Photo: Scott Judy
Jim Croson still looks over his son Dave's shoulder at their $47-million plumbing business.
Retiring to the sandy beaches of Hawaii might sound like heaven to some, but, like a character on the TV show Lost, Jim Croson thought it was more like hell.
Just sitting on the beach and relaxing, he says, was "unthinkable," so he had his Ohio-based plumbing company ship him sets of plans for projects it was considering bidding, working up his estimates while sitting at a table on the beach. He still performed a significant amount of estimating—even in "retirement"—and he could stay connected that way, he thought, making his Hawaii home at least somewhat tolerable.
That was 30 years ago, in 1977—just 18 years after he first founded his company with $500 borrowed from his mother. Hawaii wasn't home for long, though. He couldn't take the lack of involvement in day-to-day construction activities.
"I just get a big kick out of a job coming in," Croson says today, summing up a main reason for his life in construction—he just loves it.
Croson quickly escaped the island and his "retirement," and instead opened a new shop in a slightly less tropical Naples, Fla.
It was a fateful decision, the end result of which would be an impact on the construction industry that would be felt and debated across the country.
In those 30 years, Croson has never looked back, and has never stopped working.
Told that he'd be the focus of a "day-in-the-life" feature in Engineering News-Record, Croson, misunderstanding only slightly, says the summation of his nearly 50-year construction career "just doesn't fit" in a single day.
He says it in the humblest of ways, as an elder statesman whose history is lingering just over his shoulder at all times. By this point in his career, his every day is, in short, just another day in a long history; just another day in an industry he could barely live without.
In the late 1990s, J.A. Croson became part of what was at the time the nation's largest plumbing entity, American Plumbing and Mechanical, or AMPAM. Croson's participation in that entity has since ended, and he bought the company back, along with his son, Dave, who is the chief executive officer.
Today, though now in his mid-70s, Croson still works as chairman of the board of J.A. Croson Co., now headquartered in Sorrento, Fla., near Orlando. But he still hasn't escaped his work-a-day habits. He still works better than 40 hours a week, and still performs the estimating for about half of his $47 million company's plumbing projects.
"It's eased up a little bit," he admits. "But it's still pretty intense."
His nearly 50 years as the owner of a contracting company have made him a financial success, but from his demeanor it's almost impossible to see. His office is spacious but plain, and, overflowing with construction plans, obviously geared toward his main work of estimating. (In a day of 3-D and even 4-D computer-assisted CADD programs, Croson has never used a computer for anything, let alone putting together a bid.)
"Everything in our business follows from the estimate," says Dave Croson. "He's very consistent, and a master of discipline. Once he gets his process set up, he does it the same way every time. And he's very fast."
Because his method is so old-fashioned, the old man's full range of estimating knowledge is only partly understood by others at the company.
Says Paul Croson, vice president of operations: "I know some of it."
What most people don't know is the effect that Croson has had on the entire construction industry. His landmark case, The City of Richmond v. Croson, was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1989. The ruling made it essential for state or local governments to prove prior discrimination before establishing set-aside programs based on racial criteria. that had a dramatic impact on public minority set-aside programs. The effect was a dismantling of many programs across the country.
J.A. Croson had filed the suit against the city of Richmond, Va., based on the fact that it had been denied a contract for a city prison project because it did not use a minority-owned firm as its supplier for plumbing fixtures. Thus J.A. Croson did not meet the city's requirements for minority participation. Croson explains that the company could have used the minority firm, which was going to obtain the fixtures from the same wholesaler, but needed to add about $6,000 to its bid to cover the extra cost. City officials disallowed the bid increase request and rejected Croson's bid.
"We were just suing because we were mad," Croson says today, heartily disavowing any notion that his motivations were at all discriminatory or racist. "It was just an unfair arrangement. There was no reason that we shouldn't have done that job under the circumstances."
Croson's suit actually lost several times, and the company was about to cut its losses, which were about $25,000 at the time. Then Croson got a call from Michael Kennedy, general counsel for the Associated General Contractors of America, who had been watching the case with interest. AGC took the suit from thereand eventually won the case.
"The decision quickly became the starting point for any discussion of minority-, women- and disadvantaged business enterprise programs," says Kennedy. It "remains one of the Supreme Court's most forceful statements that civil rights are personal rights, guaranteed each and every individual, without regard to race or ethnic origin."
In addition, Kennedy says the Croson case remains "the starting point for any legal analysis of such governmental contracting programs, and a key case in any analysis of affirmative action in public employment."
He adds, "In my personal view, the Croson case marked a turning point in the history of the 14th Amendment. It will be the subject of scholarly debate for many years to come."
Of Jim Croson, Kennedy says: "He was a good man in the truest sense of those plain words. He had asked to be treated fairly, and for nothing more. And in my personal opinion, that is why he prevailed."
Mark Wylie, president and CEO of the Central Florida Chapter of the Associated Builders and Contractors, also noted the importance of Jim Croson's refusal to accept what he felt was an injustice. "Because he was unwilling to accede to what he believed to be the wrong application of political power, the Supreme Court changed the way that public bodies can benefit groups deemed to be victims of discrimination through contracting privileges," says Wylie.
In typical fashion, Croson takes no credit. It's just something that happened along the way, on some other day.
"I don't look at it as an achievement," he says, crediting AGC instead. "I look at it as a happening that was really good for the building industry as a whole. I can't take any personal responsibility for it."
Croson has since worked to develop and otherwise foster minority outreach efforts in the Orange County area, including with the Central Florida ABC. With regrets, he says there has been only limited success.
As for his business, Croson isn't quite sure how he achieved such success from such humble beginnings.
"You know, I wonder that myself," he says today. "How did all of that happen? Because in the beginning, I had no people skills or anything. I think it's because I've never felt that I was better than anybody that worked for me. And we've got a really good bunch of people here. How that happens, I don't know. I think it has a lot to do with nobody looking down on them and with treating them pretty well."
Croson still has one regret: he wishes he'd gone to college. But other than that, he says, "I don't think I'd change one day."
As for any advice he might be willing to pass along, Croson is succinct: "Learn all you can before you do it. Listen a lot. And work your tail off."