Q and A session with El paso Inc.
Elvis Presley’s “All Shook Up” was at the top of the charts when Joe Rosales started his own concrete business in El Paso 60 years ago.
Now known as JAR Construction, the company has 100 employees, $45 million in ongoing contracts with the state and $21.5 million in contracts with the city of El Paso. Their revenue since 2007 totals more than $250 million.
As Angelica Rosales, the company’s director of business development, puts it, JAR “has helped build El Paso into the city it is today, one sidewalk at a time.”
Their specialty for years was curbs, gutters and sidewalks – mundane features no one thinks about but every neighborhood needs. It was 1963 when the company won its first contract to install them for the city of El Paso.
Describing himself, Rosales said, “I had a little college and a pool-hall education.”
He was the first Mexican-American contractor in the state certified as a minority contractor to do work for the Texas Highway Department in 1969, which sent JAR crews to jobs in big cities and small towns around the state.
The list of the company’s customers has grown to include the New Mexico and Arizona highway departments, the Army Corps of Engineers, General Services Administration and International Boundary and Water Commission.
But making it wasn’t easy. There was discrimination to overcome in the early days and one Chapter 11 bankruptcy for JAR Concrete. Against the odds, Rosales said, he was able to put the company back on its feet and move on.
Like most successful businesspeople, he had friends and business allies along the way who helped him when he needed it with good advice and money.
He names a few that older El Pasoans would remember.
Rosales is a hale 80 now and stays busy helping the Opportunity Center for the Homeless, and he still gets called on by the company president, his son, to help out.
Community en Acción, a group of business and civic leaders who work to improve the lives of El Paso’s Latino community, recently awarded him the Legacy Award for his contributions to the community.
Rosales sat down with El Paso Inc. recently to talk about how he grew the company, why he had to change the original name and what attracted him to concrete in the first place.
Q: You started Joe A. Rosales Concrete, now known as JAR, 60 years ago. How did you get started?
My dad had a small construction company – small, you know, room additions. I asked him one day if I could get into the concrete crew pouring the slabs. He said yeah. I liked the smell of concrete during the wintertime. It’s like adobe. It has a certain smell. So that’s how I started.
Then I graduated from high school, and I went to college for a year. But it was hard to have a company and go to college, so I dropped out and continued my construction business.
Then I switched from doing slabs to curb and gutter work for commercial properties. It kicked off pretty well. I met some of the people I went to school with at El Paso High, like Mickey Schwartz, who were older but I knew their parents. They would call for little jobs here and there. They had a big part when I started.
Then we branched out to highway and airport work. I’d leave my house when the kids were asleep, and when I came home, my kids were asleep. But I was trying to raise a family, so I couldn’t stay home. I had to work.
Q: Were there many Mexican-American contractors around at the time? Did you encounter discrimination?
There were some Mexican-American companies, but they were doing smaller residential jobs. I had my eyes set on bigger jobs. When I went into highway work in the late ’60s, you had to be registered to do it. I was the first minority from El Paso and the whole state of Texas to be certified as a minority contractor.
Q: Was that something new?
Yes. At that time the highway department was putting, like, 5 percent of the total contracts aside. So if it was a $10 million contract, they would have a 5 percent set-aside for minorities. But they didn’t have many minorities. So I would take a bulk of the action, and they would give me maybe 10 percent because there were no other certified minority contractors in El Paso.
Q: Were there people who supported and advised you in your early days?
Yes. Mr. Jim Shelton, who owned El Paso Sand, Cashway and the GMC trucking company. And there was Jack Guynes who used to have Guynes Printing. They were a big factor in my life financially.
Q: Were there hard times for you and the company as well?
Oh, yeah. The beginning was hard. I started out as Joe A. Rosales Cement Co., but there was a certain amount of discrimination. I went one day to pick up some plans for a job. I got there, and the guy asks my name and when I told him, he said, “You know what, we just gave the job out.”
I said, “But you just called me.” I walked out and here comes a competitor of mine. When he came out, I asked him when they called him for this job and he said, “This morning, why?” So right then and there I said to hell with it, I’ll take Joe A. Rosales out and call the company JAR. That was between 1965 and ’70.
Q: Were there other instances before that?
There were a couple of instances. The first and second, I blew them off. But the third one was a big job. I thought “I won’t say anything about it. I won’t protest. I’ll just change the name of the company and do my thing” – and it worked.
