profiles GBC Board Member Ken Banks

Talking with Steve Monroe: A foundation for fame
Kenneth Banks used his early entrepreneurial lessons to help build a major construction firm

Many years ago, a young man was making good money and winning awards as a salesman for Mutual of New York.

But it wasn’t enough. He decided to take off for a year and a half, travel around North America, camp out, commune with himself and find himself.

It worked. That young man, Kenneth R. Banks, found a job he liked in construction, worked his way from the bottom up to management and, in short order, went into business for himself. He moved the business south 25 years ago and has built Banks Contracting of Baltimore into a multimillion-dollar construction services and real estate development company.

This year, Banks was tapped for induction into the Maryland Chamber of Commerce Maryland Business Hall of Fame.

“You know, there are only 32 inductees … and I was fortunate enough to be one of them,” said Banks, 58, a native of Yonkers, N.Y., who now lives in Howard County. “It’s great to be recognized as one of the great companies in Maryland.”

After developing an expertise for renovation in his early years in business, Banks’ company has evolved. One of its projects is a joint venture with Clark Construction of Bethesda on the new $600 million Johns Hopkins Hospital clinical building under construction in Baltimore.

Today in Baltimore will be the groundbreaking for a $44 million Johns Hopkins graduate student building, another Banks collaboration with Clark. His company’s role in construction management for the $305 million Hilton Baltimore Convention Center Hotel gave Banks widespread visibility a few years ago. Other projects have included an $89 million University of Maryland Biopark venture with Whiting-Turner Contracting scheduled for completion in 2012.

“We took the expertise we had in renovating, in fast time-condensed construction,” Banks said, “and just started moving from industry to industry.”

The Business Gazette recently talked to Banks about Banks Contracting.

Q: You said you went through the [Small Business Administration] 8(a) program, but never really did much government contracting?

A: Yes, we never utilized it. The way we were structured in my mind, we did private work and we did it fast … the government kind of work wasn’t meant to be fast. And I’ve wanted mostly private customers over the 30 years we’ve been in business because they are more demanding, they know what they want, they can make decisions very quickly and time is money, and I wanted to be in that environment because we could outperform other companies. We can service a client, do it faster than anybody else on average … the same product, but if we could cut the time by a third, it’s a better product. That’s where we specialize. And so I was never into government programs or set-aside programs.

Q: How has the recession affected your company?

A: We’ve held our own … we’ve been doing a little better lately – as a matter of fact, we’ve had to hire some people. But this has been a tough one. Everybody has felt the effects from the biggest companies to the smallest. If you are a business owner and you’ve had to cut people, the next thing you are doing to do is probably not a construction renovation project. You are probably going to try to build your capacity back up and get the confidence that the market is real and it’s not going to fold again, and then go to the banks.

But the second problem is the banks aren’t loaning money; they are very tight. And if they are loaning money, you probably have to put up more for a project than a few years ago. So the world has changed and I don’t think it will [improve] for maybe two or three years, on the construction side. Other industries might be quicker to come out, [industries] that don’t depend on banking, that don’t depend on several things … construction depends on a lot for it to work well.

Q: How is the Johns Hopkins clinical project going? It was going to be done by the end of the year, right?

A: There have been a lot of additions to the project … it is probably going to be done mid-2011. Things are going very well, on schedule, on budget.

Q: How did that joint venture come about?

A: Well, you know I’ve been in the business environment for a long time and know most owners of not only construction companies but most of the large businesses here in Maryland and D.C. And there are different boards I’ve sat on, like the Greater Baltimore Committee, which is a phenomenal organization … and through there I’ve met many people, and through other associations.

Q: You said you grew up Yonkers, in a rough environment?

A: It was a rough environment but you formulate friendships; you almost have to. But I went to a majority white Catholic high school. My parents wanted me to go there; they did not want me to go to the public schools. So I went to a totally white high school but lived in a totally black environment, so I think that … everything in life has served me, even though I didn’t necessarily know it at the time, so I have no regrets in terms of the way I grew up. Most of the kids I went to school with were upper-middle class in high school but when I came back home it was very deprived. But I saw both worlds and understand both worlds. And the only reason I was able to do that was I ran track and the school wanted me to come there, because I was fast.

Q: Your first job was a paper route?

