A step-by-step path to leadership at Perryman
The fast-growing Philadelphia construction company is planning a transition to the third generation.
How did a small African-American-owned homebuilder from Alabama end up as one of the leading construction companies in Philadelphia, Pa., whose projects have included major sites like the Pennsylvania Convention Center, the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts and Lincoln Financial Field, home of the NFL's Philadelphia Eagles?
Angelo R. Perryman, the second-generation president and CEO of Perryman Building and Construction Services, uses the mantra that originated with his father, Jimmie Lee Perryman Sr., to describe the secret of the company's success: "A quality job performed by quality people counts." But beyond the bricks and steel, his business achieved its status through a step-by-step process of education, perseverance and family involvement.
Perryman, 57, now is grooming his daughter, Angelina, to be his successor. The entrepreneurial firm lacks an independent board and a family council. There's also no requirement that family members work somewhere else before joining the family business. Nor was there any formal agreement stipulating that Angelo Perryman, rather than one of his brothers, would take over the business from their father, the founder.
To date, Perryman has prospered without these governance structures. A 2016 Fortune magazine of the fastest-growing "Inner City 100" companies reported that Perryman generated $21.36 million in annual revenues in 2015, with a five-year growth rate of 381%.
Angelo Perryman's grandfather, Nathan, worked as a bridge builder in Alabama. In those days, construction skills were handed down through generations of on-the-job training. Having a relative in the field was the only way you could get the job in the first place. Nathan's son, Jimmie Lee Perryman, was no exception as a young man in the 1950s; he learned construction from his father. During his Army service in the Korean conflict, Jimmie Lee added carpentry, plumbing and masonry to his bridge-building skills.
"Military construction always focuses first on things that allow soldiers to prepare for the next day's duties: a place to eat and have dry feet. Dad always used to say the biggest thing he loved was having dry feet," says Angelo Perryman.
After the war, Jimmie Lee returned to Alabama and the Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University), which had a veterans' facility for men of color. There, Jimmie Lee used the GI bill to study business, taking classes in bookkeeping, contracts, estimating and so forth. In 1961, Jimmie Lee leveraged all his experience to establish Perryman Building in Evergreen, Ala.
Building a career
Young Angelo began working at age 8 as a mortar tender for the masons at his father's company. He quickly learned how to mix the mortar to be the right texture. Soon he began doing some brickwork, with small bricks a child could handle.
"I wanted to impress the smartest person I knew: my father," he says. "If you had the skill, you were doing the skill; otherwise, you were a feeder. You learned from watching. They teach as you go. It's a perpetual mentorship: First it's, 'Go get this material.' Then, 'Go get something this long,' so you had to learn how to read a measuring tape, and so on. You didn't know you were being trained, but you were."
Angelo's two brothers, plus multiple cousins and most of the neighborhood, also worked at Perryman after school. "Family businesses were neighborhood businesses," Angelo Perryman says. "If someone knew how to paint, that's who you'd call. I know my dad could easily say five specialty trades spun off with his firm as general contractor." His mother, Bessie, sometimes helped load materials or finish a concrete job.
"Everyone in the family was involved in the business to different degrees," Perryman says. "It is the family unit that makes the business work, not the business that makes the family."
Ultimately, however, Angelo saw bigger horizons, so he left formal employment in the family business to expand his own career direction. But at Perryman, "leave" is a relative term.
"When you're in the family business, even if you're in different places, you're still family," Perryman says. "You still talk and share about what you're learning, so it's not like I left and never looked back. We've always been a close family."
Perryman, who saw opportunity beyond building houses and other small jobs, sought out bigger opportunities at other firms. His first stint outside the family business was at the Union Camp pulp and paper mill in Prattville, Ala., where he was given a laborer's job.
It only took a week before the foreman saw he had leadership skills. In that one week, Perryman says, he was promoted from laborer to assistant superintendent. "That was my claim to fame in ascending into big job management," he says. Like his father before him, he built on each skill, rising through the ranks to managerial jobs with construction firms in six states and on a variety of building projects, including an oil quenching system in Alaska, a federal engineering project in Idaho and a prison in Detroit.
The Detroit project led him to Philadelphia as part of a national search for firms to work on the Pennsylvania Convention Center. Only three firms nationwide had workers with the necessary skills; the Detroit firm was one.
Jimmie Lee Perryman had passed away in 1976. Angelo's brothers, Nathaniel Perryman and Jimmie L. Perryman Jr., kept things running in the company for a while, but the need for construction work in Alabama had dwindled. Both brothers pursued other careers—Nathaniel as a master electrician and Jimmie Lee Jr. as a nuclear engineer—while Angelo moved around the country working in construction.
"The succession plan from Dad was not documented. I don't know that anybody documented a whole lot," says Angelo Perryman. "The company was initially considered to be Perryman and Sons, but the name ended up Perryman Building and Construction."
