It was May 1981, and I had a degree from Morehouse College in psychology and a degree in architecture from Howard University. I had accepted my first professional job in architecture at Bechtel as a staff architect working in the nuclear power division. My first day was exciting and filled with anxiety. Both of those emotions were so strong, and they ran together. I don’t remember which emotion actually won that day. I remember wearing my dress slacks, shirt and tie and how proud I was to be working in the profession I had dreamed about as a kid, in spite of being told by an art teacher that it would never happen, but here I was working as a staff architect.
In those days, you didn’t use computers for doing drawings; you actually did drawings on your drafting table. [See slideshow for one of the pictures showing how we actually did drawings back in the old days. Smile.] I was given my drawing supplies and was taken to my team. It was a large, open area with drawing stations lined up. There were no offices, no cubicles, and no privacy at all. It was just wide open space for everybody to see. I was assigned to a team member, and he taught me what to do. I remember him saying, “David, I move fast; keep up and learn on the fly.” Let’s just say I had to learn fast. I was really enjoying my new job, and then I got my first paycheck. I went straight to payroll and said, “Hey, there is an error in my check. My check is supposed to be $346 per week.” They said, “Sweetie, that is before taxes.” My dad still laughs at that story today, like it just happened. Welcome to the real world!
When I started working, my dad told me don’t be landlocked, which meant, go wherever they need you to go work. I took his advice, and whenever they needed an architect to do a field assignment on a nuclear power plant, I always volunteered. No other architect would volunteer to go wear work boots, jeans and hard hats and live in “No-man’s land”, where most plants are located. I loved it! And that is when I realized I loved the action of building more than drawing. Little did I know I had found my true love — construction over architecture.
I worked on the Midland Power Plant, Fermi II Power Plant, and one plant that was operating called Palisades. [That is the picture where I am dressed in a space suit.] We had to take a psychological exam to enter an operating nuclear plant back then, and every quarter you received a report about how much radiation you got at the plant. When I was assigned to the main office, I played on the Bechtel softball beer league, the basketball league, and the racquet ball league. The main office was a 10-story building and only housed Bechtel employees. We had so many people that worked in the building that lunch was staggered by floors. It was a great place to work and I learned so much about construction working on the construction sites of nuclear power plants.
In 1982 I got married to my beautiful and loving wife Karla. Things were going great; we both had great jobs, and I was taking more graduate classes at the University of Michigan after work. Both sets of parents lived about three miles from us, and after about eight months of marriage, we decided to move to see what life held for us elsewhere. I was doing well with Bechtel and was about to be transferred out of state to another plant. I decided to resign, and we decided to move to Atlanta, so I could go to work for a small mechanical contractor. I felt really good when my chief architect asked me not to leave and said he could always depend on me and said he would give me any assignment I wanted. I always worked hard, because I was the only architect from a historically black college, and I always wanted to represent well for others to come behind me. I told my chief thank you, but it was time for my wife and me to leave our parents and see what we could do on our own.
It was August 1983, and we moved to Atlanta. My wife had always lived in Ann Arbor and was scared to death, but as she always has done, she had my back and will go with me to the end of the earth. Well, this is when things started to get a little strange for us. Remember, we both had excellent jobs and a nice place to live. We left Ann Arbor, which had a nice college town with great outdoor activities, and I talked my wife into leaving. I asked the new company owner in Atlanta if he could guarantee me two years’ worth of work, as long as I performed, before I resigned from Bechtel. He said, “No problem,” so we moved. Well, folks, four months later the IRS comes in and shuts down the company, because they failed to pay their payroll taxes. They padlocked the door and escorted us all out. They shut the business down! I said, “Oh, boy.” How do I go home and tell my new wife of 13 months that had a great job in Ann Arbor (and I did too), that I talked into leaving it all, that I no longer had a job and the business is shut down? That was a long ride home, even though we lived less than four miles from the office. I also thought about how I would tell my in laws what happened. Fortunately, for me, I have a great wife. She just took it all in stride, and never gave me a tough time or said anything negative. She knew how bad I felt. I spent the next four years working for small construction companies, and I was a superintendent, estimator, and project manager. I learned so much about small businesses through those years.
