The story of a small family business that succeeds is a fundamental a part of the American dream, and Jalisco International, Inc. has just such a story. In just thirty-one years, Jalisco has grown to eighty employees and generates over $22 million a year in sales. Executive Vice President Antonio D. Ledezma and President Rich Ledezma spoke to me from company headquarters in Commerce City, Colorado.
Colorado’s Jalisco International, Inc. was founded in 1985 by their father Sipriano Ledezma along with another partner with the idea of starting a Minority-owned Prime Highway Construction company. Antonio Ledezma believes Jalisco has grown into a premier regional infrastructure contractor, while earning a strong reputation for quality, safety and efficiency in the industry. Over the years Sipriano has guided Jalisco though many difficult economic downturns and always focused on overcoming obstacles while keeping an eye on the future.
Early on, Sipriano and his wife Margaret bought out the original partner and brought in their children to develop and grow Jalisco’s presence in the industry. In October of this year Sipriano Ledezma handed over the company to the next generation of leadership, when he officially retired as the President.
Along with leadership change, Jalisco has been busy growing the business and maintaining its presence in the industry. “This year, we completed our largest contract to date worth $35 million. We worked with the Denver Transit Project (DTP) for four years on that one. We also built a dozen bridges for the light rail system that goes from downtown Denver out to the international airport. The largest bridge we built was just short of a mile long! We did fifteen retaining walls for the project too.”
Despite the size of the projects and number of staff, Jalisco maintains the small business feel and emotional affinity with which it began. “Our employees feel like Jalisco is a family business, and they feel like they’re part of the family. Our subcontractors and suppliers all feel like they’re part of a team instead of being in an adversarial situation. We’re loyal to our people, who are loyal to us, and it goes beyond our employees. If something goes wrong on a project, we don’t tear up the contract and hurt people; we try to help them overcome whatever difficulty we can. We don’t nickel and dime. We want to build good projects with mutually benefitting partners, and that’s a big part of our reputation that we value.”
Building relationships and integrating technology as the primary themes in business success resonate with the Jalisco story too as it adapts to a constant stream of innovation and change. “We’re networked through the Internet with our field offices; our accounting, our estimating and our scheduling are all networked so we can communicate better.” Computers are used remotely for project diaries that are maintained in a central database, accessible by staff. Computers allow analysis of data for estimating and the storage of project pictures and video.
“We still do paperwork, but the digital age is definitely a big part of construction. All the communicating between the owners and the subcontractors is done through the Internet; all the drawings are submitted through PDF format.” The company also uses its own website and seventy-five plus state and local organizations’ job boards to advertise its open positions.
“On social media, we post major events – like when we had a bridge setting on I-25, we did some live updates on Facebook.” He describes the $35 million work on the bridge as a ‘signature project’ for the company. The bridge is notable as the longest in both Denver and the state itself.
“Typically, we sub out half of our work but not so with this project, and we got it done on time. I think the light rail, in general, is a big part of Denver’s identity, so it’s been good to be a part of that.” Before this, the company had worked on a $26 million I-25 underpass.
“This last year has been fairly busy, but one of the downfalls of that is the labor market is very tight, and we can’t find all the workers that we would like at any given time.” Limited access to skilled labour is an ongoing issue and the company is working on strengthening its internal job-training program.
“Being a skilled craftsman is a lucrative and stable career with good benefits, and you get to see your work when it’s finished.”
The company has expanded its recruitment and is actively seeking women and minorities across the region. Many new recruits may have limited experience or skill sets, and the company likes to train its own people to achieve skills, although it can be challenging.
“Mostly we do on the job training, but we also work with the Colorado Contractors Association to help people to gain certain skill sets. There’s a program that trains equipment operators, drivers and a structure program that trains both carpenters and cement masons.”
This is still a family-run business with Richard Ledezma as president, brothers Antonio as Executive Vice President and Onesimo as Vice President, sister Natalia as Corporate Secretary and their mom Peggy as chief financial officer still involved although semi-retired. “The focus was then and remains now building infrastructure.”
Rich received the contractor of the year award last year from the Colorado Contractors Association (CCA), which is reflective of Jalisco’s philosophy of being active participants in the industry. Rich previously served on the board of directors for CCA from 2006 to 2015, and was the association president for 2014. Both Richard and Antonio remain active with various legislative and policy initiatives thoughout the state. Antonio just completed work on a major ordinance revision with City of Denver’s Auditors Office workgroup updating the Wage regulations used by the industry. Antonio has testified several times in front of the state legislative panels regarding pending legislation which affected the industry.
The Engineers Corps of America estimates $3.6 trillion by 2020 will be needed to bring the United States from its current grade of D-, a fact not lost on companies like Jalisco. “Massive infrastructure investment will really help us.”
“I don’t see a time when infrastructure isn’t going to be a fundamental aspect of our society; it’s the primary means of moving all commerce and people. Everyone always counts on infrastructure; you drive it every day. You just assume that it is always going to be there. But what’s happening now is that some things have been neglected because the methods of funding are falling short. Infrastructure is often in the backseat compared to a lot of other needs like education or social programs, so we have to be innovative.”
Infrastructure funding is an issue of great importance. The old method of using a fuel tax is no longer effective with an increasing number of fuel-efficient, hybrid or electric cars. The present funding structure sees many public-private partnerships to build infrastructure without raising taxes. “The light rail is a public-private partnership for example.”
He foresees that there will be changes in how infrastructure is funded. Charging by VMT, or vehicle miles traveled, is one approach being examined. VMT is defined as “a measurement of miles traveled by vehicles within a specified region for a specified time period.”
The State of Colorado is also experimenting with self-driving cars and roadway sensors into the roadway to monitor road conditions, vehicle volumes and speeds. “People will continue to innovate, and the marketplace will determine what the best way is to get the most bang for your buck; private-public partnerships are just the beginning.”
The ‘Oracle of Omaha’ Warren Buffet always looks for “sustained competitive advantages” when evaluating companies and Jalisco has a few. “One of our major differentiators is that, for our size, we can still make adjustments with our crews. We’re still run top to bottom from the top with clear leadership.” The company also maintains outstanding relationships with its suppliers. Making sure that they’re paid on time and treating them like employees provides a further advantage.
“Our primary philosophy is ‘do what you say and say what you mean.’ Our core values are honesty, loyalty, quality, and safety. We want dignified relationships with all our employees and partners; we want our core values upheld in all aspects of our business. Even regulators – we don’t want adversarial relationships with anybody.”
Thirty-one years distilled into an over-riding philosophy, succinct and direct: “Do what you say, and say what you mean. Do on-time and quality work safely.”