e Vega Concrete was built with the tireless work and steady hands of Fidel Vega, a Marines veteran whose belief in the importance of hard work and collaboration helped his company grow from the ground up. De Vega Concrete now proudly services the Western Suburbs, and recently took part in Innovation DuPage’s Construction Industry Owner-to-CEO Business Accelerator, a program designed to support Hispanic, Black, female and veteran-owned businesses.
Fidel Vega recently sat down with ID to discuss how De Vega Concrete originated, what he has learned in his years as a business owner, and what he envisions as the next steps for his business.
I would recommend anyone looking at this field to go to school. You know, I'm a hard-working person, I am, but it’s hard work and the market is cutthroat. There's a lot of other hard-working people out there with no education who drive market prices down. Stop competing against them and separate yourself from them via marketing strategy, company structure and investing in equipment.”
Katie: Tell me a little bit about your company and what you do.
Fidel: We are a concrete construction company, and were established in 2004. I started off with one pickup truck just trying to make a living, and I was pretty good at it. One small job became two, three, four, five - the next thing you know, I had a company! Now we have a commercial space with six trucks and five machines. I have anywhere between 10-12 employees on average, but we’re trying to get a balance of things before we grow more.
We mainly do residential concrete, though it depends on the year. There have been years where I've done 80% commercial and 20% residential, and other years where it flip-flopped. This year is a residential year, so we're doing walkways, patios, driveways, parking lots, foundations, some site work, excavation and demolition of concrete.
We do good work, and our team is respectful and professional. So, our customers are happy, and we get a lot of referrals from word of mouth.
Yeah, so, I went from writing checks from the back of a pickup truck to having an office manager, estimators, and paying Uncle Sam a lot of money [laugh].
Katie: [laugh] I bet.
Fidel: Sometimes my office manager and I like to vent and say it was so easy back in the day, working out of our homes with no overhead. Now we have to deal with the workman's comp, all the required insurance, and 401k’s for everyone. Sometimes it seems like half of our revenue goes just towards paying that overhead.
But, you know, as long we keep moving slowly, look ahead, and are paying ourselves, then things will be alright.
Katie: You've been in the industry for quite some time, 25 years, so what has been one of the most important lessons you've learned from working in construction?
Fidel: Important lessons? Have lunch money [laugh]. No, one of the things that I pride myself on having done correctly from the start is outsourcing payroll. It just takes a lot of work off my hands and they make sure that the guys get paid.
Just hiring a company like ADP and Paychex is really one of the smartest moves I could have made, especially when you're dealing with a number of employees. All these people work hard and on Friday, they don’t care what your name is, they need a check otherwise they can’t go home.
Katie: What advice would you give someone who wants to follow the path that you've been on?
Fidel: I wouldn't recommend anybody follow my path [laugh]. It’s hard work. But I would recommend anyone looking at this field to go to school. You know, I'm a hard-working person, I am, but it’s hard work and the market is cutthroat. There's a lot of other hard-working people out there with no education who drive market prices down. Stop competing against them and separate yourself from them via marketing strategy, company structure and investing in equipment.
I’ve outgrown a lot of companies, and I only have an associate level of college education as well as vocational training and military training. But I think if I would’ve known more, things would be different. Particularly with the whole management side of things. I’m a great leader, but not a very good manager. I can get the job done, but I need to get out of the field in order to grow the business more. I've seen it. The types of people who make it in construction are the people who are white collar, college educated. They have all kinds of important communication skills like knowing how to write company memos, having the ability to network, and get out there and speak publicly. You know, these are all things where you have to talk. But a lot of people in construction close themselves off, limit themselves to just their job and don’t get any bigger. Those people who are educated, really anyone who really likes construction, can make it to the higher levels - so I would recommend going to school.
Katie: You've been part of the Marines I believe, correct?
The Marines taught me that anything and everything is possible. All these values, and everything I’ve learned from all levels of education and training, translate into how I approach my business and operations. I learned how to survive, for better or for worse.”
Katie: That’s amazing, thank you for your service. How have those past experiences prepared you for challenges that come your way in business?
Fidel: I’ve always been a hard worker, even before I joined the Marines. But they really taught me a lot of intangibles, a lot of my core values. My sense of leadership and can-do attitude, and my refusal to quit in spite of ups and downs. I learned to always keep moving forward. The Marines taught me that anything and everything is possible. All these values, and everything I’ve learned from all levels of education and training, translate into how I approach my business and operations. I learned how to survive, for better or for worse.
Katie: What would you say is the #1 key to success in your business?
Fidel: Drive and education. If you gather your information and you have the drive, you can pick the path of less restriction. If you’re a hard worker but don’t know where you’re going, you’ll get nowhere. You have to make a plan, and then execute the plan, on top of knowing how to research and gathering the right information. School is where you learn how to research and gather the right information, which is why education is the most important tool, in my opinion.
Katie: Tell me about a challenge you have faced while starting or running your company and how you overcame it.
Fidel: There've been so many different challenges, to be honest. One that we struggle with every day is cash flow. You know, I started from nothing, I didn't have money or anybody who could back me, so it was just little one job at a time, saving money, and then reinvesting it. I’ve been constantly reinvesting, to try and grow the company. In business, they force you to work with your own money. If you don’t have it, you’re not going to get very far. It takes money to make money, especially for commercial jobs. You have to provide labor, you have to provide materials, you have to provide a service. You don’t get your money for twenty to sixty days, so if you don’t have the money, you can’t proceed, and if you don’t have the guts to put yourself out there and take a risk, then people don’t get paid. You have to take the risk, dot your i’s, and cross your t’s, to make sure everyone goes home with a paycheck.
Katie: Looking out 3 to 5 years, beyond the obvious trends, what do you think will be the next big change in your industry?
Fidel: Innovation. When I first started in this industry, people all worked manually, even on places like the highways you used to see large groups of people all doing the work themselves. Now, machinery doing that work.The means and methods of construction now depend on technology. For example, in residential business, you can either break concrete manually or use a small machine. My means and methods of when and how to use technology are constantly improving, so that I’m able to pay the workers more for jobs, and they don’t have to tire themselves physically. This also reduces workman’s comp issues and keeps the customers happy because our prices remain market competitive. You have to keep up with innovation or you’re going to fall behind.
Katie: What drew you to taking part in the Innovation DuPage and HACIA Owner-to-CEO Program?
Fidel: I wanted to learn whatever it is that’s holding me back from taking the next big leap. The “aha!” moment, you know? If you don’t get it, you can’t move ahead. I want to have a profitable business so that I can contribute back to the community and I feel this training is what I needed to get me to the next level.
Find out more about Fidel and De Vega Concrete at DeVegaConcrete.com.