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Issue: November/December 2010
Business Hall of Fame: Pipe Dreamer
Lonnie Coleman’s path to success wasn’t easy. He was born in small-town South Carolina, worked as a pipe fitter, got turned down for his first (and second) small-business loan, and built one of the most successful minority-owned businesses in Northeast Ohio.
Lonnie Coleman pulls into the Ahuja Medical Center construction site on a fall afternoon. Commuters along Interstate 271 have watched the University Hospitals building, a glassy, metal-clad series of curves, rise in Beachwood over the past two years.
Coleman’s mechanical contracting company, Coleman Spohn Corp., landed the job to build the complex’s central energy plant. We’re talking mazes of pipes the size of drinking straws to 30 inches in diameter, boilers, underground fuel tanks, and a central air-cooling unit that positively dwarfs the one in your backyard. At $27 million, the contract is the company’s biggest to date.
Coleman grabs a hard hat and safety glasses from the trunk of his Cadillac to take a look around.
⊲ I try not to get too excited about most things. That’s because I believe there’s no crisis so big that it can’t be worked out.
⊲ I have always tried to lead by example. I’m not an advocate for trying to force ideas upon people.
⊲ I’ve always taken the viewpoint that my company’s success was the reward for hard work and determination by our people. It is a shared success and a great feeling for me when I see that success turn into our people buying homes, cars and sending kids to college and knowing I had a small part to play.
⊲ Individuals who feel an important part of an organization and are given the opportunity to participate openly and honestly will develop ideas and leadership positions that will aide in the development and growth of that organization.
⊲ I don’t have any immediate plans to retire. I enjoy what I do. I tell people, “My grandfather lived to be 106 and my grandmother, his wife, lived to be 101, and I am hopeful their genes passed on to me.”
Walking down halls buzzing with workers — black, white, male, female, young, old — Coleman, 61, can’t help but think about how far his business has come.
His is now one of the region’s most successful minority-owned companies, with more than 60 employees. But getting there wasn’t easy.
When Coleman originally went into business for himself, he and his partner asked the Small Business Administration for a $180,000 loan to buy a pickup truck and equipment.
When the SBA turned them down, they trimmed the request to $80,000. Still, no deal.
“We were told they did not think we would survive six weeks,” Coleman recalls. “Thirty-four years later, we’ve survived and have a story to tell.”
Coleman’s story starts in rural South Carolina, where his parents and grandparents farmed.
“Blair, S.C., had a post office, a general store and a train stop,” he says. Coleman’s father joined the African-American migration north after World War II, hoping for better opportunities. The family moved to Cleveland in 1950 when Lonnie was 1.
Coleman’s father worked as a machinist at a factory on St. Clair Avenue. And his mother worked in a garment factory, where she made sweaters.
Coleman was the third oldest of seven children in a close family. Originally, he thought he’d become a teacher and started studying for a history degree at Kent State University. (The love for history is still there. Asked if he could meet anyone, living or dead, Coleman chose Hannibal Barca, the military strategist who crossed the Alps with elephants in 218 B.C. to defeat the Romans.)
But a summer job as a pipe fitter — installing and repairing pipes and tubes that carry water, steam, air and other liquids and gases for heating, cooling, ventilation, and sprinkler systems — changed Coleman’s path for good.
“The work was great, an opportunity to do something with both your mind and your hands,” Coleman says.
His last job as someone else’s employee was on construction of the Justice Center downtown. By 1976, he struck off with a partner and started his own company, ColeJon.
“We were looking for upward mobility,” Coleman says. “Back then everybody was a risk taker to a point. There were a whole lot of changes taking place in our country.”
Hilton Smith of Turner Construction remembers running into Coleman on the roof of the Justice Center job and hearing of his plans.
Smith, with Turner for 39 years and now a senior vice president, met Coleman during his pipe fitting apprenticeship. At the time, the company was heavily involved in getting minorities on jobs as skilled tradespeople, with the hope that at least some would eventually become entrepreneurs.
Quick to laugh, easy to talk to, and humble, Coleman has always been passionate about his work and opening doors for others, Smith says. But he lets his work speak for itself.
“He’s always been a team player,” Smith says. “He was never willing to step outside the ranks as a malcontent.”
Coleman credits Arnold Pinkney, a longtime community leader and Democratic campaign manager, for early advice that helped his company grow.
Pinkney, who ran an insurance company for many years, helped Coleman find bonding, the key to many big, government and commercial projects.
“At that time it was extremely difficult for African-American companies to get bonding,” recalls Pinkney. “Almost impossible.”
Pinkney also suggested that Coleman get his name out there by volunteering in the community and becoming active with business and civic groups, including the NAACP and the Urban League.
Relationship building has been one of Coleman’s strongest accomplishments, Pinkney says. His name is common on school levy campaign literature, and he’s a well-known attendee at benefits with Fran, his wife of 41 years.
“There’s never been a time when I asked him to help that he said no,” Pinkney says.
But Coleman has never been someone to push his own agenda with a bullhorn, he says. “To this day, I don’t know whether he’s a Republican or a Democrat.”
Friends say you’ll never see the laid-back Coleman sweat, perhaps a quality that brings a steady stream of advice-seekers to his door.
