Neighbors: THOR Companies makes a giant investment in the place Richard Copeland calls home
[Editor's note: the print version of this story inaccurately stated that THOR is the contractor for the new Estes Funeral Home in North Minneapolis. It is not. The interview below has also been lightly edited for greater accuracy.]
By Cirien Sadeeh | Photos by David Pierini
Richard Copeland, the founder and chairman of the largest minority-owned construction company in the state – THOR Companies – was born in the Sumner-Olson housing projects in North Minneapolis, just blocks from his company’s nearly completed multi-million dollar headquarters at the Penn and Plymouth Ave. N intersection.
Over the past 39 years, Copeland has steadily grown his business. In his first year, his annual volume was $80,000; THOR now makes that amount in five minutes. Copeland credits much of the company’s growth and success to its CEO Ravi Norman’s ambition.
In addition to their own $36 million headquarters being built on Penn and Plymouth, THOR helped build the Minneapolis Urban League across the street. Their own headquarters will be the home to six black CEOs. At the same time, THOR is one of the major developers working with the City of Minneapolis and the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board on the potential redevelopment of the Upper Harbor Terminal. Across the country in Las Vegas, THOR is working on their biggest contract ever, a $105 million build of an MGM Grand Convention Center on the Strip.
This month Copeland sat down with North News to discuss his decades-long career in construction and his hopes for THOR’s presence in North Minneapolis.
How do you define success? I define success by your ability to help others. We have to have resources to help others. I’ve had resources to help others achieve their dreams which helps me achieve mine.
How do you define failure? I’ve spend a lot of my time focusing on my failures and the organization’s failures rather than taking the time to celebrate all of the successes I’ve had and we’ve had as a company. Failure is something I face and run from every day. That’s what has driven me to be successful – fear of failure.
What legacy would you like to leave your community? Leave it a better place than I found it. The community has its ebbs and flows. We have successes and failures, but the struggle continues. From when I first started, some of the same problems that confront the community still do. We gain ground, and then we lose ground. It’s like it’s static. I want to leave the community a better place and the city in a better place because of my influence in it and on it.
How did you come up with the name THOR for your company? I went to do an estimate and the people were surprised to see me coming through the door. They thought they were going to see a Norwegian guy. We were talking, and we were laughing, like “you should name the company THOR and surprise everybody when you show up.” The next morning, I got up and saw that the guys had wrote in spray paint THOR on the side of my pickup truck. It stuck. I guess I get the last laugh.
What challenges have you experienced running a significant minority owned company in a field that is predominantly white? How much time you got? I’ve seen and faced it all. I’ve been blacklisted. People have tried to put me out of business many times. You have to keep your head down and stay vigilant, because there are forces at work that don’t want to see you be successful on both sides of the community – majority community and minority community. I’ve grown a lot. I’ve learned a lot. And things I had to do to get where I’ve gotten are things I would never do any more. When you’re up to your ass in alligators and you work all day and do marketing and billing at night...it’s cost me a couple marriages. But staying vigilant and having that ability to get back up when you’re knocked down is probably one of my greatest strengths. I’m used to getting knocked down, but I always get back up. It just makes me more determined to fight the good fight.
What do you want THOR’s relationship with the Northside to be? I want to have a positive impact on the Northside. I live on the Northside. We are actively engaging businesses to try and get them to move to the Northside. We want to be the first catalyst of this economic engine that’s
going to drive the revitalization of this community.
Why build at this intersection of Penn and Plymouth? This is where the riots were – both my brothers went to jail. Black people couldn’t buy gasoline at the gas station. This was a thriving Jewish community at that time. Then they built the McDonald’s right where we are. Then I built the Urban League across the street. It was one of my first big projects, I don’t know how long ago it was but a long time ago. This corner had the land available. It has visibility and proximity to downtown which made it very attractive to us. Plus, I can walk to work.
Do you foresee any challenges being here at this intersection? We’re filling a large void in this community. The challenges that we’re going to face on this corner are unknown to us now. We’re not here yet. Ask me in a year.
What are your hopes for the intersection? My hope for the intersection is to be a beacon of hope for the entire community, not just the Northside. Revitalizing this community and making the Northside vibrant with tax paying residents helps our entire community. We’re only as good as our weakest link. And so our hope is to strengthen this part of the community in an overall effort to help the entire community.
