastructures such as tunnels and sewers need to be replaced, companies like Northstar have a leg up on the competition. But the Colemans say they want to grow both sides of the business. Their most prominent contracts testify to a balanced portfolio of work.
For example, the company is currently a subcontractor on the Euclid Creek Tunnel in Cleveland, a project set for completion in 2014. The tunnel is part of the $3 billion plan by the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District to meet federal Clean Water Act requirements during the next 25 years.
Northstar is the general contractor for a new $18 million flagship building for the NASA Glenn Research Center. The new 97,000-square-foot structure is NASA Glenn’s first new building in 26 years and the first step in consolidating its campus.
But for visibility purposes, the crown jewel in Northstar’s collection may be its work for the 350,000-square-foot National Museum of African American History and Culture, which is set to open in 2015 in Washington, D.C.
Devoted exclusively to the documentation of African-American life, art, history and culture, the museum will prominently feature a bronze and glass-panel façade known as the Corona. Northstar is constructing and installing the Corona, which will hang from the top of the museum with no intermediate support. The project requires Northstar to produce more than 3,000 panels, Stephen says.
“It’s a huge project, it’s part of history and we’re very proud to be a part of it,” Pam says.
Despite the company’s success, Northstar has faced its share of challenges.
“The biggest challenge we faced was the banks,” Pam says. “We understood that in the beginning, when you’re trying to get a line of credit and don’t have any experience, the banks don’t want to lend. But after awhile you do have a little bit of history.
“They helped us,” she says of Northstar’s initial banking partner, “but every step of the way we felt they were not really working for us.”
Finding a banking partner
Finally, Northstar enlisted the help of Huntington National Bank, which three years ago made a public commitment to lend $4 billion to small businesses and create innovative ways to help small business owners succeed.
“They had a borrowing need that their current bank wasn’t able to fill,” recalls Jeffrey Standen, Huntington’s senior vice president and business banking market manager. “When we spent some time with them and began to understand their business, we were able to provide a solution with the help of our SBA team. In fact, we acquired all their business and personal banking.”
Pam says that relationship has made a difference.
“They are helping us grow the business,” she says, “and that’s a good thing.”
Other vital Northstar partners include the SBA office in Cleveland and SCORE, which provides free and confidential small business advice for entrepreneurs.
“Because we have so many certifications — we’re a minority business, we’re a veteran business, we’re a smaller business — we always try to take advantage of all the resources out there,” she explains. “We go to a lot of matchmaking events hosted by the City of Cleveland or the Veterans Administration or the Sewer District.”
Those two things, the Colemans say — leveraging relationships and available resources — are the keys for any new business starting out.
“Surround yourself with experienced people and establish a relationship with mentors,” Stephen advises.
Pam agrees, adding that relationships are everything.
“Talk to people, tell them what you’re doing. And when you’re building a relationship, don’t always try to see what’s in it for you. Ask how you can help each other.”
How to reach: Northstar Contracting, (440) 250-8606 or www.ohionorthstar.com