Over 3½ decades, Richard Copeland built Thor Cos. from a $200 investment into the largest minority-owned business in Minnesota and one of the biggest black-owned firms in the country.
For many, it would be time to relax. But as Copeland sees it, if you aren’t growing, you are shrinking.
In the last couple months, Thor has quietly added development, architectural design and consulting to its work as a general contractor, morphing into a full-service provider of construction services from first concept to ribbon-cutting. It’s a big move in a tough-to-crack industry that can at times be discouragingly polarizing.
“Our time is now,” Copeland said. “With changing demographics, we think it’s incumbent of the underutilized communities to pull themselves up … We’ve got to stand up and be counted and make that underutilized community an asset and not a liability.”
Earlier this year, Thor broke ground on its new $36 million company headquarters, which will serve as the linchpin of an area of north Minneapolis that has struggled to attract private investment. The move is a homecoming of sorts for a company with roots in the urban core. Thor’s current Fridley office is unassuming to say the least. It’s in the same industrial complex as Copeland’s trucking company.
“Now, we are able to approach the marketplace as a turnkey operation that says, if you have any thoughts about community or economic development, you should retain Thor Cos.,” said Ravi Norman, chief executive at Thor.
The company got its start in the late 1970s when Copeland spent $200 to get insured as an utility maintenance worker. In the 1990s, Thor began partnering with larger firm M.A. Mortenson Co. on some of its projects, such as the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul and the expansion of the Minneapolis Convention Center.
Twin Cities and Las Vegas
From 2005 to 2008, Thor’s business boomed with it reaching $200 million in yearly revenue in 2008. But when the recession hit, staffing was reduced, pay was cut and Thor narrowed its work primarily to two places, the Twin Cities and Las Vegas.
After work on projects like the expansion of the Mandalay Bay resort in Las Vegas and U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Thor returned to growth, bigger profits and the ability to reinvest in itself. Thor generated revenue of about $140 million last year.
The company’s executives pride themselves on being a conduit to other minority businesses and connecting them with opportunities. For example, Thor began a mentor relationship with Yaw Construction, a local company headed by Ghana native Gilbert Odonkor, to help Yaw get work on the Central Corridor light-rail project.
“The differentiator for us is going to be in our ability to deliver authentic connections, especially with a focus on emerging communities, and then really trying to give those markets access to opportunities and the acceleration to growth,” said Lea Hargett, vice president of the new Thor Consulting group.
The expansion of services like consulting will enable Thor to gain a seat at the decisionmaking table earlier in some projects than it got as simply a contractor, said D’Angelos Svenkeson, vice president of the new Thor Development branch.
“For someone to come in and actually have the decisionmaking capability of who the architects will be, who the contractors will be, who the subconsultants will be, what lawyers you are going to hire, you can start to create an ecosystem that reinforces that community,” he said.
While planning its own new headquarters, Thor executives realized they didn’t have the capabilities in-house to complete all the design work and turned to an outside firm for help.
That was “a Eureka moment” for the company to expand its own design chops, said Damaris Hollingsworth, the recently hired vice president of the Thor Design Plus subsidiary. “It’s so freeing to be in a group that has the same values,” Hollingsworth said.
Thor has already started to throw its hat in the ring for different projects using its new services. Its role as the co-master developer of the Upper Harbor Terminal project for about 50 acres along the Mississippi River in Minneapolis is already a step up from its previous responsibilities.
There are a few areas such as medical and assisted-living facilities and retail that the company wants to eventually do more work in as well, said Mike Petersen, Thor’s senior vice president.
“They’ve been in the construction business for a while,” said Herb Tousley, director of real estate programs at the University of St. Thomas, on Thor. “Development is a natural extension of that.”
While he said the timing is right in the real estate market for the expansion, there are additional risks when companies work in development.
“Whenever you are involved in the development business, there’s more risk involved beyond just construction,” he said. “There’s financing involved. There’s getting entitlements and acquiring properties. There’s certainly a lot more moving parts and a bit more risk.”
Thor will have to face other challenges as it continues to grow, including how to attract and retain talent during a pronounced labor shortage in the construction industry.
Thor executives say there is still untapped talent potential in underused communities in the urban core. For years, Thor has been a hiring partner for Summit Academy, the vocational training center in north Minneapolis whose graduates are mostly people of color. Thor’s investment in people is one of the company’s top priorities.
“You have to have the right human capital,” Norman said.
Another challenge: competing with larger companies, like Mortenson, with which it was previously a partner.
Mortenson senior vice president Ken Sorenson said there may be times when Thor and Mortenson go head to head, but the companies will also likely continue to partner at other times.
“We’re proud of Thor,” he said. “We’re proud of what they’ve become.”
Copeland said Thor may face some “growing pains.”
“We appreciate the growth we’ve had in our relationship with them and we will never forget that,” he said, referring to Mortenson. “We are able to walk and run on our own and look forward to taking our rightful place as a bona fide, qualified, safety-minded organization.”