Covid pandemic gives mixed business results

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Nancy St. Germaine, owner of Raven Construction, has seen an increase in business during the pandemic. (Photo courtsey of Nancy St. Germaine.)

By Lee Egerstrom

A year after the death of George Floyd caused riots in Minneapolis and after the global COVID-19 pandemic shuttered businesses across the nation, two Native-owned construction related businesses in Minnesota show how economic turmoil can produce greatly mixed results.

For Raven Construction Inc., a Minneapolis-based design-build construction company, the past year produced great growth. For Mission Trucking in Duluth, a subcontractor primarily for the road construction industry, the task was just to keep on trucking.

Nancy St. Germaine, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa in North Dakota who grew up in Minneapolis, owns and operates the six-year-old Raven Construction commercial and residential builders firm.

“Our business has grown by 400 percent in the past year,” she said in an interview. Following that, she has just added a mechanical services sector to her construction business.

For Sue Roper, a member of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and owner-operator of Mission Trucking of Duluth, the past year was marked by coping with COVID requirements and restrictions on when and where road construction projects moved forward.

This slowed business enough so she put federal emergency Small Business Administration and Commerce Department programs to work to keep her nine employees and her trucks in motion.

Across the country, numerous business reports show that the coronavirus and related economic recession of the past year affected businesses and industries – large and small – in various and inconsistent ways. This is also true of the huge construction industry sector, often lumped together as engineering and construction companies, that is as diverse as the Raven and Mission enterprises.

In a comprehensive forecast for 2021, the Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited auditing and financial services firm, commonly referred to as Deloitte, sees a big bounce back coming for companies in these fields.

Projects were halted or delayed when the COVID-19 pandemic reached the U.S. a year ago. Deloitte analysts said related engineering and construction companies lost more than $60 billion in the U.S., idling 6.5 million workers last year in response to the pandemic.
St. Germaine’s path to progress is more complicated than getting COVID under control and riding an economic recovery.

“The George Floyd murder last year had a lot to do with it. People became more aware and wanted to help small, minority-owned businesses when they could. The (COVID-19) pandemic had people think that way too, but it mostly just changed where we do business.”

Growth over the past year came from the residential side of her business, St. Germaine said. The pandemic slowed commercial construction. People less affected by COVID strains on the economy, and others working from home, triggered a wave of residential construction during the past year.

That continues to this day. Raven Construction’s website notes that residential construction business is booked through summer 2021. The company is only taking price quote requests for projects that would begin in the fall.

The commercial side of the business, however, is a full service design and build firm that especially seeks to help small businesses and nonprofit organizations that, in turn, will help strengthen communities.

The recently added mechanical services unit is a logical and technological expansion for both commercial and residential construction. It brings in what industry calls HVAC services, or heating, ventilation and air conditioning, to make indoor environments more comfortable and healthy.

St. Germaine describes herself as a realtor, general contractor, wife, mother “and active community member in the Twin Cities.”

The latter involves work over the years with 826 MSP, the educational and art support group working with schools in the Twin Cities; CAPI, a coalition of church groups working with the diverse groups of refugees in Minnesota; and Pillsbury United Communities whose activities and enterprises also strive to build and sustain equitable communities.

She has also served as a consultant to Lake Street Council helping riot damaged businesses connect with minority-owned firms after the George Floyd death on May 25, 2020. And, she is the real estate director for the Creative Opportunity Zone that is helping revitalize part of the Midway area in St. Paul.

Keep on truckin
Roper, meanwhile, is in a sector that is influenced by Mother Nature and public budgets. It can get jostled by unpredictable, outside influences such as the coronavirus.

Her Mission Trucking company was incorporated in 2014. It has four dump trucks, a semi, plus trailers; and nine employees including the bookkeeper “who does what I don’t like to do.”

“I drive a truck myself,” she said.

Mission Trucking is primarily a subcontractor doing hauling for prime contractors building and repairing roads and highways. This work was impacted during the past year so she sought help through the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and a federal COVID relief loan program for small businesses.

It kept the employees, she said. “It kept us going.”

Roper was a trucker before starting her own business. She was always around trucks. Her husband, a farmer, and his dad, who had bread truck routes, always had trucks.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation, City of Duluth and St. Louis County kept up with road plans over the past year. But limitations were placed on how many hours you could work during the prime construction season, and no Saturday work was allowed during that time.

Coping with COVID did add more day-to-day work to keep trucks and truckers working in the region, she said.

Hoarders from out of the region stripped store shelves clean in many parts of Northeast Minnesota. Truckers had to be stocked in the cab for what they might need because they couldn’t stop and pick up items at local stores.

This was a complication for truckers and others working in the region, she said. “It really hurt people living up here, too.”

Other trucking firms in Northeast Minnesota had problems with drivers getting COVID, she knows. The firms all had to develop COVID safety plans. Social distancing wasn’t a problem because there is only one person in the truck. And outside, people on the ground usually work alone or can keep distances. But trucks and surfaces people touch had to be cleaned after every shift and use.

“We’ve never had such clean trucks,” she said.

Roper said she isn’t surprised that different companies in other industry sectors, such as Raven Construction, had totally different experiences during the past year.

“If you are home all day, every day, you see what work needs to be done. You want to make your home more comfortable and useful. You are there and can plan improvements, and you will be there if you call in workers. You aren’t leaving them in your house and going off to offices.”

With more people focused on their homes for both work and living, Roper is confident most of the construction sector will remain strong going forward.

Much road work is needed throughout the state, she said. But road construction has another influence that will influence work in the year ahead. That is weather, and the length of the prime construction season in the Duluth area.