The Heart Of The Entrepreneur
Emma Highfill | Photographer
Building Businesses Together and Apart
This husband and wife each own construction companies that solicit heavy civil contracts all over the country. Both companies are based in Topeka because Topeka is home. It is where they chose to raise their five children. It is where they have family and friends.
TK talked to the duo about their business stories, their shared love of mentoring others and what it is like for two entrepreneurs to manage life together.
ALONZO HARRISON, owner of HDB Construction, says his drive for entrepreneurship was inspired by his father and thrives with many members of his family. When he was younger, it took him a while to come around to it, though.
“I never wanted to go into his business,” Harrison said.
Harrison’s father, Walter J Harrison, started Harrison Trucking (the company that would later become HDB) in 1958. As a fourth son, Alonzo Harrison grew up watching his father in business. He and his three older brothers started driving trucks for the company nearly as soon as they could reach the pedals. Stretching those legs and skills early in life must have helped Harrison as he grew up. He went to Washburn on a track and academic scholarship and set records in the 100-yard, 200-yard and triple jump that stood for decades and put him in the Washburn Track & Field Hall of Fame.
He did NOT go into his father’s business. Harrison decided to become an engineer for IBM, and then he worked for the Department of Labor in the CETA program before becoming a financial analyst for Menninger. Along the way, he kept stretching his knowledge, earning a master’s degree in Public Administration from the University of Kansas and completing programs at Georgia Tech, Texas A&M, the Harvard Kennedy School, and the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College.
It was at Menninger that Harrison realized that maybe he wanted to work for himself after all. At Menninger, he had worked on a national program called CHARLEE to provide services for families and children. He set up the programs in several states and put together a plan to expand it nationwide—then Menninger decided to not support the funding.
“It made me realize that I really wasn’t going to be able to influence things there on a large scale. No matter how hard I worked,” Harrison said.
He decided to go into the family business after all. He incorporated HDB in 1985 and started getting contracts for Harrison Trucking. He also bid on heavy civil projects like bridges and underground mechanical. And of course, he continued his education at law school.
“At the time, I got into a situation where my contractor didn’t want to pay me. I had signed a contract that gave me a great deal of latitude. I went to law school, so I could understand contracts better and fight back,” Harrison said.
Harrison has operated HDB since 1985. His three brothers still work with him on the trucking side of the business. His father passed away in January of 2017. His daughter is their corporate attorney. His niece is the chief administrative officer. His sister is the internal auditor. It seems the only family member conspicuously missing from Harrison’s company is his wife—Renita Harris.
Renita Harris named her company “My Company” for two reasons. First, she wanted people to be clear that the company WAS hers. Second, she wanted people who hired her to have a feeling they had some buy-in to the company as well. She wanted them to be able to say, “My Company” and feel like they had someone working on their side.
“When they talk about the company, they can take ownership in it,” Harris said.
Harris grew her expertise in heavy civil construction by working hard, watching, learning and not being afraid to fill in gaps when others gave up on the job. Harris started out her career working for an attorney who owned a construction firm. Wearing a lot of hats, she ended up running the construction firm herself by the mid-1980s. When the attorney shut down his construction business, she started working for another construction company. When that owner also walked away from the business, many of the jobs they hadundertaken were still in progress, so Harris made sure they were completed. She decided, since she was doing the work anyway, she might as well start her own business.
In 1999, she incorporated My Company. The man she once worked for now works for her.
“I’ve built the business. I started out doing remodeling. Now I do heavy civil,” Harris said. Like Harrison, Harris often has to seek work in different parts of the country. Though they have had success other places, Topeka
is a more difficult market for them. Harris has encountered discrimination all over the country, not only as an African American, but also as a petite woman. Sometimes people underestimate her skills.
“One of the men came out on a job once,” Harris said. “I had just gotten new boots and he said to me, ‘I can tell your lack of experience by the boots.’ He thought I was a kid.”
Over time, Harris has earned respect in the industry by paying attention to details, knowing the budget, staying on top of the job and never leaving unless she is confident she has a credible person taking the lead. When things start falling apart, Harris leaves the office and hits the field until the problem is fixed.
“I don’t mind being out there [in the field] for a couple of weeks. I don’t mind putting on the hardhat and getting greasy and }muddy. I can dress up, but I can also dress down and still feel myself,” Harris said.