New Birmingham construction company Pylon aims to open opportunities

Pylon Building Group hopes to help minority contractors get more work

Reggie Torbor leads the new Pylon Building Group.

You see it in most large and mid-size cities. Hard-hatted construction workers operating cranes, excavators, bulldozers, asphalt pavers and other equipment, raising new high-rises, hospitals wings, stadiums, schools and multi-family housing units.

And most of those projects cost millions of dollars.

But statistics show that minorities, and African Americans in particular, are underrepresented in the construction industry these days. In fact, a 2020 report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that African Americans make up just 5.1% of the construction workforce even though they are 12% of the U.S. population. In contrast, non-Hispanic whites make up just over 60% of the construction workers, followed by Hispanics at 30%.

And news headlines around the nation about African American contractors’ frustration with the lack of inclusion in the construction industry are many.

To help, one white-owned firm, Brasfield & Gorrie — the largest contractor in the Southeast, capturing $5.9 billion in contracts in 2022 — has created the Pylon Building Group.

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Launched in January 2023, the Pylon Building Group is a general contractor and wholly owned subsidiary of Brasfield & Gorrie that aims to help address inequities in the construction industry, and it has hired former Auburn football star Reggie Torbor to lead the venture.

Pylon’s specific goal is to create more job opportunities for minority contractors in the construction industry, he says.

“At the end of the day, people do business with people in their circle and who they like. I’m not saying that it’s right or wrong. I’m just saying that a lot of times that can happen. You don’t even realize that you’ve created this very small circle of people who have access,” Torbor says. 

“If you’re outside of that circle, you can work hard and study and do all the things that you want, but breaking into that circle will be very difficult. This is a way to create another circle,” he says.

But Torbor makes it clear that the Pylon Building Group is not a Minority Business Enterprise.

To earn the classification of an MBE, a company must be 51% owned, controlled and capitalized by a minority group; the minority group must be U.S. citizens and they must be the ones responsible for the management and daily operations of the company.

“We’re not doing work that is set aside for that classification, nor have we tried to pursue it,” he says.

“We’re a general contractor, so we secure contracts with owners. We manage that project. We have some parts that we’ll perform on our own like some carpentry work. And like most general contractors do, we will then hire subcontractors from specific trades like mechanical, electrical and plumbing,” Torbor says.

“We’re really intentional about hiring, and not just hiring, but building relationships with minority contractors,” he says.

Currently, Pylon has five full-time employees — one external hire and four others who previously worked at Brasfield & Gorrie, Torbor says. “That was intentional because we needed to have people who knew the systems, were sharp and could hit the ground running,” he says.

“We didn’t have time to onboard and start with four or five people who had never worked together, didn’t know each other and try to build a company. It would just drastically slow down our progress,” Torbor says.

But Pylon is now hiring, he says.

And, he says that having the backing of Brasfield & Gorrie has advantages when it comes to launching a startup like Pylon.

Pylon was just the latest effort in a string of programs at Brasfield & Gorrie promoting inclusive leadership, supplier and trade contractor opportunities and hiring programs.

But Torbor says he and others at Brasfield & Gorrie at first struggled to come up with a plan for building a separate company that would emphasize diversity.

“One thing that we wanted to do was start something from the beginning along with what we’re doing internally,” Torbor says.

“We looked at several different ways of how we would create it and how we would launch it and we kept running into problems. Startups have lots of problems. A lot of startups don’t make it.

“A construction startup is even more risky than a startup in another industry. There’s a lot of barriers to getting licenses. There are barriers to getting bonding and raising capital and hiring talent and getting resources from the operations standpoint, but also from a support standpoint, accounting, legal, payroll.”

They finally settled on creating a wholly owned subsidiary, Torbor says.

“The reason we’re doing that is we’re under the umbrella of Brasfield & Gorie. We can use their licensing; we can use their ability to bond. We can use capital. We can use their resources like their attorney and payroll.

“We can do that and operate and get work and execute work and build a resume for the next two to three years,” he says.

 Simply put, Torbor says they wanted to create what will become in the next few years a minority-owned, diverse company able to reach out and give opportunities to groups that would normally be shut out of opportunities in the industry.

“We believe this is something we can do in two to four years,” he says. “And I understand that is a big gap, but this is something that none of us has ever done before. There isn’t really a case study that we could find of a company ever doing something like this before.

“We put that two-to-four-year window on it to give us some time to figure it out and make sure that there’s a strong, viable company that can go off on its own and not launch it too fast and fall on its face.”

Pylon currently has several projects going, Torbor says, including work to construct a restaurant on the campus of the Red Mountain Theatre in Birmingham and a demolition job for another client on Fifth Avenue South.

“We’re currently hiring superintendents, project managers and pre-con estimators, the three things that any construction company is looking for right now. So, we’re not unique in that regard. But we’re definitely hiring,” he says.

Torbor began his career at Brasfield & Gorrie in 2018 as a personal development coach for the employees. The job, he says, was like being a career coach.

“It comes from the belief that the greatest thing they can do is support and invest in our people,” Torbor says.

A native of Baton Rouge, Torbor played defensive end at Auburn University before going on to play in the NFL for the New York Giants, the Buffalo Bills and the Miami Dolphins.

After eight years in the NFL, Torbor left the game in 2012. He decided to move back to Alabama and thought Birmingham was a good place to settle down and figure out his next step. He soon settled on public speaking.

“When you play sports professionally, it opens doors for you and people give you a platform, and they’ll let you come in and speak and that continued happening,” he says.

Torbor says his experience receiving coaching and mentoring from others helped him transition into his role as a personal development manager.

“I was able to build a high level of relational capital and trust with the people. I and other people in my group were known internally as a safe place to go where you could bounce ideas off someone or get direction or instruction,” he says.

In the end, Torbor says he envisions the Pylon Building Group as growing a new generation of professionals in the construction industry.

To keep the team motivated, Torbor says he developed a mantra.

“The thing that we all talk about is that we’re building something special. On the hard days, we’re building something special.

“It’s a small team. But every single person here is invested in building something special. That is the main draw for the people in this building, and I believe it’ll be the draw for the people to come.”

Gail Allyn Short is a Birmingham-based freelance contributor to Business Alabama.

This article appears in the September 2023 issue of Business Alabama.

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