How will your headquarters help that weakest link? Like I said, it’s a beacon of hope, and it’s the first of many businesses that will relocate to this community. We’re one of the developers on Upper Harbor, which is 48 acres on the river on the Northside. Between this property and that one there are a lot of vacant spaces. We see that as an opportunity – as an asset, not a liability. And we are going to try to drive more economics to this part of the community. And this land here on the corner is the beacon that is going to draw people to the Northside.
Many folks in this community fear the possibility of gentrification. What are your thoughts on that? It takes integration. A community shouldn’t be strictly made up of one ethnic group or two ethnic groups. The thought behind Heritage Park – it’s the largest economically integrated community in the entire state of Minnesota. With that economic integration comes cultural and racial integration. So I think it’s a positive thing, but People shouldn’t be pushed out of a community; others should be invited in as well as creating inclusive opportunities for people already in that community to be a part of.
What reactions are you getting from community now that your building is here? Can you hurry up and finish so we can get some peace and quiet over here? Those are the kinds of calls we get. It’s a real aggressive effort. We made a lot of noise building this building. We’re hoping to get this done and get the flow of people and commerce moving again.
What is your favorite part of the new building? The community room. We’ll have a stretching machine and a ping pong table and couches and a square where people can get in and huddle down. I’m excited about having an office with a view.
What advice do you have for young Northside entrepreneurs who are trying to get their own idea or businesses off the ground? I built my business organically. I drove the truck; I shoveled the dirt; I hammered the nail. And I did it just by taking in more money on average than I spent. I got back up when I was knocked down. I seized opportunities. I would say to a young entrepreneur — take baby steps so that when you fall over, you’re not going so fast that you kill yourself. Accumulate over time and be patient and kind to yourself. Understand that you’ll take two steps forward and sometimes you’ll have to take three steps back. But over all, over time, you can accumulate wealth and responsibility. And, be generous with folks.
What is one moment in your career that you would do over again? I used to have a real fiery temper. I would stick my foot in my mouth. I've made enemies. To this day there are general contractors in this town who swear they’d never work with me, who talk about me, and bad mouth me. One of the diversity directors for one of the biggest construction companies in town told me, “our company has a diversity initiative and a diversity officer because of you. Our owners hate you, but we’re a better company because of you.” So I’ve had that kind of impact, and I’ve taken a lot of shots in the back of the head for things I’ve said and the aggressive attitude I’ve taken. When you are growing a business you make a lot of mistakes and so cutting your teeth and bouncing back from your mistakes, there’s a lot of fallout. And when I make a mistake, it’s big and by that I mean it’s blown out of proportion. Having made those mistakes, having started with $200, there’s a lot of bodies along the way.
How do you want this space to transform your company? We’ve been in Class C office space my whole life. We worked out of my house to start. We’ve never had that polished image of a successful company. Now we’re moving into Class A space in the heart of the community. That says a lot about us, about the community, about the city. The county has been phenomenal in getting us to this point. Target has been phenomenal. We do work for Target, and Target is a lease holder in this space. So many people have leaned in to make this possible. On our side, Ravi Norman, the CEO of THOR Companies, has done things and taken us to places I never could have. So I try to give some guidance; no one listens to me anymore, but I’m here for the ride. I work on the business, but mainly I work in the business.
Favorite career moment so far? I can’t isolate one. The groundbreaking here. The groundbreaking on the Xcel Energy arena with Mortensen. Winning five bids in one day. Being the first minority company to ever build a structure on the Las Vegas Strip, a $25 million sales center, and being the first minority company to have an unlimited license in Nevada. To have touched and had my hand on every sports facility in this community. The milestones are endless. I couldn’t possibly have a favorite moment in the business.
What is your favorite building? This is my favorite structure we’ve ever built. But probably one of my favorite projects; we were the contractor on the largest hotel remodel job in the history of the world. We remodeled 5000 rooms in 50 weeks at MGM Grand. It was 100 rooms a week and the logistics of that to make that project operation was a feat. I never saw it coming or thought we’d figure it out but we did, and we came in $5 million under budget. I mean right now our company does as much volume in 5 minutes as we I did in my whole first year in business.
Who do you admire in this community? I’m not the smartest guy in the world. I’m not the greatest business man or contractor, but what I have been an open vessel for people to lean in on for people to create this amazing company. It’s really been a product of the environment not a product of my work.