A: I was 13 or 14 and it was a seven-day a week job, a responsibility, and you had customers and you had to service your customers. You know, they only paid you a few pennies to deliver the papers, but you worked for tips, and so you wanted to be able to satisfy your customers, so that was a lesson learned … my first business lesson. And I always wanted to be an entrepreneur … I didn’t know what kind of business, but I knew I wanted to be in business. My first year of college I started a business there with three other guys and we did social functions, put parties together.

Q: You ran track in college, too, and you said you’ve found a lot of successful people were athletes?

A: Many people that I see in positions of power have been athletes in some point in their lives … because it teaches you to dig deeper, teaches you to go past the pain, teaches you to work with people, and it teaches you to accept defeat.

Q: When did you start Banks Contracting?

A: I actually established the business in 1980 in New York. We specialized then in fast-food restaurants, in renovations. You have to come in when the place closes, do your work, and you have to be finished and cleaned up by the time it opens in the morning. So we were very efficient. Everything we did we did in-house, but we did all the door replacements, ceiling tile, floor tile, painting, drywall, all of that. If we had to do plumbing, we hired a plumber. If we had to do electrical, we hired them.

Q: You moved to Maryland because of the family?

A: I had two small children and didn’t want to raise them in New York because it was so condensed and looked around the country at what was a good place to live, and we moved to Germantown because of the great schools and because if there is ever an economic slowdown in this country, because of the government spending in this area it doesn’t slow down that much … where other areas have completely dropped off. Then I got a job here in Baltimore and I was driving back and forth, so then I got another job in Baltimore, so I decided to just move to Baltimore.

Q: Any particular mentor that has helped you?

A: You mean God? [laughs] You know we have a great board of advisers …and those gentlemen have been incredible … [in terms of] vision and talking about bigger, bigger, bigger, to expand my horizons, which I’ve done.

Q: What do you say to black youth, or youth period, on becoming a success?

A: I think that if a person is educated, they have a chance … sometimes even with an education it’s tough, but without an education there is just no way, it’s virtually impossible. So that’s what I say. I try to relate it to something real. In construction, if you don’t do any mathematics you can’t be a carpenter, you can’t add fractions, know how to cut things, angles, and all of that, can’t do it. But I try to bring out a sense of pride in who they are, a sense of wanting to accomplish something in life, whatever it is.

Q: Any particular message to black entrepreneurs?

A: It’s usually what I’ve accomplished, and looking at things like service, quality, attention to detail, doing the best job we can, knowing the numbers, knowing what to charge the client, being fair, being honest, being reputable, anticipating the future.

Q: What do you have to say about the issue of some minority-owned companies being used by bigger companies, and they think they don’t get a fair shake in deals?

A: I want to be clear that we don’t get involved in these things because we are a minority company, primarily we get involved because we bring quality. I don’t focus on being a minority, I never traded like that … primarily every joint venture we’ve been involved, in it’s just been because we could brings products or services [to the table].

But to answer your question, yes, you have to get the contract documents right, that’s an upfront issue, that’s understanding what’s in the documents, what the documents say in terms of paying, what you can expect to get out of it, not only what you expect, but the documents have to be clear … they have to give you what you want and if they don’t, you are setting yourself up for failure. Actually, I’ve been hired on many occasions to act as a consultant for companies that are putting deals together because they don’t always anticipate what those documents are really saying, as far as the business terms.

This article appeared on on Sept. 10, 2010.

Kenneth R. Banks

Age: 58

Position: Founder and president, Banks Contracting of Baltimore, a construction services and real estate development company with about 50 employees

Education: Bachelor’s in education, Adelphi University

Awards: Inductee, Maryland Business Hall of Fame, Maryland Chamber of Commerce, 2010; Mayor’s Business Recognition Award, Greater Baltimore Committee, 2009; Award of Excellence, Associated Builders and Contractors, 2009; Professional Achievement and Community Service Award, Baltimore City Community College Foundation, 2009; Entrepreneur Award, Black Engineer of the Year Global Competitiveness Conference; Minority Developer of the Year, city of Baltimore, 2008

Organizations: Executive committee, Greater Baltimore Committee; board member, Chesapeake Crescent Commission, Maryland Affordable Housing Trust, United Way of Central Maryland, Presidents’ RoundTable; executive-in-residence, Earl G. Graves School of Business and Management Honors Program, Morgan State University

Residence: Howard County

Family: Wife, four children

Hobbies: Scuba diving, skiing, sky diving

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