O’Neill Construction Group

In the Spotlight: O’Neill Construction Group

Four tips to run a profitable business with a higher purpose

Maurice Rahming and Ali O’Neill started their Portland, Oregon-based business in 1998 as an electrical contractor. It has evolved into O’Neill Construction Group, employing more than 100 people and generating average annual sales greater than $20 million.

O’Neill Construction Group is in the spotlight as a model of succeeding in the private sector while managing a business committed to the greater good.

ManageWise sat down with Maurice Rahming June 28, 2023, to discuss his and his wife’s commitment to conduct business “with a higher purpose,” and what O’Neill Construction Group’s experience can teach the rest of us. Here are four take-aways from the interview:

1. Make your commitment to equity and justice explicit

The company mission statement leaves no doubt O’Neill Construction Group is a profit-making business interested in the greater good:

“O’Neill is in the business of construction, but we do so with a higher purpose. We maintain a commitment to quality craftsmanship, lasting relationships and community equity. We are passionate about delivering a just and equitable work environment. A commitment to safety is a core value on every O’Neill job site. We’ve staked our reputation on our ability to deliver on these promises.” 

Entering the construction field was a pathway out of poverty for Maurice. He attributes his early success to key people who provided opportunity and encouragement as he worked his way up through the electrical trade.

It is out of respect for them that he and Ali decided early on to be intentional about the kind of company they wanted to create, starting with hiring employees historically outside of the construction mainstream.

“By intention, if you looked at my office, you’d see I’m the only one that really came out of the (construction) industry,” Maurice said. “…some of them were in the banking industry, we have (one) from engineering, others from the immigrant community. We were intentional about saying, okay, we’re going to create an environment where we’re bringing people in that have an interest, want to do the work, but have never been given the opportunities to do the work.

“We found that that formula works very well for us. You end up with this camaraderie and recognition that we are a different company.”

2. Show your work

Click on the team page of the company website and the staff photos there are notable for their relative youth and diversity by race, ethnicity, and gender. They validate both the company’s commitment to creating opportunities and the employees’ drive to succeed in the construction industry.

The company started out relying on industry norms to define ideal attributes for potential employees. Traditional requirements, however, delivered traditional results, and O’Neill Construction was after a higher purpose. That led the company to identify barriers in job descriptions that boxed out non-traditional applicants. The company decided to “cross off” certain prerequisites that were barriers to employment. 

“We provide people with the opportunity. If you are a woman or a person of color or both that come in the door, there are still expectations of what you are expected to do. Some don’t succeed and some exceed really well,” Maurice said. “Part of what I’d say our secret sauce is that we end up with people, women and people of color, that are successful. They are all-stars, and they are in the arena.

“As we bring in younger and newer people, they look at them” and see that they are not where they are because they are a woman or person of color. They are there because they are leading us.

“They then can see themselves being that leader, being that person that is taking part of a project. It sets a different type of tone. They are constantly looking at their colleagues and saying, ‘That’s who I want to emulate.’”   

The company’s investment in knocking down barriers in the community is notable, too. It partners with a variety of not-for-profit organizations “to promote equity, inclusion, social justice, and economic sustainability.” Both Maurice and Ali have served on numerous boards and committees inside and outside of the construction industry. 

3. Maintain high standards 

There is a perception in the industry that diversifying the workforce and committing to equity hurts profitability. That has not been true for O’Neill Construction Group, which views it as a competitive advantage. Maurice attributes that to figuring out how to grow a profit-making business by investing in people committed to efficient, quality workmanship.

“When you pay them more, a) they recognize that they are getting paid more, and they are more about the job getting done right, so they are more efficient in how they use their time,” Maurice said. “We ended up with a better product with a reduction in time (to completion). It was better, faster, and in the long run, cheaper.

“We’re going to do (the work) once. My competition is doing it 1 ½-to-two times. It’s going to be done right.”

O’Neill Construction Group’s experience combining profitability with a higher purpose is a model for others to follow. Maurice’s advice is to remember that providing opportunities for non-traditional employees gives them a start, but to keep the job, like everyone else, they must demonstrate aptitude for the work.

“When we hire women and minorities, we are giving them the opportunity. It is simply that. Their success is based on what they do. They are not going to stay if they are not working out,” Maurice said.

He thinks what his competitors will find is that non-traditional employees are grateful for the opportunity and work doubly hard to be successful in the company.

“Because they might not look like what you are used to seeing, doesn’t mean that they are not the best fit for your organization or your project. The minute you realize that women can be super successful, minority males can be super successful, your pool of candidates is exponentially increased. In another 10-15 years, they are going to be the majority of your workforce,” Maurice said.

“I would say to businesses right now, if you look at the demographics of middle schools currently, there are more minority (students) than majority. If you are not thinking about this now, by the time you start to think about it out 10 years from now, it’s already too late. You are going to be struggling to get workers. If you are not thinking about how to incorporate women into your industry right now, you are literally (leaving out) half the population. If you are competing against me, keep doing it, because you are giving me more work. I’m going to involve 100 percent of the population.”

4. Keep it going

O’Neill Construction Group’s public commitment to being a different kind of company has been good for business over the years. Opening doors, providing a supportive work environment, and providing professional development opportunities helps the company retain its employees.

“We lead with that,” Maurice said. “…people look at that and say, ‘I could belong here,’ and these other places (and say), ‘I could work there.’ For me, it’s embedded in what we do. We want to make sure that what we continue to do is to create more opportunities for more individuals, especially women and people of color. Women of color really are not represented in this industry, so we are intentional about saying, okay, we are going to have them represented. They are going to be in leadership roles, and if you don’t like that, then you can go with someone else.”

The company supports its employees in a variety of ways, including weekly check-in meetings, annual reviews, training, and position rotations. The latter was born of necessity when the business employed fewer people and everybody was expected to jump in where needed, including answering the phone. The rotations give employees a deeper understanding of various facets of construction projects and help them determine what they are most interested in pursuing.

Maurice Rahming and Ali O’Neill are committed to the industry as well as their own company. They support and provide training space in their headquarters for the Professional Business Development Group, a construction trade association devoted to improving equity in the industry by fostering inclusive opportunities and mentorship for its minority- and women-owned business members.

The company joined forces with Walsh Construction Co., a Portland, Oregon -based firm that started in 1961, to form the O’Neill/Walsh Community Builders partnership. The partnership grew out of conversations Maurice had with co-founder Bob Walsh, whom he admired for his company’s commitment to employing minority subcontractors. Walsh lamented the fact that despite the good work the sub-contractors did on Walsh’s projects, they often could not sustain themselves between jobs. Maurice described how O’Neill Construction Group mentored small minority-owned businesses, helping them navigate paperwork complexities and being available to answer their questions as jobs progressed.

The partnership builds on both companies’ strengths by providing mentorship for O’Neill Construction Group to take on larger projects and non-federal projects, consistent work for minority- and women-owned sub-contractors that increases their capacity, and pathways for the smaller firms to access training and business support from O’Neill Construction Group.

If you want to explore how to lead your organization to a higher purpose, let’s talk.

Mary Hull Caballero signature
Mary Hull Callabero

Mary Hull Callabero is the Founder + CEO of ManageWise, a consulting firm that equips executives and managers of public-serving organizations to overcome the perils and pitfalls that hinder their progress toward achieving their goals.

Learn more about Mary and ManageWise ›

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