When Heels & Hardhats got its first subcontracting job with NPL Construction Co., the fledgling woman-owned company didn’t have enough money to make it to the jobsite.
“We actually had to sell truck batteries to buy gas,” Heels & Hardhats cofounder Jackie Richter remembers.
Richter and her partner Cyndi, a nurse’s aide, founded the company in 2010 when Jackie, then a general manager of a construction company, suddenly couldn’t find work after undergoing gender correction. Jackie was the first transgender owner to file for state and federal approval as a disadvantaged business. Together, Cyndi and Jackie measure the progress in getting Heels & Hardhats on its feet by the steady growth of the contracts from NPL.
“A few weeks ago, we had our first fuel delivery, a semi-tanker load, because of how big we’ve grown working with NPL,” says Richter, who runs their Byron, Illinois, business. “They gave us a chance when nobody else would.”
Through its work with NPL, Heels & Hardhats has grown to 50 union employees and is working on projects across Chicago and its suburbs. Along the way, the Naperville, Illinois-based energy and infrastructure firm prepared Richter’s team for success with training, certification guidance and mentoring.
Heels & Hardhats initially focused solely on traffic control for road projects, but with training and support from NPL, the company has expanded to eight different scopes of service, increasing the company’s marketability and hiring power.
“We had the building blocks to build on,” Richter continues, “but NPL gave us the mortar and scaffolding to achieve higher success.”
Founded 50 years ago in a small town in northern Minnesota, NPL began as Northern Gas Line Constructors, focusing exclusively on gas customers. By 1971, the company progressed from the installation of local farm taps to the construction of several large gas pipeline construction projects in nearby states. By 1973, the company was renamed Northern Pipeline Construction Co., and a few years later, moved its headquarters to Minneapolis-St. Paul. A decade later, the company arrived at its current location in Phoenix, Arizona.
For NPL, preparing diverse businesses for strong, long-term partnerships is simply part of the company’s broader commitment to leaving everything better than how they found it. The commitment to diversity extends beyond what is required to include active engagement in the community and support of the local economy.
NPL consistently exceeds diversity requirements for subcontractors on its water and gas pipeline jobs and works with more than 65 diverse vendors and subcontractors across northern Illinois, including minority, female and veteran-owned companies. In its current project replacing aging water mains on Chicago’s North Side, NPL is far ahead of the 28 percent minority business requirements set by the city. It varies from month to month, but on average NPL’s diverse workforce amounts to 40 percent of its total water main replacement team.
More than that, the company has created the NPL Partnership Alliance to support its partners through mentorship, networking and sharing best practices.
“We started the Alliance because working with diverse subcontractors means more than just giving them work,” says NPL senior vice president Dylan Hradek, who launched the effort in 2014. “Since our inception, we have been fully committed to providing opportunity for our diverse subs to grow along with us.”
The Partnership Alliance meets quarterly and is focused on three tenets:
- Diversity: Promoting diversity in the construction industry and providing resources for diverse subcontractors to succeed and grow.
- Education: Bringing in subject matter experts to speak about industry standards and best practices.
- Community: Each meeting concludes with the group performing community service, including preparing meals for veterans and work with Feed My Starving Children, a non-profit organization that coordinates the packaging and distribution of food to people in developing nations.
The Alliance has 13 member companies from across northern Illinois, including GSG Consultants of Chicago. GSG is an environmental and civil engineering firm that has been Hispanic-owned for its 25 years, the last two of which have included work with NPL.
“We’ve been able to hire an additional 17 people as a result of working with NPL these last two years,” said GSG chief operating officer Arturo Saenz, who noted that roughly 24 GSG employees are working on both gas and water projects for NPL. “When you’re a 100-person firm, 17 people is 17 percent growth and that really makes a difference.”
Saenz and GSG are one of the most recent additions to the Alliance but Saenz is already seeing the benefit
“We know from working with NPL that they are committed to the Disadvantaged Business Enterprise community and the Alliance really cements that reputation,” Saenz said. “NPL has been instrumental in helping us network and getting us a seat at tables we may otherwise not have been at.”
When Michael Trimuel started working with NPL Construction Co. in 2014, Trims Trucking Inc. — his Homewood, Illinois-based MBE/DBE certified trucking company — had eight trucks. Since then, the African American-owned company has added four people to its payroll and 85-90 percent of Trims’ workload is currently with NPL.
Along the way, NPL has provided Trim’s administrative team with workforce development training.
“They really reach out to their sub-contractors and are concerned for their well-being and growth,” said Michael Trimuel, the president and CEO. “NPL operates with
Trimuel credits the personal attention of NPL executives, including Hradek, for the success with the
“I have never been with a company that has been so passionate about giving back. They are always sponsoring charitable events in different communities,” Trimuel says.
NPL knows the benefit of community involvement and has dedicated itself to leaving lasting, positive impacts in the communities where it works. In Chicagoland, NPL has been a sponsor of the annual Chicago Flower & Garden Show for three years, using a one-of-a-kind garden display to educate people on what is under their homes, promote digging safety and to encourage people to call 811 before digging.
The company also is a proud participant in ComEd’s CONSTRUCT Program, which provides minorities opportunities to grow in the construction field through an 11-week program that offers students the training, information and guidance needed to compete for good-paying, entry-level jobs in construction-related fields.
NPL’s commitment to community also extends to educating young people on the benefits of a career
in the construction industry by participating in job fairs at colleges and universities.
Hradek called the Alliance a “natural step” in NPL’s efforts to broaden outreach. “Mentoring, training and education have always been an important part of our work with diverse businesses,” he says.
Richter, the Heels & Hardhats owner, said NPL ensured her firm had the training and mentoring to make them more knowledgeable and marketable, and it made all the difference. She notes that the company even provided a scholarship for Cyndi to continue her education to help her grow her accounting and business skills.
“An organization like the Alliance that brings in subcontractors with unique or diverse makeups is crucial to promoting equality and diversity in the industry,” Richter says. “NPL was one of the first companies to take us serious, to give us a shot — and it changed everything.”
Frank Sintich is the Illinois director of public relations for NPL Construction Co., in Naperville, Illinois. He is responsible for working directly with elected officials, community leaders, stakeholders and residents to carry NPL’s message and share project-specific information.