Inside Little Haiti

Page 7 of 11

If the truest, most nourishing American narrative is the rags-to-riches tale, then I could hardly hope to meet a more exemplary protagonist than Jacque Evens Thermilus, 34, the founder and president of Urban Constructors, Inc., a Haitian-born workaholic who is, in his own words, "nothing come to something," Horatio Alger uplinking with the 21st Century.

Like many of the more solidly established Haitians in South Florida, Thermilus and his family resettled in Miami via New York, where they had lived in Brooklyn's Park Slope A at that time a slum; "rugged, terrible, a mess," Thermilus remembers A since the early Sixties. Thermilus was fifteen when the family relocated, and he enrolled at Miami's Central High.

"That was sort of a nightmare," he recalled, sitting behind his pool-table-size desk in Urban Constructors' high-tech offices on North Miami Avenue near 41st Street, where the design district begins to open out into Little Haiti. "One of the hardest things for Haitians is people knowing that you're Haitian. In high school, they used to pick at me all the time, kids that don't even know you, just because you're from a different country."

Thermilus was not the first immigrant to be motivated by the ridicule and taunts he suffered to prove himself. While studying accounting at Miami-Dade Community College, he supported himself as an unskilled laborer, shoveling dirt for the Edward J. Gerrits construction company, one of Miami's major builders. A German carpenter (who now works for Thermilus, by the way) encouraged the youth to join his union and become an apprentice. Three and a half years later Gerrits promoted Thermilus to assistant superintendent, then assistant project manager, and finally project manager, entrusting him with responsibilities that belied his age. "Then one year I said, 'Let me try it,'" Thermilus told me, pausing to laugh. "It didn't work that easy. It took about eight years before I learned the trade, the secrets of construction."

At 24, naive but incorrigibly ambitious, Thermilus started his own construction company A Evens Cosmic Builders. It failed. Two years later he tried again, but was thwarted by the unwillingness of local banks to lend to minorities, and by an industrywide perception that black companies didn't perform. (Most Haitian businessmen in Miami are self-employed, operating or owning modest enterprises A corner grocery stores, beauty salons, auto repair shops. Two-thirds of Little Haiti's 200 or so businesses grossed less than $25,000 annually, according to a 1985 survey conducted by FIU's Alex Stepick. The lack of investment capital has been constant, and today the community is limping along under the ongoing strain of the trade embargo A which not only paralyzed the import-export commerce, but required immigrants to send ever more money to relatives back in Haiti A the recession, the obligation to absorb the Guantanamo refugees, the agricultural jobs lost to the hurricane, the competition among semiskilled workers, and approximately 25 percent unemployment.)

After being rejected by several banks, Thermilus finally secured a $100,000 line of credit, and when he took out a $50,000 mortgage on his home to start Urban Constructors in 1988, he sent a white vice president out front to bid on contracts. The ploy worked, said Thermilus. "We wanted to go on our own merits, but that's not how it works." By the time clients learned the firm was black-owned, it was too late, and business rolled in, first private work and then, as the company's reputation for on-schedule quality spread, behemoth public-sector projects landed on his desk A the $3.9 million trauma center for Jackson Memorial Hospital, an $18 million project with the Dade County School Board. In 1991 Thermilus signed a $16 million joint-venture contract with Gerrits, his former employer, to construct a new runway at Miami International Airport. The terms of the partnership commit it to helping other minority businesses get a break, subcontracting work to smaller, black-owned firms, leveraging them into the system. By the end of the year, Thermilus's obsession with providing people with first chances had become well known throughout the financial community, and the Miami-Dade Chamber of Commerce named Urban Constructors its Small Business of the Year. Since then he's probably lost his eligibility for the award. Last year Thermilus opened new offices in Atlanta, Orlando, and Philadelphia; this year he expected his work force A Haitians, African-Americans, Cubans and other Latins, Anglos A to double to 200.

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Bob Shacochis