“I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve sat down with individuals who are interested in starting a business and want someone to talk with about experiences, direction, contacts, expectations and doing things the right way,” Coleman says. “My door is always open for that.”
Coleman credits help along the way as an ingredient to his success.
Marty Kaufman, now deceased, of Woodhill Nipple and Fittings Inc. (now Woodhill Supply), for one, gave ColeJon a $1,000 line of credit with 60 days to pay for pipe valves and fittings for an early commercial job. When the job grew and ColeJon needed more money, Kaufman made it happen.
Craig Hitchcock, then at Bartelheim Sheet Metal, taught Coleman the tricky art of estimating for jobs. Bid too low, and risk doing some of the work for free. Bid too high, and risk losing the job to other contractors.
Hitchcock helped for about two years and never accepted payment beyond an occasional dinner. Coleman vowed to return the favor by helping other businesspeople starting out or needing advice.
That’s one of the attributes most admired by Carole Hoover, who served on the Greater Cleveland Growth Association with Coleman.
It’s never been just about him, says Hoover, president and CEO of HooverMilstein, a wealth management company.
“When he goes to the civic table, he’s going for all minority and small businesses, not just Coleman Spohn,” she says.
He’s touted the importance of diversity to employers around town and backed that up with his own hiring practices.
“We are represented by African-Americans, Latinos, Jews, Asians and Asian-Indians. We also have women in nontraditional roles and ex-offenders working with us,” Coleman says. “It’s worked out very well, and we haven’t given up on talent just to be diverse.”
With a wave of baby boomer retirements on the horizon, Coleman has been focused on industry opportunities for young people.
During his presidency of the Mechanical Contractors Association of America last year, Coleman pushed for training and creation of green jobs through sustainability initiatives. He is also part of the Rebuild America Coalition, which wants the government to provide incentives and rebates, similar to the Cash for Clunkers program, for retrofitting old buildings with new, energy-efficient climate control equipment.
Coleman is a constant motivator, says MCAA CEO John Gentille.
With the industry’s labor hours down by about a third nationally, Gentille says Coleman was just what the organization needed to get through the economic downturn. “If I was ever to say there was the right man for the right job, it was Lonnie,” Gentille says.
Coleman invests in technology, but his company also exudes old-fashioned integrity, says Gilbane Building Co. vice president Mark Hill, who has worked with Coleman since the 1980s.
Part of that comes from family ties. Two of Coleman’s brothers, a sister and a son work for Coleman Spohn. Charlie Coleman followed his brother into the pipe fitting trade and is now a project manager for the company. “He’s good people,” Charlie says of Lonnie. “And not just because he’s my brother and mentor. He just is.”
If a problem arises, Charlie says Lonnie will call a meeting, sit everyone down together, get it worked out and move on.
Coleman’s daughter Kiana, 35, is a fifth- and sixth-grade teacher in Atlanta. His daughter Kelli, 38, worked for her dad and then in construction management before leaving to become a full-time mom.
His son, Christopher, 25, graduated from Tuskegee University with an aerospace engineering degree. He now works for his father’s company, and Coleman hopes he will eventually take over.
In the meantime, Coleman says he plans to keep making the rounds, or as his brother says, “Showing his face in the place.”
“I’m an open book,” Coleman says. “I am the same guy that I was 40 years ago. And if you ask people about me, they’ll all tell you the same thing. There are no surprises here.”
1969 Applied for apprenticeship with local pipe fitters union at a friend’s suggestion. “My comment to him was, ‘What’s a pipe fitter, and what do they do?’ I had no clue, but applied anyway and was accepted,” Coleman says. “The apprenticeship program paid a lot more than other places I’d worked, including a spray painting company where I made $1.65 an hour painting periscope canisters for army tanks.”
1974 Began two-year stint as a journeyman pipe fitter.
1976 Started own mechanical contracting business, ColeJon Mechanical Corp., with partner Jim Jones. “We landed our first job, a small re-piping project at an office building on Granger Road for $3,000 and thought we had conquered the world,” he says.
1981 Got his first big break when hired to finish a job at NASA Glenn Research Center after the original contractor went bankrupt. A 26-person job eventually grew to a 250-person effort and expansion into a full-service operations and maintenance contract.
1980s Honors included the Small Business Administration’s Minority Contractor of the Year (’83) and Administrators Award for Excellence (’85); the Governor’s Minority Business of the Year (’86); and the EPA’s National Minority Contractor of the Year (’87).
1993 Became an associate construction manager with Huber, Hunt & Nichols for Gateway development, including construction of Progressive Field. Later worked on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.
1994 Created Coleman Spohn after buying assets of Spohn Corp., a longtime Cleveland company.
1996 Joined the Presidents’ Council, a group focused on wealth creation and economic development in the African-American community.
1997 Split with Jones and retained Coleman Spohn.
1998 Provided underground plumbing for Cleveland Browns Stadium.
2007 Opened small branch office in St. Louis.
2009 Started yearlong term as president of the Mechanical Contractors Association of America, a Washington D.C.-based trade association representing 2,200 contractors in 82 chapters.
2010 Bid for some of the region’s biggest upcoming projects, including the Medical Mart/Convention Center and temporary casino in downtown Cleveland and Eaton’s headquarters at Chagrin Highlands.
2011 Set to start first job in Columbus, working on HVAC and plumbing for a cancer research center.
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