By David Steinkraus
A year ago, Santiago Garcia knew he had to expand his business in order to get more work.
He had started his first business, GSG Material Testing, in 1995 as an environmental sampling company. Later he expanded it to offer other material testing services. But his big move came a few months before the pandemic began when he finalized the purchase of HOH Group, a well-known Chicago architectural and engineering firm.
It was a big step for someone who grew up in Pilsen and Skokie.
“When I was growing up, when we went downtown, it was like another country,” Garcia said.
To that younger self, having an office downtown was a symbol of success. Now he has an office on LaSalle Street, a few blocks from the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, the Chicago Board of Trade, and Willis Tower, right in the heart of the city’s business center.
He credits his parents’ advocacy of education as a key to his success. Growing up in Skokie, when it was largely Jewish, taught him how to deal with people of other views.
“My parents showed me a lot of times you just have to work hard at it and don’t take everything as personal,” he said.
He was the first to go to college among his cousins and brothers, and eventually earned a master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater in 1985. He still lives in Skokie with his wife Rosalia. One of their two sons, Gabriel, is a civil engineer who graduated in 2019, and their other son, Santiago Garcia II, is studying information technology. Garcia says his career would not have been possible without their support.
As he worked, he met Harry Hefter, who had started HOH Group in 1959. Hefter became a mentor, Garcia said, and gave him work. That relationship brought Garcia the opportunity to buy HOH. “He agreed to sell it to me because he liked me, and we worked together well,” he said.
Now, in the middle of the pandemic, business isn’t easy, but Garcia said his company is hanging in there. HOH is part of the first project management oversight contract for Metra and part of the general engineering contract for the Illinois Tollway.
What has been harmed is his ability to nurture the relationships that bring his company work.
“I’m the type of person who will go out and meet with people, go out for lunch, and meet after work to talk business and socialize. And hopefully, they’ll provide me with some opportunities. But with the pandemic, basically, it’s just Zoom,” he said. “You’re communicating with them, but it’s not the same as when you see them one on one.”
What he’s doing now is working as hard as possible to have work ready for the end of the pandemic. Many agencies—Illinois Tollway, Illinois Department of Transportation, Chicago Transit Authority, Metra — are looking at projects, and Garcia said he has been submitting proposals.
As a disadvantaged business enterprise and minority business enterprise, HOH could bring those qualifications to a partner who needs them for a job and needs the services HOH offers, he said. So another part of his search is looking for such partner companies.
Another advantage is HOH itself, he said. Some companies offer only architecture or only one or two types of engineering services, but because HOH offers everything, Garcia said, he has more ways to attract clients. Right now he has about 30 employees. In the next five years, he hopes to increase that to about 100.
“Only in Illinois, with a governor like Pritzker and a mayor like Lori Lightfoot, could a minority-owned business acquire a 60-year-old, majority-owned company and think they have a chance of succeeding,” he said. “I think I have a chance.”