The owner of Old Veteran Construction celebrates his participation in a hotel and sports complex being built next to McCormick Place with an investment of $635 million.
By Clemente Nicado, Publisher & Editor in Chief
Some days in José Maldonado’s life are deeply rooted in his memory, just as a skyscraper is rooted in its concrete foundations.
One of these days happened not long ago when the executives of Clark Construction, a national leading company with $4 billion in sales, visited him at his office on the south side of the city, to tell him that his company, Old Veteran Construction, Inc., had been selected to participate in a megaproject next to McCormick Place’s Expo Center.
It was by no means just any job. They were talking about the construction of a 1200-room Marriott hotel as well as a sports complex for DePaul University, recently begun with a projected cost of $635 million.
“It is not only the biggest project I’ve ever had, but also one of the biggest in the City of Chicago today,” he says with amazement. “Sometimes I just sit down and ask myself if I’m awake or if I’m dreaming.”
Clark Construction did not embark in this joint venture with just any amateur. Founded 30 years ago, OVC has earned a reputation as a minority-run general construction company delivering high-quality work on time in numerous projects for private and government industries.
In 2014 alone OVC reported $135 million in sales with projects varying from construction design, remodeling, new construction and improvements to personal training contracts, and it already has commitments for approximately $220 million.
“I can’t believe all that my company has done in 30 years,” Maldonado said. “I feel blessed for having the team I have. They are like my family.”
This entrepreneur’s history, with all kinds of challenges throughout his career, makes this success a milestone. The son of Puerto Rican parents with few resources, Maldonado was raised in the southern part of the city, in the so-called “projects,” housing for low-income families. He started working at 9 years of age and could barely finish his high school studies. Yet here he is decades later.
His environment could have thrown him down the path of gangs and violence. But the young man worked in any honest job that helped him move forward, from cleaning shoes to working in construction, based on his great faith in God.
During this time, there was an infamously unforgettable day that marked the life of the entrepreneur-to-be. He worked for a construction company in Frankfort, Illinois, when someone stole his tools and work vehicle.
“I went to see my boss and told him what happened. I told him I was responsible for the loss and asked him not to take away so much money,” Maldonado remembers. “I said I wanted to buy a house and my wife was pregnant.”
But his plea had no effect on his boss, who took away half his salary.
“Me fogoné,” he says using the Puerto Rican slang to express a lot of fiery anger. “I went back home and told my wife: I quit. Logically, she was very worried.”
He opened his company in 1984. He was 19 years old. He didn’t want to call it Maldonado Construction, and chose a name full of symbolism: Old Veteran Tuck-pointing, to honor his father, a veteran of the Korean War. In 1992, already established as a corporation, it was renamed as Old Veteran Construction, Inc.
“I thought about my father, all that he went through to raise seven sons with a low income and the pride he would feel seeing me take this step in life,” he remembers.
OVC started with a chimney construction job that paid $200 and has been guided by a CEO who learned from every setback. The company’s beginnings included a team of “five people in a small room” and a truck with a sign that read, “Hard work speaks for itself.” Today OVC employs 130 workers.
Driven by the winds of opportunity in Chicago, OVC currently is a solid company with presence in Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Missouri, New Mexico, Ohio, New York, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Wisconsin.
Maldonado attributes this growth to many magical words: perseverance, quality delivery, professionalism, teamwork and his obsession to help other Latinos.
It turns out that OVC usually doubles the offer to its potential clients when outsourcing is involved. If, for example, he is asked to bring 15% minority subcontractors with his proposals, Maldonado submits 25%. “I always employ more Latino people than asked. I like to help our people,” he said.
There is another ingredient that makes OVC strong in the bid for contracts: It has $200 million in bonding, the construction insurance that guarantees work will be finished, even if setbacks exist.
“It is difficult for most small companies to have a bonding in order to participate in the big government contracts. We don’t have this problem,” said Alex Polanco, the company’s VP.
Maldonado thinks about growth, of course, but moderate growth. “I want to make the company grow bit by bit. Currently I am comfortable where we are, because I can have control,” Maldonado said. “I’m able to know what is happening at any time and act quickly so the client is not affected.”
And when he talks about control, for him this means the ability to take off his suit, wear his boots and go to work, just like any of his employees, trusting that the people who back him up (at the office) are guarding the house.
“I’ve gone to a work site, started sweeping and those employees who don’t know me have asked ‘who is that one sweeping?,’ and that’s how they know me”, he says, smiling as if he were doing it again.