Brian McKinney was a partner in a construction engineering firm in Houston when he first heard about an emerging opportunity in his native Detroit. A relative had seen a flyer promoting a minority contractor fair that would be taking place. McKinney flew back home to attend it.
“Even in an 85% majority black city like Detroit, African-American contractors were not able to scale and respond in the same way suburban white contractors were,” McKinney says. “That’s why city leaders decided to have this conference, to help push outreach and streamline the process. While attending that conference, a light bulb went off. I saw an opportunity to jump from the construction management side of the industry to the self-performing side. More specifically, I saw demolition as an avenue to make that jump.”
Detroit was still reeling from the effects of losing nearly two-thirds of its population over the past several decades. Significant urban blight had set in. The new mayor, Mike Duggan, wanted to do something about it. So did influential private sector leaders like Dan Gilbert, chairman of Quicken Loans. Before long, in 2014, millions of dollars in federal funding began pouring into the city.
“I did a quick data analysis and immediately saw that there simply weren’t enough contractors and workers to handle the demand that was being created,” McKinney says. “Even if the big national players based in Detroit got all the work they wanted, about 30% of the market would still be unfilled. My vision was to come to Detroit and get a small sliver of that 30%, and then build capacity from there.”
Starting slow, but growing fast
McKinney founded Gayanga Company in November 2016. The company was fully operational by September 2017. The surge of demolition work in Detroit was already well underway, but plenty was still available for Gayanga to quickly establish itself.
In the fourth quarter of 2017, Gayanga demolished 32 homes. At this time, Gayanga was renting its equipment. To put the company in a position to take on more work, McKinney knew Gayanga would need to own its own equipment fleet.
“It seemed crazy at the time, but we made the decision to buy equipment — even though we really didn’t have the work to support it,” McKinney says. “Fortunately, we were able to form a great relationship with an equipment dealer, Michigan CAT, that really believed in our vision. This helped us prove to new clients that we had what we needed to do the work. Not having enough equipment is what locked African-American contractors out of a lot of bid work. So I decided to basically bet on this huge opportunity for work. It was not easy, but this strategy ultimately prevailed and allowed us to grow.”
In 2018, Gayanga demolished 186 homes. In 2019, over 400 were demolished. Even last year (2020) with COVID, another 400-plus homes were demolished. McKinney’s “bet” had paid off.
Diversification doesn’t distract from demolition
As Gayanga Company has grown, it has also expanded its service capability. The company continues to provide full structural demolition, in addition to underground utility installation and repair, and excavation and site work. The company has even established a trucking division.
“Being a techy guy myself, I really admire Apple founder Steve Jobs,” says McKinney, who happens to have a background in software development. “I really admire Steve Jobs’ methodology around vertical integration and controlling your supply chain. This led us down the pathway of purchasing our own trucks and trailers. This allowed us to operate better with residential demolitions. With commercial sites, you’re just parking equipment or maybe processing scrap or concrete. In residential, it’s all about the movement of trucks to get the debris out and the dirt in.”
Gayanga’s trucking division includes a fleet of flatbed trailers to haul semitrailers, trains and wood boxes, not to mention equipment and site debris.
“We’ve been able to grow our trucking division to the point that we now have more trucks than any African American-owned company in Michigan,” McKinney points out. “This has allowed us to provide our demolition clients with a better service because we can control when we move debris and material. This has helped us to grow across our company.”
Another opportunity Gayanga is looking to capitalize on is the push to upgrade Detroit’s water infrastructure. President Biden has called for the elimination of lead lines across the country.
“We see this as the next huge growth opportunity with a lot of federal dollars coming in,” McKinney says. “We’ve positioned ourselves to be able to quickly respond to this type of work and be competitive.”
Even as Gayanga has diversified, demolition remains the driving force of its business. McKinney worked closely with Mayor Duggan to help ensure the passage of Proposal N, a bonding initiative approved by the voters in November 2020 to help secure $250 million of additional funding for the removal of urban blight.
“Proposal N, in addition to all of the federal COVID stimulus money that will be coming in, has created a half-billion-dollar opportunity in our market over the next five to seven years,” McKinney says. “Given that enormous opportunity, it doesn’t make sense for us to focus on anything but maximum capacity in our demolition division.”
Gayanga’s next five-year plan also includes more of a national aspiration. “We want to leverage the work we’re doing in Detroit to grow and scale our resources in a way that allows us to become a national MBE (minority business enterprise),” McKinney says. “Our ultimate goal is to start going after demolition work across the country.”
Unconventional recruiting unlocks untapped resource
With the kind of growth Gayanga Company continues to realize, staffing could become a challenge in coming years, if not months. McKinney’s approach to finding workers has been somewhat unconventional, at least when compared to industry norms. But it has been that unconventional approach that has allowed Gayanga to unlock the potential in untapped human resources.
The company name has an interesting back story. McKinney is a self-described history buff. One historical figure he holds great admiration for is Gaspar Yanga. Yanga was the leader of an escaped colony of enslaved Africans in Mexico during the 16th and 17th centuries. Yanga’s colony eventually obtained independent status within Mexico.
McKinney has viewed his role as a construction company owner in a somewhat similar light. Minorities in Detroit — particularly African-Americans and Hispanics — are significantly underrepresented in construction occupations. Several factors have played a hand in that reality, but a lack of focus and outreach remain at the top of the list.
McKinney has taken matters into his own hands. He has also placed a lot of responsibility into the hands of Sherrie Smith, Gayanga’s vocational program coordinator. Gayanga has developed a training school that places people in a pre-apprenticeship program to prepare them for a full union apprenticeship in the construction industry.
“We’d recognized that in Detroit, much like all around the country, school systems were telling young people that they either had to go to college or join the military,” McKinney says. “Now there is an infrastructure boom in America. That is creating a huge demand for skilled trades in construction, but there is no pipeline. So we at Gayanga have done a lot of outreach to explain to young people that there are great middle class-paying jobs in this industry. Some of these kids could even end up owning their own business someday.
“In order to build a diverse workforce, we need to be involved in high schools and even middle schools,” McKinney continues. “We need to create a visible pathway through pre-apprenticeship. So that’s what we have done. We get people to a certain skillset before they are in a full apprenticeship and expected to produce on a jobsite. Our pre-apprenticeship pairs people up with mentors on jobsites so they can develop these skills.”
Today roughly 85% of Gayanga’s employees live in Detroit, and 90% are African-American or Hispanic. “We’re proud of the fact that we have built a workforce that is representative of the community we serve,” McKinney says.
Join more than 50,000 industry peers who receive construction industry news and trends each week. Subscribe to CONEXPO-CON/AGG 365.