Thursday, April 5, 2018

By Jim Forbes for The Bulletin

It has been thirty-eight years since Melvin Whittington left the world he knew in rural Arkansas, for the promise of Southern California. And along that road, this career trucker has experienced pretty much every metaphor a teamster faces; from potholes to sharp turns of fortune. Today, thanks to construction of the new LA Stadium in Inglewood the path is smooth and wide open.

“This stadium project has really opened up for me avenues, a lot of doors for me. A lot of contractors are contacting me. On that project they’re probably going to have at least 100 different contractors out there. And everybody that needs some trucking done on that project, they are all contacting me to do the work for them.”

Nestled in the lowlands beside the Mississippi River, West Helena, Arkansas, with a current population of fewer than nine thousand residents is a world removed from the competitive bustle of the Los Angeles Metropolitan area. And when he arrived in 1980, Mr. Whittington was prepared to start on the bottom rung of the ladder.

But he had a boost, brothers and a cousin who helped him learn to drive a big rig and then they put him to work doing so. For the next thirteen years he hauled dirt and demolition debris in one of their dump trucks. And then in 1993, with his savings, he bought his furst truck and went out on his own. Over the next decade and a half Mr. Whittington thrived, quadrupling his fleet to four trucks.

But then the combination of a divorce and the great recession drove Mr. Whittington into a sinkhole. His business was dissolved and he found himself back on the ladder’s first rung. In 2010, he managed to buy a single truck once again, creating Hammer Down Transportation, but it was a slog.

“Business was slow, very slow, I was barely making it. I was working here and there. Work a few days and be off a week or two. I’d get another 2-3 days and be off two to three weeks. I really had to hustle to get through the recession”

And as a union trucker he was often undercut by lowball bids. But then in 2012, both the economy and Mr. Whittington’s fortunes began to change for the better as he signed the first of two contracts with the Port of Long Beach, including hauling dirt associated with the construction of the new Gerald Desmond Bridge.

“When you are a minority company there is a program where you can get your certification. And once you get your certification your company is put in a database. All of the big contractors go into this database and send out emails, asking you to come to one of their outreach events where you can talk to them about working on the project. It works very well”

The key is perseverance, sticking with it, never quitting. “You can never give up because that’s when you fail, when you give up. That’s my outlook on things.”

And so Mr. Whittington attended every outreach program for minority contractors he could, shaking hands, passing out business cards, simply networking. As a result, he was one of thirty minority contractors selected by one large contractor, Kiewit Infrastructure to enroll in an 18-week class at USC.

“I was the only trucking company they decided they wanted to work with. They showed us how to bid projects, the different laws, how you should get paid, when you should get paid.  They essentially took us through a bunch of things they thought we would need to be successful.”

And that legwork and effort sandwiched in between long hours sweating at the wheel is what set the stage for today. Back in 2012, Mr. Whittington met then Inglewood Mayor Danny Tabor.

“And he told me the (Hollywood Park) racetrack was going to be torn down.” The mayor provided him with the dates and places for upcoming outreach events and asked Mr. Whittington to attend to talk with the contractors. He did, consistently. But it was three more years before demolition began, and the contractor that won the demolition bid didn’t employ Hammer Down Transportation.

“They took a bunch of games after they got the job and I didn’t get any work when they did the demolition. I was promised a lot of work but never got it.”

Far from tucking tail, Mr. Whittington pressed on and that determination was about to pay-off. He had long established a relationship with Turner Construction, a major player in the industry.

In early 2015, Stan Kroenke, owner of the then St, Louis Rams announced plans to build a 70,000 seat football stadium near the site of the demolished racetrack. By the next year the Rams were approved to move back to LA and that Fall ground was broken for construction. Within months, it was confirmed that the then San Diego Chargers would also be moving in as co-tenants.

And the lead contractor is Turner Construction.

“I really take my hat off to Turner Construction because they, me being a local Inglewood business, they really pushed and pushed and pushed to make sure I worked on that project. Especially after I kinda got reamed on the demolition part. So they was determined that I was going to work on that project.” 

Turner approached another participating contractor, Kiewit Infrastructure, the firm that sent Mr. Whittington to class at USC.

“Turner threw my name out to them and Kiewit said straight up, ‘we already know who that is. We know Melvin. Yes, yes and we want to work with him. Tell him to come to our outreach event.’ I walked in and there was probably four or five big guys from Kiewit and when I walked in the door they just started shaking my hand and they was glad to see me.”

Today, Hammer Down Transportation operates five trucks onsite under three different contracts, doing everything from hauling the steel girders for the bowl to managing dust control. And Melvin Whittington has his sights set on at least three more contracts associated with the stadium construction, scheduled for completion in time for the 2012 NFL season.

And beyond that, there’s projected to be another 3-5 years of construction of residences, shopping and business space as well as the possibility of a new home for the LA Clippers NBA team nearby.

Mr. Whittington urges other minority contractors to follow his path. “I would encourage all of them to go to those meetings.”

Turner AECOM HUNT, the general contractor for the project, is especially interested in recruiting apprentices, individuals who have little to no experience in trades like welding, electrical, carpentry and drywall.

LA Stadium provides subcontracting opportunities for Minority and Disadvantaged Business Enterprises (MBE/DBE). Officials have set a 30 percent goal for MBE/DBE participation in the overall project. The next Job Information and Resource Fair is scheduled from 9 am to 1 pm on Thursday, April 26 at Rogers Park located at 400 West Beach Avenue, Inglewood, CA 90302. For more information, go to www.LaSt

Melvin Whittington was a small town kid from Arkansas who came to the big city: paid his dues, rose to impressive heights, stumbled and picked himself up.

“Continuing to go to the different meetings, continuing to keep myself  out there in front of these contractors, letting them know I was still in the business, that I’m capable of working with them. It has started to pay off now.”

Melvin Whittington put in the work, behind the wheel, in the classroom and trekking to endless meetings marketing Hammer Down Transportation. And even he is in a bit of awe, but extremely proud of the result.

It’s really a dream come true. It’s great! I can’t think of words right now. It really has been awesome for me.”