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Her contracting business has deep family roots

As a youngster, Sundra L. Ryce learned a lot about the construction industry from her father. She went on to start SLR Contracting & Service in 1996 and has nurtured it into a business with 30 employees and annual sales of $19 million. Ryce, 35, got to ask President Obama a question during his visit to a Buffalo company. She recently met with News business reporter Matt Glynn to talk about her company's growth.

Q:What was it like to meet the president?

A: It was truly amazing. A lot of people ask me that question, and it's really difficult to put into words. He's one of the most powerful people in the world. ... My question was, besides health care reform and tax cuts, what is the president's administration looking at as far as the educational components for small businesses, because small businesses are the backbone of the U.S. economy. And look, you need more than money to be successful and efficient and proficient in business. You need to know how to run a business effectively.

Q: What attracted you to the construction industry?

A: I grew up in a family business. And I started really noticing the construction industry when I was about 8 years old, because that's when my dad, Willie Roberson, started his business. And I think I saw all of the hard work and struggles my dad had at a very young age. So when I became a preteen, teenager, I really wanted to help my dad. I started working for him when I was 13, I would work summers and holidays. And my dad began to teach me the business. He would take me on negotiations. He did a lot of government work at the time, so he would actually take me to visit the contracting officers. I still work

That's what really sparked my interest -- it was my dad's hard work. I wanted to be his legacy. I didn't want his business to be a one-lifetime, sole proprietorship, like a lot of African-American businesses historically are. That was my goal. It happened a little bit differently, where I am a separate company. But I still feel like I'm a part of my parents' legacy, my dad's legacy, as far as being an entrepreneur in Western New York.

Q: What did you learn from your dad about running a business?

A: Part of our core values for SLR are integrity, teamwork, safety. All of those things my dad instilled in me. By integrity, I mean if you say you're going to do something, do it. And if you can't do it, fix it. And teamwork. I always knew I had to have a great team around me and my dad instilled that as well. It was never Sundra alone, and it never is. We have a great team at SLR and we all make it work together.

Q: How has your business evolved over the years?

A: We diversified about three years into business. We've been growing from there. We expanded to doing more government projects, which has been a core part of our existence during the 15 years of business, working for the federal government.

Q: Was it a case of going where the work was?

A: We actually planned that strategically. I knew that I wanted to start off, because I was a young businesswoman, with a small part of the construction industry, so that I could really learn how to run the business on my own. And I knew I wanted to be a general contractor. That was always the case. Usually even now, whenever I look at adding a new service line or we look at expansion, I take it on for at least one year, I run that division myself personally. Whenever you take on a new line of business or a new service, it's a growing phase. No one knows everything. It's my chance to learn and grow, and I always want to be able to answer for the company.

Q: What is a memorable project for you?

A: One of my most memorable projects is the military entrance processing station on the Niagara Falls air base. We were having a tough time as a company just making our mark, getting people to accept us as the (general contractor) of choice in the area. And I really worked hard to get that project. As I was out on a marketing tour once at the air base, I was kind of disappointed, discouraged, because the contracting officer said, "We don't really have anything -- there's nothing we can do."

I remember walking out of the building and I looked kind of to the right of the building, and saw an empty space, an empty field. And I just looked over there and I just saw a vision of a building there. And I just felt a peace in my own heart, not to worry, your business is going to be fine, you're going to have larger projects.

And within one year, we got the contract -- it wasn't through the Air Force, it was through the Army Corps of Engineers -- to build a building in that exact same spot. I tell a lot of people now, even when things don't look as bright, there's always a silver lining in difficult situations.

Q: What is SLR working on now?

A: We're building a brand-new warehouse for the New York Power Authority. It's great to have a really good staple project in your portfolio that is close to home. Because we've done a lot of work for the federal government, but a lot of times those projects are in Syracuse or at West Valley, so it's great to have a staple project at home.

Q: Some of your projects are outside the region. How do you make sure you don't get overextended?

A: It's important to be smart when you are extending out of your geographic boundaries. It's important to make sure you are fiscally responsible and that you can take care of everything that could come up. We have a lot of people that count on us. And we believe in paying our subcontractors on time. And that works for the relationship as well. That helps, when people know they're going to get paid. When it comes time for the next projects, people are willing to work with you when you are fair.

Q: Are there areas you want SLR to expand into?

A: We are a general contractor, and we also do design build work and we also do construction management. What we would really like to do is grow our construction management division. Our main focus is general construction, and it's a natural progression I think for a GC, if that's their business strategy, to move into construction management.

Q: As your business has grown, are you comfortable delegating?

A: I don't mind delegating. I don't micromanage my staff, because I believe that if I hired you, you should be able to do your job, and I want to give you the opportunity and the leeway to do your job. I believe that I hire experts, so I want each person to be empowered to grow their divisions, to manage their people.

Q: How did your company weather the recession?

A: A lot of the work dried up. There weren't a lot of federal contracts being let. It was ironic for us. A couple of years ago, we sat down to do our business planning, which we do every year. We look at how does this company look, how do we want this company to look in three years or five years, and we try to set the strategic plan behind that.

A couple of years ago, right before the recession happened, we said, the next 12 to 18 months, we are going to sit and look at our business model. We knew we were moving from a small business to a medium-size business. We knew that was imminent. What we said was, we would not be on a growth track, that we would actually look to be flat as far as our sales were concerned. And we would spend that time in strategic planning and strategic management, because once we make the transition to a medium-size company, we want to have the same success we had a small business.

A few months later was when the market and economy tanked, so we had already planned not to be as aggressive as far as going after projects. So it actually worked for us, because we stayed true to our strategic plan for that 12 to 18 months.

Q: What is the value of that type of planning?

A: Take the time to do the planning, take the time to do the budgeting, for one year out, two years out. It helps you create the infrastructure. You know you need "X" amount of dollars to run this organization. Then you back into, here's what we need to do, here's the amount of sales you need to bring in. I know a lot of businesses are busy, they don't have time to work on their business. But you have to make the time, to work on your business and in your business. You have to do both.

Q: It's still unusual to see women at the head of construction companies. What can be done to change that?

A: Construction is still a male-dominated industry. And that remains the same. I think as far as what we can do, female entrepreneurs like myself can continue to grow successful companies and hopefully be a role model for other women who are considering coming into the industry. Because even though it's male dominated, it doesn't mean that it can't be done.

e-mail: mglynn@buffnews.com

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