Sundra Ryce has become a major player in the local white-male dominated construction industry. The 39-year-old mother of two started SLR Contracting & Service Co. 18 years ago, and it has grown to become the most successful black-owned business in the region.
Furthermore, Black Enterprise magazine in 2011 named SLR one of the nation’s top 100 largest black businesses. Her company, which employs 15, is expected to make $20 million in revenues this year.
Now Ryce is aiming for success on the national level. She has a growing motivational speaking business, and is working on an inspirational book. She’s sharing her secrets to success monthly at workshops, conventions and other events around the country. Ryce, an ordained minister, has also partnered with Bishop TD Jakes, author and a pastor of a Dallas mega-church, to offer construction consulting services to black churches across the nation, as she has done locally with St. John Baptist Church on Goodell Street. SLR did renovations on St. John’s Tower and is currently building the church’s new townhome development in the Fruit Belt.
The company has done work for the University at Buffalo, completing $21 million renovation project at Hayes Hall on South Campus last summer. Other recent projects include the $3 million construction of Buffalo Promise Neighborhood Early Childhood Education Center on Bailey Avenue, which was also finished last summer.
Earlier this year, Ryce, a graduate of SUNY Buffalo State and Medaille College, was featured in Ebony magazine for her various accomplishments. She spoke to The Buffalo News recently talked about her speaking events, the future of SLR, and motherhood.
Emma Sapong: What is your overall message when you do speaking engagements?
Sundra Ryce: I often, of course, give my story, but it’s about success, the road to success, the keys to success. I often study successful people and I know successful people are successful on purpose. That’s kind of my overall theme. It’s really about the intention of success. I do talk about government programs, the practical things about being in business. But really and truly when I have the opportunity to talk to leaders and entrepreneurs, I like to talk about the integrity of the entrepreneur and building a business of substance.
A lot of the ideas I share are transferable. They’re not just for business owners, everybody can use them on their paths to success because we all have genius, we all have purpose. When I’m called to speak, it’s not really about ‘tell us about business,’ but ‘tell us about you as a person. How did you make it?’ Because we are all humans, and we face challenges and we face fear and we face obstacles. But how do we overcome that to fulfill our greatest dreams? From a business standpoint, it’s about motivating entrepreneurs and leaders really on how to think for themselves and empower them to create their own multimillion dollar businesses.
ES: When did you decide you wanted to share this message?
SR: Being a woman, a black woman, in a male dominated business, people found interest in me. People were like, ‘you’re an anomaly.’ They wanted to hear my story and my message. It’s now a part of what I do. It’s a part of my purpose. It’s morphed into something bigger. As you grow and grow in business, you get more experience and more things to say. I try to be authentic when I speak. I try to show who I really am because I’m a human being trying to make it happen, still with a lot of dreams and goals.
ES: With all of your speaking engagements, what time do you have for SLR? What’s going on with the company?
SR: SLR is my first platform – that platform will always be there. It’s what has helped a lot of people, it’s what has fed my family over the years. It is a platform that will still be there. A lot of times I think people who are not just successful, but have lives of significance, generally have that first platform, and that keeps going like a well-oiled machine, then they do bigger stuff that’s really more meaningful.
This was my vision for SLR: I started out as a GC – a general contractor – and I knew if I was able to build a sustainable business that it would, this is what I saw, morph into offering construction management services. It wouldn’t just be a GC. We would be robust. We can come in with our clients and we can GC your project, but also manage it from a construction level. We can deal with the architect, designers, we can bring your project in from concept to completion, which we’ve done.
Then I saw – and this is something personal for me, more fulfilling and really my purpose – it would move to development. When you develop, when you’re in that area, you build and you own it. So it’s like you become the catalyst of projects.
We have a couple of big projects that are on the horizon, but really it’s just our continual work that we do. We always keep our finger on the pulse so we’re planning to be in all of what’s happening in the medical corridor and on the waterfront. Those are things we’re looking forward to.
ES: What has it been like working in an industry dominated by men?
SR: When I launched 18 years ago, I just wanted to be a great contractor. My goal was to be able to have the same integrity, same business philosophy and the same integrity of a non-minority business. I’m at point now where I use the WMBE (Women and Minority Business Enterprise); it’s a great resource now that we are larger with our bonding. We can go and actually position ourselves to be the WMBE partner for big projects.
And it’s really amazing because it’s a win-win. It’s a win for our client because our mission is always to add value, and it’s a win for us because the opportunity to do larger and larger projects. It’s cool because it’s where we are now. At first I was like I not going to use it.
ES: You didn’t like the designation?
SR: It’s not that I didn’t like it, I just didn’t want it to be the only leg that we stood on. Sometimes, unfortunately, even in this community, MWBEs aren’t viewed as having the same integrity or quality as other contractors. I’ve always wanted to take that excuse away. Historically, why we’ve had to have minority contractors on state or federal projects because we didn’t have the opportunity.
So it’s not just Buffalo. I want to be able to line up my company with the best of them because we deliver and because we are a quality contractor. We want to show up and make sure the project is delivered on time and within budget. There’s nothing different than any other company.
What I’m saying now is I’m really realizing the value of the designation because now there’s not a lot of minorities and women in this industry. We feel like we can really add value to some of the larger businesses that need to fulfill goals. They may need to fill a $25 million goal, and we can build it and bond it. Let us be your partner. We’re really leveraging that now in a really positive way for large contracts. It’s a great opportunity.
ES: What kind of work are you doing with churches?
SR: It’s really real estate and construction services. We’re working with them to bring the funding partners. We’re looking at land acquisition from a development consultant standpoint. We provide framework and legwork. When they build, we negotiate their contract.
ES: How are you able to balance it all with two kids?
SR: I’m different from a male CEO, I’m a mom, I’m a nurturer. I want to be there. I have colleagues who say I missed my kids growing up. But I like to go to every game, I like to be there. I never wanted them to feel like mommy wasn’t there.
I can’t speak for my male counterparts who can do it, so I’ve tried to, even when I have to travel, make sure their lives weren’t disrupted. I never wanted my kids to feel like mommy was the boss and she was so busy that she didn’t have time for us.
I try to keep my weekends free as possible so we can do things.