n partnership with the Hispanic American Construction Industry Association (HACIA), Innovation DuPage (ID) launched the Construction Industry Owner-to-CEO Business Accelerator, a program designed to support Hispanic, Black, female and veteran-owned businesses.
In the coming weeks, we will be sharing the inspirational stories of the accelerator’s inaugural class.
Today we are profiling Mario Diaz, President and CEO of Reef Contractors. A self-described lifelong learner, Mario had successful careers in both medicine and healthcare administration before launching his general contracting company.
For me, this is the best job in the world! I find joy in every area of contracting for different reasons."
Katie: Tell me a little bit about your company and what you do.
Mario: I am in the contracting business, we do government bidding with 50% of our work being government, 40% commercial and 10% being residential work. We also do historical preservation, plumbing, electrical and fire safety systems.
My company is a Chicagoland area Minority-Owned, DBE, IDOT, registered SBA small business enterprise, that’s 90-95% Hispanic.
Katie: You made a big transition from healthcare to construction. Can you tell us a little bit about that experience and what skills you found helpful in your transition?
Mario: I was born in Honduras and studied medicine. Later I specialized in forensic science in my native country. After moving to the US, I completed the American licensing program and worked in family medicine for 2 years. I did not feel inspired nor fulfilled by family medicine. I felt constrained in my role since I prefer to try alternative methods before prescribing medicine. It was clearly not the right fit for me.
I turned to the administrative part of healthcare and attended Benedictine University in 2012. In 2014, I had my “midlife crisis” so my brother introduced me to the real estate industry. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. I learned by watching YouTube videos, talking to architects, and joining the United States Minority Contractors Association. The organization helped me find and learn the tools of the trade. I became educated about financials, the bidding process and making connections. I am very happy with where I am in my career today.
Katie: What advice would you give to someone who wants to follow your path?
Mario: I’m hesitant to use the word ‘advice’ because I consider myself a lifetime learner.
The most important thing a contractor needs to know is that they must strive to get as much information about the industry as possible. They must know that general contracting is a part of the service industry. It is a fruitful and fulfilling career, but they must be willing to identify target markets, services, etc.
Katie: What are the most challenging aspects of owning a business? Most rewarding?
Mario: Financial management is the most challenging part of my job. Within the industry, it is standard to do a lot of work before anybody sees a dime. You run the risk of running out of money or not able to complete the job.
On the other hand, it is very fulfilling. I’m a little bit of a romantic about this, but the monetary reward is good. The job pays well, and it’s great to hear a client say “thank you so much, it's been a pleasure working with you.” It’s great starting with an empty canvas and then at the end seeing the final project.
I consider myself a lifetime learner. The most important thing a contractor needs to know is that they must strive to get as much information about the industry as possible ."
Katie: What has been your favorite project you’ve worked on?
Mario: A recent project we completed has been my favorite: Lake Forest Fire Station. We renovated the locker room, bathrooms, two offices and the day room.This project was meaningful because we started working on it during the pandemic. These are our first responders that are on the front lines. We faced challenges due to COVID-19 with getting products on time and fitting pieces in the space, but it came together nicely.
Katie: How has your business been impacted by the pandemic?
Mario: Our suppliers didn't allow us to go to stores to see the products before ordering. We had lots of returns and getting paid on time became difficult.
Katie: What keeps you going when things get tough in your business?
Mario: For me, this is the best job in the world!
I find joy in every area of contracting for different reasons. The bidding process gives me that rush of competing and winning. I love team meals, reviewing plans, scheduling, reviewing financials, and working with my wife - she’s a key member of the team.
All of it is an endurance test. When it's been a tough day, I try to leave the day behind, clean myself off, talk to my wife and tell myself ‘let's get that fixed tomorrow and get recharged’.
Katie: What are you most looking forward to about taking part in Innovation DuPage and HACIA's Owner-to-CEO Program?
Mario: The business is growing steadily even during COVID-19, and I’ve noticed that I don’t have any time left to manage. I’m super busy. I want to learn how a company transforms into a self sufficient organization from its humble beginnings. I need the skills to learn more about how to grow the company in a way that I can remove myself from the superintendent role. I want to keep my team inspired, safe and a tight-knit family.