William Pickett is at war. His battle is against economic realities that often spell doom for small businesses, especially for small, black-owned businesses.
Pickett is a minority contractor, whose office at 9th and U streets NW looks as if it were a military command center, with papers and construction plans scattered across long drafting tables.
His business has been threatened by problems ranging from the national recession in 1974-75 to District government red tape that has resulted in at least one canceled contract and delayed payments on other jobs.
So far, Pickett has survived.
A native of Washington, 32-year-old Pickett began working in construction about 10 years ago as a laborer with a homebuilding firm. He got the job after completing a six-week car-pentry course designed "to get ghetto kinds off the street."
While on that first job, Pickett said, he realized that there were very few black carpenters building those homes. After hearing that carpenters "made good money," he set out to integrate the trade and make his fortune. He had learned the basics of carpentry in the six-week course; the rest he learned by reading and watching experienced carpenters work.
"I used to take a notebook to work everyday and jot down notes to myself on how homes were being constructed," he said.
Two years later, Pickett felt he knew every aspect of home construction and was ready to go into business. He and a white carpenter, David Keith, started a homebuilding and remodeling business in 1971 called Keith and Pickett Construction Company. For capital, Keith said, the two men used money they earned from carpentry.
"Everything was going well until we hit the recession," said Pickett. Prior to 1974, the firm netted $14,000 in profits, but in 1975 and 1976 it lost a total of $75,000, he said. "I never experienced anything like that in my life."
According to Pickett, the devastating impact of the recession resulted in Keith's decision to quit the business. Pickett bought him out in 1976. But Pickett said he survived only because of a federal loan that helped him pay the firm's debts and buy out Keith's share.
Pickett said he was able to get financial help partly because of his contacts in several lending institutions.
"You have to have someone on the inside, somebody to look out for you," he said. "I have some contacts with people who sit on the loan committees and who know key people who make decisions. If I didn't have contacts I'd be in trouble like most other minorities."
Developing those contacts was not an accident. When he and Keith decided to start their firm, Pickett said he made of point of going to varicus agencies structured to help minorities obtain loans. Members of those agencies, in turn, introduced him to banking officers. "Then all I did was to call the bank people back and keep them informed as to what I was doing. Soon, I could deal with them on a first-name basis."
His banking contacts helped him obtain loans the firm needed for its first construction contract. Eventually, Pickett said, he was able to use those lenders as financial references, too. "They would say, 'Pickett is a man who will pay his bills.'"
Pickett believes that having a white partner helped reduce the fears of lenders who might have been reluctant to lend money to a minority firm, especially one that was just starting.
"Keith could go into totally white situations and be successful, while I successfully went into black situations. We were able to work both sides of the fence."
One problem the firm didn't face was finding and keeping workers. "In all the time I was in debt, I always managed to pay my workers," Pickett said. "That is most important. You must keep your credibility with the workers. Many of my men will still work for me until the end of the month because they know I will meet payroll."
Pickett said he has not always been successful in his business enterprise.
Some of his problems have resulted from contracts with the District government, which he said seems to work against minority businesses.
"The District government knows minority businessmen can't cope with delays," he said, "but they seem to drag out their contracts and this can often put a small minority firm out of business."
Pickett said he ran into a major obstacle last year when he was lowest bidder on a D.C. government project to reconstruct canopies for a housing project in Southeast Washington.
"We began working on the project, but were told to stop midway through because city officials said they wanted additional corrections made at our expense." Pickett said he took the issue to a special government arbitration panel, contending that the District was requesting improvements not in the original contract. He said the improvements would cost him an additional $11,000. The contract has since been voided by the District government, he said, and it may take a lawsuit before he recovers the approximately $98,000 he contends the District government owes him.
"This would have probably put the average guy out of business... but I got busy and started bidding on new projects."
Pickett stood up from behind his cluttered desk and pointed to a sheet of paper taped to the wall -- a list of his current jobs.
"Here is a $30,000 job," he said, going down the list with a pencil, "where we are remodeling inflight kitchens at Andrews Air Force Base. Here is a $204,000 job for the Department of Agriculture where we are enclosing stairwells. And here, a few blocks away (from the U Street office), I have a $2.5 million joint venture to build 27 houses with Volpe Construction Company."
Pickett said he keeps abreast of potential jobs by reading trade publications that list construction projects requiring competitive bidding. "We look down the list of jobs and then we send in a bid."
Along with his business sense and what can best be described as hustle, Pickett believes his attitude has helped him survive.
"I guess I'm lucky," he said. "I don't take no for an answer... I believe in myself... I just keep scrtching."
He also has made it a practice to attack problems before they turn into disaster.
"I have credibility," he said. "I don't lie to anyone. If I'm going to be late for a payment to a supplier or to the bank I call them in advance and tell them why, and tell them when they can expect to receive their money.
"Many of these bankers and suppliers just don't feel they can trust blacks."