Angelo Perryman re-established the family construction business in Philadelphia. His brothers remained involved in a paid advisory role. "Family members are advisers, so that would be considered our board," Perryman says. "As a part of the family business, you may not have shares, so to speak, in the legal sense, but you always have the business." Nathaniel, who recently passed away, stayed in Alabama; Jimmie Lee Jr. lives in Florida.
"Family business, in our vision, is that you always had a place if you needed a place to work; you always had a job," Angelo Perryman says. "You had to do the job, but you always had a place. You'd be hired for your acumen and we'd find a place for you, even if it's as a laborer." At present, however, only Angelo's two children, Angelina and Anthony, work at the company; no extended family member does.
Planning for transition
Angelo Perryman and his daughter, Angelina, the vice president of administration, are starting to work on the transition of leadership. Angelina's younger brother, Anthony, is assistant superintendent. Angelo is divorced from their mother, who is not part of the business.
In preparing to pass on the CEO title, Angelo Perryman relies on the same consensus-building model that defines his own management style: Focus on the solution. When he asks advice of his family or his non-family management team, Perryman says, they work through the problem together; he doesn't make a unilateral decision.
"It's not a family question as much as a talent question," Perryman says. "The business is now a mid-size firm, so our role is different than when we were smaller in the food chain of building. We need the right talent that can act on my behalf to build a client base, find the right suppliers and vendors, understand client expectations, verify quality and safety and so many more pieces now. The leader is not under one hard hat but many hard hats."
Angelina, who declines to reveal her age, is the heir apparent, but both she and her brother have ownership in the business. "It is my belief that one person cannot have full brain trust of the things it takes to run an operation that is growing," Angelo Perryman says. "They will need each other, even though they have different roles."
Angelina says she's had no conflicts with her brother over who has what role. "It adds to your skill set to know what the other is experiencing. It's fun to live vicariously through him and not have to go out there—and I'm sure he's happy to not have to come in here!" she says with a laugh. Any disputes are resolved the way Angelo taught them and still insists on: together, step by step, by focusing on the issue and the solution, not on who's boss.
"We're putting our best ideas out first, and if you have something to help, offer it; otherwise, this is our best plan," Angelo Perryman says. "We're an innovative firm, we've studied and been around so many big projects, we know where the problems are, and we pride ourselves on being builders, so we get it built."
Angelina Perryman acknowledges that construction—with its emphasis on practical, rather than formal, education—is a tough business for any young executive, and especially for a female.
"I don't know if it's because I'm a woman, but I have to know more," she says. "I have to read the contracts and be on my 'A' game all the time, and at the same time be creative. If they say 'no,' I have to figure out another way to get the answer."
Like many women in business, Angelina says she's learned how to negotiate, even with men who are condescending. She says the key to negotiating and resolving disagreements in a macho culture is to use reason and avoid getting emotional. Women can't simply adopt men's style, she says.
"Being strong doesn't get you the same result," she says. "They [men] yell and I yell back, and it doesn't have the same result. I want them to respond to what I'm saying first, not respond to me as a woman. I have to remember I'm not here to prove myself. My experience will speak for itself."
"I think that's one of the pluses of being in a family business," her father says. "Family members, no matter their gender, have had longer access and exposure to talent and are given a chance to execute for themselves."
Angelo has begun to scale back, letting Angelina and the management team handle issues they're capable of tackling.
"I don't know that there's a scenario where I go off into the sunset, but over time we will start reducing and reducing [my involvement]," Angelo says. His daughter either accompanies him to important meetings or is briefed on the discussions. "It should be a pretty seamless transition when the time comes for me to not be here 100%," he says.
"My kids were raised on the trust model," Angelo Perryman says. "It's crucial in the relationship. Working around me, they know we like to be as fair and correct and honest and forthright as possible. They have grown up with an understanding of expectations. My dad taught me in the step-by-step model, and I saw the results of it, so I've trained my kids in the step-by-step model. They have been incorporated to the degree they were interested in day-to-day. I don't create an environment where they're over-pressured."
Even so, Perryman says, pressure is part of the job. "You're going to have to do your homework and make sure people feel comfortable you're the right person," he says. "But the family business is big enough that if you don't want to be in one or another place, there's still room for you."
Angelina Perryman acknowledges that it's challenging to be not just a young female executive in the construction industry, but also a young black female executive. "I can't help perceptions," she says. "But once they get past that, they realize I know what I'm talking about, and it doesn't take very long once I get the chance to talk to them. My ultimate objective is that, if I'm doing my job well, I won't be looked at anything but someone who has a successful construction company. That's my end goal."
"At end of the day, it is about results," says Angelo Perryman. "Clients hire us as experts. It's legitimate for them to question our expertise, but once we get past the question of expertise, it's about delivery. As we transition to the next generation, my interest is that all those customers we work with leave with same impression: good firm, good people, good results."
Hedda T. Schupak is a a business writer based in the Philadelphia area.
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