Development is booming in Kansas City. Big projects currently under way include construction of a new downtown convention center hotel, redevelopment of Kemper Arena in the West Bottoms and construction of a single-terminal facility at Kansas City International Airport.
These projects and more offer opportunities for small businesses to build up the metro area. But such developments also help small businesses lay the runway for growth.
A FOOT IN THE DOOR
International Building Consultants is a woman-owned business that, a few years ago, was solely focused on interior trim carpentry. In 2014, president and owner Brandy McCombs attended a meeting that would change her firm’s trajectory.
She found herself at a meeting of Women Construction Owners and Executives, where the Kansas City Streetcar Constructors—a joint venture of Herzog Contracting Corp. and Stacy & Witbeck—made a presentation about scopes of work open for bid.
Some scopes of work weren’t getting much traction, including traffic control. Because roads downtown would be torn up to install rails along the 2.2-mile route, the general contractor sought a subcontractor to provide the traffic management, including the orange cones and signage.
Although this work was completely outside the realm of services her company offered at the time, McCombs thought, “Why not?” She won the bid.
Because IBC didn’t have the equipment, the general contractor worked out a deal—it bought the equipment, and IBC provided the labor.
At the time, McCombs said, she had nothing to lose by striking out into a new vertical. She had industry experience and stable cash flow from being in business since 2009.
“That was a very good foot in the door. From there, they helped promote me—letting the other contractors they were working with on that specific project know about IBC and helped us get the word out,” McCombs said. “Within the next year, I had MarkOne as my first contract outside of (the streetcar).”
Now, IBC’s traffic control division is set to overtake interior construction in revenue within the next year, McCombs said. It took the interior construction division six years to make just over $1 million in revenue, she said. For traffic control, the streetcar project alone was a $1 million job—and the division’s revenue has doubled every year since. Now, IBC is looking to expand outside of the KC area.
Tackling a big project provided a springboard for IBC’s new division—the company received coaching, and just as importantly, someone in its corner.
“You have to have a cheerleader. Everybody has to have somebody’s who’s there to support them and push them and believe in them, and I’ve always had that,” McCombs said.
MASTERING THE LEARNING CURVE
For BIC Design Co., a North Kansas City MWBE fire protection design firm, “big projects are our sweet spot,” said Kumar Sheth, vice president and founder.
The company works on projects all over the U.S., including large and complex projects such as power plants and U.S. Army and
Air Force bases. BIC has also completed fire protection designs for large local developments, including area GM and Ford plants, Nebraska Furniture Mart, the Kemper Arena redevelopment, and both One Light and Two Light apartment high rises in downtown Kansas City, Mo.
With each large-scale project BIC works on, Sheth said, the company becomes better equipped to handle other similar projects. For example, he said, some government projects have special requirements that, once learned, become routine for future projects.
“We learned a lot because those projects don’t come around very often. We are set up to do it again when there are other (similar projects),” he said.
As McCombs and Sheth have seen, large projects can get the ball rolling for a small company’s growth. The effects of development last beyond a building’s construction.
Mike Burke is the developer for the Loews convention center hotel in downtown Kansas City, Mo. He’s seen how building up Kansas City builds local businesses.
The new hotel, set to open in 2020, will have 800 rooms. It will cater to convention visitors, of course, but Burke said he also wants to offer packages that promote Kansas City’s arts and museums. Its location near the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts and Crossroads Arts District’s galleries and many local restaurants will make that an attractive option, he said.
Many local small businesses are contributing to the construction of the new hotel, Burke said, but when it is complete, the positive effects will spread. Hundreds of visitors each day will spend money with area businesses, he said.
“First of all, it’s bringing more money into town. The average visitor spends $200 a day in meals, trips, entertainment. That’s visitor dollars in the community,” he said. “Every place from coffee shops to restaurants to taxis and Uber, gift shops and especially entertainment, I think you’ll see a tremendous impact that will help entire community.”
‘THERE’S NO STUPID QUESTIONS’
Sheth and McCombs agreed that large jobs require a certain savvy on the part of small business that hope to take part in them.
Government and public-sector work involves a lot of paperwork and special reporting, McCombs said. Getting to know the entity along with its processes and procedures upfront can help alleviate headaches down the road. Seek out contacts who can help with any issues that come up, she advised.
“Be proactive upfront, not reactive. Ask the right questions—and you might not know the right questions to ask. But there’s no stupid questions because don’t know what you don’t know.”
For example, McCombs said, “there are a lot of times—and I’ve been there—your money does get held up because you didn’t turn something in that you were supposed to but didn’t know about. So making those connections are key.”
IBC often works with the city of Kansas City, Mo.; a good place to learn about the city’s requirements, McCombs said, is the human resources department.
Much of the training in these processes and procedures is obtained just by doing it, McCombs said. That’s why it’s helpful to have someone to ask questions.
“Once you get the procedure down, it’s simple, but unfortunately it takes a while to understand. If you’ve never done it, I’m not going to lie—it’s brutal. … But once you know it, as with anything, it’s repetitious.”
Another hurdle small businesses may have to clear in order to work on large projects is financing. However, McCombs said there are more options now for financing than were available in 2009 when she started IBC. She pointed to Lead Bank’s For Change Initiative that works with small businesses to provide the working capital needed to bid on large projects.
Every company has to take a risk at some point when it comes to taking on a new project. But the business must be ready, Sheth said.
“You just have to have good enough experience to be able to handle it. You have to know what you are doing,” he said. “It’s not somebody walking down the street that can jump in and say, ‘I can learn by the book.’ That doesn’t work.”