Saturday, August 12, 2000

Firm lights up Fort Washington Way

Traffic signals, lights installed by minority firm

By James Pilcher
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Ajay Bansal and his two brothers will be some of the busiest men in the city this weekend, the result of their ability to turn the perceived handicap of being minority businessmen into a strength.

[photo] Unicustom Inc. brothers (from left) Avnish, Ajay and Ambrish Bansal stand at Third and Elm Streets.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
| ZOOM |
        “I look at minority programs as an opportunity, not a handout,” says Mr. Bansal, president of Fairfield-based Unicustom Inc. “There are jobs I would not have gotten without the programs, but now I can pick the jobs to go after and pick who I work with. And that comes from doing the work right.”

        With Fort Washington Way and a reconfigured Third Street scheduled to open early Monday, Unicustom crews will be scrambling to install and test almost all the traffic signals and newfangled lighting systems the city has touted in slick videos promoting the $314 million reconfiguration.

        City officials point to companies such as Unicustom and its Fort Washington Way project as proof that minority hiring standards can be met and are fulfilling their role as an economic stimulus.

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        But they also use Unicustom as an example of the kind of minority firms they seek — experienced and knowledgeable with good business sense.

        For example, minority companies must be prequalified by the Ohio Department of Transportation. Then they must be the lowest bidder — a tough task in Cincinnati's extremely competitive construction market. And the city requires that minority firms be in business for at least a year before bidding for a contract.

        “You've got to have a track record, and even then, you're not guaranteed of landing the contract because of the preferred status,” said Ben Hand, contract compliance specialist for the city's transportation department.

        The project had a minority employment rate of about 17.4 percent as of June, more than the 11.8 percent the state requires, but short of the 20 percent the city originally required before a lawsuit threw it out. About 10.4 percent of all Fort Washington Way contracts were awarded to minority firms — worth about $21.3 million.

        “It sounds to me the city is right at the basic goal as opposed anything above it,” said Kathye Lewis, board chairwoman of the city's African-American Chamber of Commerce. “There's potential for more out there.”

        Many minority construction firms overcame potential hurdles and are well-established in the area, according to Roy Mendelsohn, construction manager for Parsons Brinckerhoff, the company overseeing the project.

        “We even brought in a consultant that we've used before in other big projects, but we didn't need to keep him around because the minority contractors didn't need any help running their business,” he said.

    There are several different minority hiring mandates in place for the Fort Washington Way project:
    • For projects paid for by federal funds, a general contractor must subcontract at least 10 percent to minority firms.
    • For non-federally funded contracts, a general contractor must subcontract 7 percent to minorities. And an additional 5 percent of the project's non-federal contracts must go directly to minority contractors.
    • State law requires that women and/or minorities make up at least 11.8 percent of the total workforce.
    Through June, 17.4 percent of Fort Washington Way work was being done by minorities.
    About 10.4 percent of all Fort Washington Way contracts were awarded to minority firms - worth about $21.3 million.
    Source: Parsons Brinckerhoff of Ohio
        TYS Construction, based in Bond Hill, is one example. Owner Ty Stuckey started the business in 1989, and is now up to about $4 million in sales, and did about $1.5 million worth of work on Fort Washington Way — mostly laying reinforcing steel.

        “The need for the program is there to open the door, because any new business, much less a new minority business, can't get the same kind of credit that an established business gets,” said Mr. Stuckey, who says a lot of his work is now in the private sector and not attached to minority programs. “It allows us to establish ourselves in a business we want to be in.”

        Another example is Mr. Bansal's company. Specializing in road and airport runway lighting work, Unicustom has subcontracted on 11 of 21 Fort Washington Way contracts that included minority firms.

        “The project has a lot riding on Ajay completing everything on time,” Mr. Mendelsohn said. “And this is a complicated job — hooking city circuits into (Ohio Department of Transportation) circuits.”

        That's nothing new, however. Unicustom once was the only company to bid on an airport runway job that had a possible $1 million penalty for missing by one hour. It made the deadline.

        The company's reputation alone would probably attract business without the help of minority programs.

        But when a big road construction contract is put out for bid in this area, Mr. Bansal knows the phones will start ringing.

        Because of the minority hiring policies tied to huge amounts of state and federal highway money, Unicustom can be a powerful player within construction circles.

        “We can sort of pick our horse,” Mr. Bansal said. “We'll get five or six calls for the same job, because they can kill two birds with one stone. They know we'll do the job right and that we're a minority firm.”

        Last year, Unicustom landed about $7.7 million worth of public contracts, and has about $2.3 million worth of contracts for Fort Washington Way alone.

        The Bansals are all natives of Delhi, India, coming over in 1970 to continue their studies in engineering and land jobs.

        “America was the land of gold, so we figured we'd go where the gold was,” Ambrish said.

        As for his work this weekend, Mr. Bansal says the company has never missed a deadline and isn't about to start — especially with a potential penalty of $5,500 per day past the completion date.

        “These are the kind of jobs I go after with a vengeance,” Mr. Bansal said. “And this one is no different. We'll make it — our reputation is on the line.”


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