Q: Would you say there are still any discrimination issues in El Paso?
I think there will always be something underneath the table. But I’m just going to do my thing and let my reputation speak for itself. It’s not as bad as it was, no.
Q: And it doesn’t sound like it was really bad.
No, it wasn’t.
Q: There’s a lot of work out there today, what with city and school projects as well as private development.
There’s a lot of work. I’ve never seen anything like this in my life.
Q: Your son, Joseph, joined the company in 1986 and is now running things. How are things with the company today?
Joey has taken the company to a higher level, doing more work. We did $10 million to maybe $15 million a year, but Joey’s doing over $40 million a year.
Q: Well, $10 million to $15 million was pretty good.
It was, but I worked, like, 15 hours a day.
Q: Was it highway work?
It was commercial warehouses, tilt-up panels and a little bit of highway work, curbing, walk and flat work.
Q: You were recently honored by Community en Acción for your contributions to the community as a Latino business owner. What advice do you have for young Latino entrepreneurs?
First of all, I tell them to get an education. The second is to pursue their goals or dreams, and don’t stop. You’ll hit bumps in the road and hurtles, but you have to overcome them. No one’s going to hand you a bag of money and say, “Here, have at it.” You’ve got to work for it. Believe me, when you work for it, it tastes better. It has a different meaning. I never expected a handout.
We were 10 in the family, but my dad never in his life collected Social Security or unemployment. He was in construction, and when the bad times came, like in October and November, the big companies like Robert McKee, J.E. Morgan and two or three other big companies would close their business, close the year and get ready for the coming year.
But my dad would have a bunch of little baskets, put them in the back of his pick-up and me and my brothers would jump in the back, and we would start at Mesa and Rio Grande and go all the way down to Piedras, cleaning yards for people. By the time we got there, my dad would have $45 or $50 bucks and would go buy eggs, a whole box of eggs, 25 dozen for $2.50.
So he knew where to buy this or that, but he never collected Social Security. He told us, “I never want you guys to depend on the government to give you anything.”
Q: Who were some of the big El Paso construction companies in those days?
One of them was J.D. Abrams. I couldn’t really compete with the size of the jobs that they did, but they would give me a certain amount of work so they could comply with the law about minority contracts. They have moved to Austin, but they’re still doing work here.
There was J.E. Morgan. They built one of the bridges from here to Mexico. Then there was Charlie Leavell. He was about the third biggest contractor in the country. They did a lot of work for the Corps of Engineers at White Sands and Fort Bliss.
McKee would get contracts for $30 million, $40 million or $50 million, which was a lot of money at that time. You had a lot of big companies here that did great. Then there’s the Urban Contractors, but they were a spin-off of Robert E. McKee.
Q: What about Jack Vowell Construction?
They did a lot of paving, curb and gutter and walks like us. He used to sub a lot of work out to me. Jack Vowell called me in once and said, “Hey young man, how would you like to work for me?” I gave him the respect of saying I would think about it, but I called him the next day and turned it down.”
Q: Has El Paso come a long way?
Yes. It has come a long, long ways. It’s amazing the way this town has taken off.
Q: What’s the most valuable lesson you learned during your years in business?
To pay attention to people when they talk. I was among the best, people like Jim Shelton, Bob Guynes, Mickey Schwartz and Chuck Foster. Also Leavell, who had a company called Texas Homes, and a guy Harry Buckley, who ran the whole show for them. I would go out there to collect a check, and they would tell me to sit and wait. I would just listen to how they did business.
Q: You turned 80 in June, so I assume you’re retired now. But did you stay retired?
No. I’ve got properties that I oversee. Then my wife and I bought a building for a homeless shelter because we had a homeless son, and my wife always wanted to do something for the guy on the street because she thought of her son. So we bought a shelter, and we gave it to the Opportunity Center. I help them pick up food and clothing – one or two trips a week – and that keeps me a little busy. We’ve got eight or nine families in there now.
And, right now, I’m working part-time for my son.
Q: I’ve heard you came back not long ago and asked for a job description. Would you tell me about that?
My son has a job, and the quality of the workmanship isn’t coming out right and he asked me to go out there and take care of it. Before I went, my daughter had a job description that I was going to do quality control – do this and do that and oversee production and get it going.
I said, “Hey, mija, we have to negotiate this price.” But I’m there automatically, and I can oversee production and other things. So I’m helping them for a few months. I’m healthy enough to do it.