Rodney Webb isn't your typical home improvement salesman. He has played professional basketball in Europe. He spent two years playing blackjack for a living. He boasts a 91% close rate. He has sold $3.6 million of replacement windows and siding in a single year.

He's also black, and that sets him apart in the industry almost as much as his varied work history and remarkable accomplishments as a salesman.

Here's an exercise. Take a moment right now to think about your competition. Now picture the other remodelers in your peer group, or the attendees at the most recent trade show. Flip through a couple of back issues of REMODELING and look at the pictures. Notice anything?

If you're a Caucasian male, you'll notice a lot of guys who look just like you. If you're not — if you're a woman, or Asian, or black, or Hispanic, or any combination thereof —it's readily apparent that you don't have many counterparts in the industry.

Challenges of Getting Started In the United States, the long history of institutional prejudice — in schools, in government, in trade unions, even in churches —has prevented minorities from achieving equality in many facets of life, and remodeling is no exception. Majority-owned businesses have dominated for so long and are so well established in most communities that it is increasingly difficult for minority businesses to get started. This might help to explain why so many roofers, framers, and other specialty contractors with low entry barriers are minorities, but so few minorities are general contractors. “It's the natural progression of a contractor,” says Cesar Santoy, executive director of the Hispanic American Construction Industry Association (HACIA). “The majority-owned general contractors have a tremendous head start, in terms of generations of ownership, in comparison to the Hispanic community.”

Out and out racism has diminished in recent years, says Jerry Liu, but prejudiced attitudes still exist.
Greg Hadley Out and out racism has diminished in recent years, says Jerry Liu, but prejudiced attitudes still exist.

Another obstacle is the amount of training and preparation required to become a successful GC. “There are a lot of things you need to do before you can get your license: legal aspects, taxes, education,” says Michael Lee, president of EthnoConnect, a consulting group specializing in cultural awareness. “If I'm new to this country and I need money right now, I need to pick up a hammer and get to work. I don't have time for the other stuff.”

Santoy says that the primary issue facing Hispanic contractors is the “lack of information and lack of access to information. That's the first step to developing your business and growing it.” To that end, HACIA has worked with officials in the Chicagoland area to ensure that minority-owned businesses are now considered for large, government contracts. “We've come a long way in 25 years, but there's still a long way to go,” Santoy says. He adds that HACIA is currently looking to expand its influence into the private sector.

Similar issues affect all minorities, not just foreigners. “We've got to educate [blacks],” Webb says. “Once you know the rules of the game and decide that you're going to play it, anyone can be successful.” The state of minorities in the home improvement sales business is such that Webb's entire 12-person salesforce is white. “I don't know of [another] black of any prominence in the direct sales home improvement industry,” he says. “It's an industry dominated by Caucasians.”

Overt Intolerance Not all prejudice is institutional and abstract. Mark Scott, owner of Mark IV Builders in Bethesda, Md., has seen prejudice and discrimination from clients firsthand. On a recent job, the homeowners spent much of the first three weeks of the job complaining that the black supervisor assigned to their job was incompetent. Finally, they made it clear — using a racial slur — that they wanted the super pulled off the job.

Such instances of open racism, although they suggest a more widespread underlying prejudice, are rare. Webb has driven past more than his share of Confederate flags and Ku Klux Klan bumper stickers on his way to sales calls in rural Georgia, but can recall just two times when he was asked to leave a house. Even so, Webb says that he knows he's lost other sales solely because he is black. And as the owner of The Real Gutter Protector, a business he started after a distinguished career at Atlanta-based Dixie HomeCrafters, Webb says that he sees prejudice from his customers against other ethnic groups. “I've got two jobs right now where it says on the work order, ‘Do not send a Mexican crew,'” Webb says.

Racist Undercurrents But prejudice isn't always overt. Many people argue that, as a society, we are as prejudiced today as we were years ago, during the times of segregated restaurants and drinking fountains, but that pressure to be “politically correct” has pushed prejudice underground.

True, almost everyone recognizes that certain behavior and language is unacceptable, but prejudiced thoughts and perceptions, as well as institutional policies, still exist, and because they aren't out in the open or immediately obvious, they go ignored and unaddressed. As Scott puts it: “Just because everyone drinks from the same water fountain now, it doesn't mean that we're not racist.”

One aspect that still lingers is the notion that minorities aren't as capable of succeeding as the majority is.

In remodeling, an industry traditionally employing few women, a growing number of successful women have finally cleared this hurdle, proving that they can do the job as well as — and often better than — their male counterparts.

Significantly less progress has been made by ethnic minorities in the industry. Webb began his career in home improvement as a telemarketer. When he applied for a sales job at Dixie, his interviewer hired him, but warned that there had never been a successful black salesperson in the organization.