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Starting with $1, Gonzalo Ruiz built a major Chicagoland construction company

David Steinkraus
Negocios Now

Gonzalo “Smiley” Ruiz came to the United States from Mexico in 1977 at the age of 16. He had $1 in his pocket. Today he runs Ruiz Construction Systems Inc., based in Rockford, Illinois and a major contractor for ComEd. Ruiz employs between 30 and 40 people on projects for the utility and other entities around Rockford and in northeastern Illinois.

Ruiz immigrated to Chicago because his brother was already here. But when he arrived, he found his brother had moved, leaving him without a place to stay. Then he met a man from a town near his own hometown in Mexico.

“I said I was looking for a place to stay,” Ruiz said. “He said, I’m living with my brother. If you want to lay down over there on the floor, you can buy a cushion or something.”

That’s where Ruiz lived for about four months until he was able to locate his brother. He still sees that helpful man from time to time when he visits Mexico.

Back to building

When he first came to the city, Ruiz worked in a restaurant, but he wanted to better himself. He met some potential business partners, and in 1989 they bought a bar and restaurant in Rockford. He left only a couple of years later because he saw another opportunity.

Construction was a skill he had begun learning as a boy and liked. One day, he struck up a conversation with a regular customer of the Rockford restaurant.

“He told me he was working in construction, and he was a union member. So I started asking him questions, what are the chances I can join the union? He said to me, show up Monday, and I’ll help you out. And that is how I got into construction,” Ruiz said.

It was a better fit. Ruiz said he likes to build things, likes the variety of work, and likes moving from place to place for jobs. The key to success, he said, is putting the right superintendent and the right project manager in place.

“We get together before the job is started, and we have a few meetings. We ask the project manager and the superintendent how we can attack the job to be successful for us and the clients,” he said. Then the superintendent picks the crew. All of his jobs have come in on time, he said.

Ruiz Construction Systems just finished a yearlong project to build a 75,000-square-foot high-voltage substation for ComEd to serve data centers near O’Hare International Airport.

Staying suburban

Com Ed has been a factor in his company’s success, Ruiz said. During the pandemic, for example, it helped his company apply procedures to keep workers safe from the coronavirus.

Ruiz Construction Systems is one of ComEd’s top Hispanic Tier 1 suppliers, yet it represents only a portion of ComEd’s spending with diversity-certified vendors. For 2020, diversity spending was $894 million, which was 42% of the utility’s total supplier spending.

To do jobs for ComEd, Ruiz’s crews have gone as far as Clinton, Illinois, which is about half way between Bloomington and Decatur. But for the most part, his company works for clients in and around Rockford and the western Chicago suburbs. Ruiz said he has no desire to work downtown. Traffic is too heavy, parking too difficult, and arranging supply deliveries too complicated.

“The big boys can be in Chicago in downtown. I like to stay in the suburbs,” he says.

Working with Ruiz at his company are two of his sons, Brayant, a vice president, and Johnathan, a foreman. His oldest son, Alexander, is a master chief petty officer with the Navy’s drone program.

Ruiz, who is now 60, said he and Alexander have talked about him joining the business when his military career ends in a couple of years. But he’s not ready yet to retire and turn the business over to his sons.

“I told them they still have a lot to learn,” he said. “I think every day is a lesson. Every job is a lesson.”

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