Correction to This Article
This article incorrectly said that K. Neal International was listed as one of Black Enterprise magazine's top 100 firms. The owner, Stephen W. Neal, was awarded a Top 100 Minority Business Enterprise Award by the Center for Business Inclusion and Diversity in 2008.

Obama, Biden praise Md. businessman who rose from stock clerk to employing 105

President Obama and Vice President Biden pay a visit to K. Neal International in Hyattsville, which to owner Stephen W. Neal was an affirmation of his hard work.
President Obama and Vice President Biden pay a visit to K. Neal International in Hyattsville, which to owner Stephen W. Neal was an affirmation of his hard work. (Haraz N. Ghanbari/associated Press)
By Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 6, 2010

When Stephen W. Neal was stocking shelves and cleaning up spills for Giant supermarkets more than 30 years ago, he never could have imagined what happened to him this week: President Obama and Vice President Biden dropped by to give him a pat on the back.

Neal, 55, now owns K. Neal International, which has a revenue of more than $65 million and 105 people on its payroll in Northern Virginia and Maryland. It is one of the region's largest outlets for selling and fixing trucks and buses.

"This company employs workers from all over the greater Washington area," Obama said Friday, after he and Biden toured Neal's firm in the 5000 block of Tuxedo Road in Hyattsville. "After two years of recession that caused so much pain in so many communities, this is also an example of a company that is starting to see business pick up again."

Overall nationwide, employers added about 431,000 jobs in May, more than any month in the past decade. But the growth was driven by temporary hiring in the federal government for the Census. Employers in the private sector, such as Neal, added only 41,000 jobs last month.

For the president, visiting Neal's company was an opportunity to talk about the economy's fifth consecutive monthly job gain. For Neal, the visit was affirmation of his hard work.

As Obama spoke, Neal stood nearby with his two children, Korey, a 19-year-old college football player, and Kandace, a 24-year-old special-education teacher. (The "K" in his firm's name stands for his children's first initials.)

"All that I could think was, thank you God. The president is a busy man, but he took the time to visit my business."

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley had submitted Neal's name to the White House. The company, which Neal started six years ago, has garnered several awards and is listed as one of Black Enterprise magazine's top 100 firms. In 2009, Neal was named Maryland's small business owner of the year, and this year he received a minority business leaders award from Washington Business Journal.

Despite his accomplishments, Neal doubted that Obama would show until a helicopter hovered overhead and he heard the roar of police escort motorcycles. The president's black limousine came rolling onto Tuxedo Road, past a liquor store, a car detailing shop and into a parking lot cluttered with yellow school buses and trucks. "You are a big guy," Obama told Neal.

Neal graduated from George Mason University and entered Giant's retail training program, where his first job was as a stock clerk at the Giant on Monroe Avenue in Alexandria. He spent nearly three decades with the company, rising to executive vice president of store operations and sales, responsible for more than 26,000 employees.

Even as he climbed up the corporate ladder, Neal continued on occasion to straighten shelves, clean spills and help cashiers at check-out counters.

"All of these years, my motto has remained the same: Take care of your customers, they will take care of you, and along the way, we will make a little money," Neal said.

Six years ago, Neal said, he hit a brick wall. Giant had been sold to new owners and Neal, who is divorced, decided to retire. He was 49. He traveled the world until his children encouraged him to start his own company.

Neal took a job as the general manager of J Price International Trucks before deciding to buy it. Prince George's County is happy to have him, said Kwasi Holman, president of the county's Economic Development Corp.

"For the president and vice president to come to a company that we have worked with extensively makes us feel very proud that our work is being noticed as a national model," Holman said.

"Without God, friends and mentors, none of this would be possible," Neal said when the event was over.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company