After nine years keeping the books for a road construction firm, Dorinda Pounds ’89 knew that opportunity for advancement wasn’t likely. As with most construction companies, family ties to the business ran deep. As more and more family members took interest in the company, Pounds realized quickly that if she didn’t act fast, she might be out of a job. The then-Upper Iowa University Waterloo Center student, double-majoring in accounting and business administration, started combing the want ads looking for a job. Close friends, however, had a different idea about how Pounds could solve her dilemma.
They said, “Why don’t you start your own company?” Her first thought was, “I couldn’t do that.”
However, the more she pondered the idea, the more she realized that it was possible. “When I worked for that other company – who is now my competitor, by the way – I often thought that some of the decisions they made, I would have made differently and I would have seen a different, more positive outcome,” she said.
Pounds knew her strength in the new company would be on the financial side of the business. She realized she would need two key players to make the new venture successful. Throughout her tenure at her former employer, Pounds had forged a friendship with two men who were experts in their niches within the company. So, when she left, she took with her she took an expert in road construction equipment and the “best field superintendent in the state.”
Both men had young families and were slightly apprehensive about joining Pounds, but she had done the legwork needed to provide as safe a transition as possible and ensured they all have health insurance. “We were going to do it right, or we weren’t going to do it,” she added.
Pounds relied upon her degree from Upper Iowa University and believes banks considered her business plan proposal seriously because of that degree. She did receive some static from one lending institution that took one look at her and asked: “Who’s really going to run this?” The bank could not believe a woman would be able to successfully run a road construction company.
“I am the only woman I know of in the state of Iowa that runs her own (road construction company),” said Pounds. “The few women that do own such companies inherited from family members.”
Pounds received funding from another bank, but to do so, she needed to raise $100,000 herself. At the time, she only had $200 in the company checking account. Pounds sought investors for her venture; and, at the last minute, she found the funds she needed. Currently, she owns 60 percent of the company; the first two employees each own 15 percent; and investors own 10 percent.
It has been 20 years since Pounds’ inception of Midwest Contractors, Inc., and in that short time the company has earned a national safety award from the Associated General Contractors of America and was named 97th of the “100 Hottest New Small Businesses in America” in 1996 by Entrepreneur Magazine. The company now completes over $6.5-7 million of work in a year. In speaking to Congress, Sen. Ted Kennedy pointed to Midwest Contractors and Pounds as a success story for a successful outcome of the Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE) program. Pounds has the sound bite to prove it.
In the first year of business, Midwest Contractors ran one crew. By year two, the company added a second crew. It wasn’t until the stimulus package of President Barack Obama’s administration when a third crew was added. Currently, Midwest Contractors employs 55-65 people during the road construction season that runs from April to November.
Based out of Cedar Falls, Iowa, with a shop in Jesup, Midwest Contractors is considered a heavy highway road construction company. The firm specializes in patching, and also does concrete, asphalt and paving work on the side. It works throughout Iowa, bidding on projects through the Iowa Department of Transportation.
The company prides itself on paying its employees for a job well done. Pounds even developed safety incentive programs to reward the crews for being safe every day. At the end of the year, as part of the annual Christmas party, Midwest Contractors issues a travel reimbursement bonus to employees.
While the company has achieved success in its 20 years, Pounds thinks back to the early days when the fear of failure was a constant shadow in the office. “It was very difficult starting out,” she admitted. “I put in a lot of hours. A lot of hours. But, I think you have to. If you want to succeed at what you’re doing, you need to put in the time.”
Pounds was fortunate to have the backing of her husband, Tom Pounds, who championed her plan and was one of the first to tell her to start her own business. When she received a Small Business Administration (SBA) loan to start Midwest Contractors, Tom took in stride the fact that they could lose everything. He looked at the positives. “We’ll still have our education,” he said. “And I know you can do it. You did it all those years for that other company. I believe in you.”
The family’s connection to Upper Iowa is deep. Tom, former human resources director for Black Hawk County, earned a master’s in business administration (MBA) from Upper Iowa University in 1998. The youngest of their two daughters, Jessica Pounds-Bryant, earned her MBA from UIU in 2003. She is currently the director of diversity affairs at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. Their oldest daughter, Dr. Carissa Williamson, is a veterinarian and owns a practice in Plymouth, Minn. Each daughter has a child.
From 2000-2006, Pounds served on the Upper Iowa University Board of Trustees, and is a long-time donor to UIU projects and scholarships. She recently became a trustee for Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Ill.
Pounds said she puts her education to work every day and is forever thankful to the University for having a center in Waterloo where she could complete her degree on a schedule that allowed her to raise her family and work fulltime.