William Delgado describes his generation and those before it as “survivors” who managed to eke out a living and support their families by working 16-hour days on other people's construction sites. However, as executive director of the Latin Builders Association in Miami, Delgado looks to the future of Hispanic contractors and sees entrepreneurs who work through the trade ranks to eventually own their own businesses and run their own jobs. “There are tremendous opportunities in the construction industry,” he says, noting the sustained building activity in Miami and other markets across the country. “It's becoming a different kind of work force.”
Numbers back him up. In addition to a 58 percent increase in the number of Hispanics residing in the United States between 1990 and 2000 (to nearly 40 million, or about 12 percent of the entire population), the number of Hispanic-owned businesses jumped 30 percent between 1992 and 1997, the latest figures available.
Compared to all U.S. firms, a higher percentage of Hispanic-owned businesses are construction-related, and Hispanics own nearly 7 percent of construction companies overall—almost 150,000 general and specialty contracting businesses combined as of 1997, a number that has no doubt increased in the years since.
And despite the fact that almost half of the nation's Hispanic population resides in California and Texas alone, several states are witnessing explosions of this population sector. In fact, of the seven states where the Hispanic population tripled between 1990 and 2000, six are in the South. ¿Se habla Español, Alabama?
Add to those figures a national initiative and several smaller public-private efforts to boost Hispanic homeownership, train and educate Latino construction workers, and foster construction-related trade with Mexico (see “Industry Initiatives,”), and it's evident that this is becoming much more than a niche market of pros (and consumers) looking for building materials and services. “Everything has trended with the demographics,” says Terry Anderson, director of advertising for White Cap Construction Supply, a 70-location, $500 million dealer-distributor based in Costa Mesa, Calif. “The construction industry is no different.”
Language Lessons Among the challenges of serving and selling Hispanic pros, hurdling the language barrier is obvious and essential, and therefore usually the first one approached by dealers and others along the supply chain. “Language is the main concern among our members,” says Larry Adams, president of the Southern Building Materials Association (SBMA) in Charlotte, N.C., which serves LBM dealers in the Carolinas, Tennessee, and Virginia.
Dealers and manufacturers have taken a proactive approach, primarily in markets with a high percentage of Hispanics. For example, Bill Hastings, owner of River Lumber & Building Materials, a single-location operation in Chama, N.M.(where 42 percent of the state's population is Latino), has seen an increasing number of manufacturers include bilingual labels and instructions with their products.
He's also taken out an ad in the Spanish-language section of the local yellow pages and has learned passable conversational Spanish to help better serve Hispanic pros looking for basic materials needs or dealer services, such as dimensional lumber and delivery dates. “Hispanic contractors are an important part of our business,” says Hastings, noting that the majority of his Latino customers are subcontractors, small-volume builders, or employees of larger, Anglo-owned companies. “The construction industry is heading in that direction.”
In addition, dealers are hiring bilingual employees, posting bilingual signage, broadcasting Spanish-language radio and television spots, and offering training seminars en Español.
White Cap Construction Supply, for instance, employs bilingual counter staff and aisle signs in locations with a high concentration of Hispanic accounts and retail business, such as El Paso, Texas, and Chula Vista, Calif. “We've seen an increase in the number of Hispanic customers and sales in those stores,” says Anderson, noting that each store manager is relied upon to implement sales strategies to serve his or her specific market.