An interview with Lester Royal
Chief Operating Officer and Co-Founder
North Minneapolis, Minn.
In more than 20 years helping to lead Tri-Construction, a successful construction company, Lester Royal has learned that success “is not about you, it’s about your team.” He and CEO Calvin Littlejohn built their company on a foundation of mentorship, high skills and giving back to the community.
Tri-Construction provides a variety of services including general contracting, framing and drywall and finish carpentry. They have worked on Minneapolis/St. Paul projects from US Bank Stadium to the Hennepin County Medical Center, and many others.
Patiently working through challenges, “we had to take it slow and learn before we could beat our chests,” Royal said. “Early on, we learned through experience that, as a beginning company, we had a different set of operating expenses compared to the general contractor. Our insurance was higher, for example. We had to put a lot of infrastructure in place to be successful.”
That is par for the course for any construction company that is taking the high road to success; perhaps more so for a minority contractor like Tri-Construction. It is a tough, competitive business.
The cheating, lawbreaking side of the industry adds another layer of challenge for legitimate contractors trying to compete for contracts.
“On paper the numbers may look the same, but the profitability is different,” Royal said. “It may look like they’re crushing it, but you have to ask how they are getting this work. For example, a broker might fill a job with particular workers to qualify for minority participation requirements—but it’s not a true minority business. It changes the quality of the bidding for everyone. We abide by the rules, and they should, too,” Royal said.
“We also pay all our payroll taxes, workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance,” Royal said. “Our workers are well-paid and have benefits. It hurts those of us who play by the rules when we’re underbid by people motivated by greed.”
Royal is also concerned that many talented workers fall victim to exploitation due to their immigration status, which perpetuates the underground economy and affects job safety. “This is still a real Achilles heel for the industry,” he said.
“I started as a union apprentice and I’m proud of my skills and my membership in the Carpenters union,” Royal said. “I have two sons now serving apprenticeships, so I have a lot of skin in this industry. It’s important to me that they understand what hard work is about and how to build a good career.”