By David Steinkraus
The Illinois Tollway has plenty of money to spend, and it wants to help your business get a share. About 30% of the agency’s spending is designated as diversity spending, said Executive Director José Alvarez. He was appointed to lead the agency in April and prior to that was chief operating officer and chief of staff of the Chicago Housing Authority.
To help minority- and women-owned firms do business, he said, the tollway has a mentorship program that links smaller businesses with larger and more experienced businesses. The agency also offers a Technical Assistance Program through partnerships with organizations such as the Hispanic American Construction Industry Association and the black chambers. The program can, for example, help small firms become certified as minority-owned businesses or make sure they have the right office structure to handle a contract.
The money is already there. Move Illinois, a $14 billion, 15-year program to upgrade the tollway, is only about half complete. And of the $6.7 billion spent so far, diversity spending has been $1.9 billion, according to an agency press release.
More than road construction is involved. In May, for example, the tollway’s Board of Directors approved $1.8 million for the removal of old equipment and installation of new cooling towers and chillers at the tollway’s Central Administration Building in Downers Grove.
Nor is it only the tollway that construction firms should look at. Gov. J.B. Pritzker approved a new capital spending plan for the state that includes road work for Chicago O’Hare International Airport.
“There’s going to be a lot of work in the state for the next 10 years,” Alvarez said.
This prospect of future work only gives added impetus to his desire to increase the business capacity of minority-owned companies. Data from labor organizations have shown for some time that there is a potential shortage of skilled construction workers, he said. Because of this, Alvarez said, he wants to build more supplier diversity now so he is not caught later without people to do the work.
Ask for help
The No. 1 and No. 2 pieces of advice Alvarez has for small companies wanting to do business with the tollway are the same: Ask for help.
“Honestly, that’s the one thing that I see a lot: small firms not having enough experience. They tend to struggle on their own with some of the challenges. Don’t. There are so many resources, and not just at the tollway,” he said. Other government agencies also offer assistance. “We all have resources, so don’t be shy. We want you to succeed.”
He sees two main sticking points for small businesses. One is an inability to understand the typical 300- or 400-page request for proposal. The other is cash flow: the ability for a small company to make payroll, maintain insurance, and pay other costs when there is a delay in receiving payment from a government agency.
The tollway has been doing a good job of promoting diversity among its suppliers, Alvarez said.
“If you look at their track record, they’ve always been supportive of diverse and small companies,” he said. “All I’m doing is bringing ideas based on my experience — and adding to that success.”