I must tell one of my favorite working-for-a-small-contractor stories. My friend, Herb Green, Jr., and I still laugh about this one. I was working for Herb Green, Sr., who also had a bail bonding company. The construction company and the bail bonding company were in the same location. I sat in the back of the bail bonding company. It was a great small construction company doing multi-family work for AHA and other agencies. Not only did I get to learn how to do multi-family rehab, I also learned the bail bonding business and how to be a bounty hunter at the same time. [We could have had a reality TV show.] Sometimes, when they had too many bail jumpers they had caught in the office, they would handcuff them at my desk while I worked. Can you imagine doing an estimate for a construction project and a person is handcuffed to your desk as you work? Let me just say it is a little different. Often, one of the bail jumpers would say to me, “Could you loosen my handcuffs? They are too tight.” I would just look and explain that I was in the construction department and offer to get them some help.
Well, this next part of the story is what made me decide to go into business for myself. First, let me say, I enjoyed working for Mr. Green, and there was never a dull moment working in construction out of a bail bonding company. One day, as I am working at my desk, the bounty hunters come to me and say, “Moody, come go with us.” I ask them what project are we going to look at now, and they said, “No project. We found a bail jumper, and we need your assistance to help us surround the house and catch the bail jumper.” I said, “Are you crazy? I am a professional in construction.” They said, “Not right now. You’re going with us.” And Mr. Green said, “Come on, and next week we will get your gun permit.” [I said to myself I don’t remember this being in my job description or learning this in college, but when you have a family and need a job, you do what is required by your employer.] As we are riding to the house, I am saying to myself is this really happening? [Yes, it is!] We get to the house and setup. They say to me, “Moody, you played football and got good size, you take the back door, if he runs out.” I’m saying to myself, if he comes out this back door running or walking, he is a free man. I will just watch him go by me. Once again, as God has always done, he was looking out for me. The bail jumper was not there, and we left. I decided then it was time to go for it on my own. We only had one car at that time, and when my wife came to pick me up, I told her the story and my decision. As always, being my rock, she said, “Let’s do it. We don’t have anything to lose any way.” [I have always taken that statement in a good way, but sometimes I wonder what she was really saying. Smile.]
From 1983 to 1987, it was tough financially. We had two kids: one born in 1985 and another in 1986. I made $33,000 per year; we had bought a small house for $76,000 in 1984, and we decided my wife would stay home with the kids, even though we couldn’t afford to live on one salary. We had more going out than we had coming in, and we decided we wouldn’t ask family for help financially. We turned off cable, cut eating out, and lived on the bare minimum. We even went to single-ply toilet paper, but that only lasted a week. I said, “Let’s find something else to give up; give me my double-ply toilet paper.” I spent many sleepless nights scared to death about how we would make it each month. I knew my worrying had reached its peak when I went jogging once at 4 a.m., because I couldn’t sleep. While running, I said, “Okay. This is getting out of control with worrying, jogging outside at 4 a.m.” Again, my wife never complained; I promised in 1986, if I ever worked us out of this debt, we would never get back in debt again. One smart thing we did was called each creditor and our mortgage company, before we fell behind, gave them a payment plan in writing and kept our word to each of them, and they each accepted our plan. The lesson I offer from that experience is work with your creditors before you get behind; give them a plan and keep your word. Pray a lot and still find reasons to smile and be happy. Those were some very lean and scary years, as a new husband and father, and it was my fault for saying let’s leave our great jobs in Ann Arbor.
In next week’s blog, I will take you on the journey to entrepreneurship and discuss how we struggled in building the business. Those really lean years were very tough, but our faith, our commitment to each other, our kids, and the drive to make it better guided us through it all. I still can’t believe sometimes how tough and lean it was for us. In 1983, we had great jobs with great companies, and I said let’s move and, as you just read, things changed real fast. Karla and I often reflect on those years and say thank you to each other for never giving up and staying together as a family. We know God is in control.
See you next week!