BuildNOLA Profile: Deborah Heinville and Robert Thornton, Thornville Services
Robert Thornton, who started in the construction industry some 40 years ago, is now in partnership with Deborah Heinville at the firm whose name combines their surnames. They set up the business in 2014, making their first sales in 2015 and enjoying what Thornton called “modest growth,” thanks to a City contract for cemetery maintenance, which was renewed for a second year.
“We grew one job at a time,” Thornton observed. They met the BuildNOLA coordinator last year and decided to attend the training, because “our own experiences are never enough.” At that time, Thornville was continuing to bid on projects and to grow modestly – “maybe $150,000 in sales and an equal amount of contracts,” Thornton said.
After utilizing the skills learned at BuildNOLA, the company has grown further and faster by staying close to the program and its staff, who have become mentors. Thornville employees have taken the training, too; and Robert and Deborah have learned about new business opportunities from program staff.
Last November, Thornville submitted a winning bid on a Louisiana-U.S. Department of Labor project involving supervision of workers dislocated by the August 2016 flood that devastated Baton Rouge and beyond.
The resulting 2,080 hours of work, which Thornville is carrying out in two locations over a three- to four-month period, consists of training and supervising workers who are doing general laborer work such as cleaning up a state highway. “We are providing basic skills training – some workers had never before used a weed-eater – as well as workplace readiness training on how to get a job and keep it,” Thornton said. “So far our workers have completed 27 separate tasks in the Baton Rouge area and have begun work in Ascension Parish.”
Meanwhile, Thornville is still bidding on new projects, including one to rebuild and remodel a city park.
Hiring Local – a Personal Goal
While the public contracts have not required companies to hire local workers, Thornton said his company’s policy has always been to do so, because he and Heinville “understand the benefits. For example, it’s easier to get to work if you live down the street! Also, we are a small, minority-owned business ourselves. We know what it’s like to be disadvantaged. We’re all from the same neighborhood.”
He continued, “Another benefit is the positive effect on the job if people come from the neighborhood. Residents get tired of seeing people coming in from elsewhere, but if the workers are local, they are less likely to complain and are even encouraging about a project” that may disrupt their streets for a time.
Thornton also brings creativity and flexibility to his employer role. For example, when he got a job with Southern University at New Orleans – a historically Black University – he went to the engineering department in search of applicants for summer jobs. “We got about a half-dozen senior engineering student applications,” he said. Rather than hire only one, he said, “We picked three of them and staggered their work assignments” to allow more students to get their first jobs as engineers.
This also meshed with his approach of keeping workers close to the work – “Why work on campus and not hire students?” he asks rhetorically.
Thornville has a new contract that does require meeting local hiring goals, “and we know what to do,” Thornton says. “We will train neighborhood people who have no prior experience and pay them living wages.” He adds, “It’s almost like having a security guard in place – no one will vandalize or steal equipment from the place they or their neighbors work.”
He continues, “We know that if we have success, it leads to the growth of our company. And we understand the limitations of our employees, and we can work with them. My mother was a single parent,” he says. “It took extra for her to get to work.”
Better Than the City's Minimum Wage
As an example he mentions one employee, a mother of four, who needs a good-paying job to care for her family. She is earning $18-$20 an hour – considerably more than the city’s $10.55 an hour minimum wage applicable to companies with “significant” city contracts – to clean trash off the interstate through a Louisiana Workforce Commission program funded by the U.S. Department of Labor aimed at helping dislocated workers, in this case from the Baton Rouge flood.
Thornton says that this worker has demonstrated, with her regular attendance, that she can overcome obstacles, assisted by his worker-friendly policies. He allows her to start work at 8 am instead of 7, so she can get her kids to school, and “she has never missed a day of work, other than an excused day,” he says.
By being flexible, he adds, “We have a lot of success, while setting standards up front. When we started this project we knew it shouldn’t work like a traditional project where you might discipline people or let people go. I made a decision that I wouldn’t do that with these workers, which is an unusual approach in this part of the country. But I do hold them to an accountability standard.” He adds that when he had to let one worker go, it was due to a domestic – not job-related – situation.