Damon Tooles was a successful stock broker and commodities trader in Southfield. Then his life suddenly changed when he connected with a Detroit developer who was working on projects with the late Detroit business leader Don Barden.
Suddenly Tooles found himself in the construction business. When the initial projects were complete he decided the nation’s largest industry was where he wanted to be professionally.
He’s survived tough times and endured the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression during the last decade’s foreclosures. Tooles, president and CEO of Tooles Contracting Group, which oversees the company’s overall financing activities and banking relationships, acknowledges he lost money during his first years in the business he founded in 2002. But that didn’t seem to last long.
“From the beginning, we envisioned this public space would shine light on the western edge of downtown Detroit, becoming a beacon for development, a beacon to bring more visitors and businesses to Detroit, and a beacon of continued progress for a city in the midst of revitalization.” –Gerry Anderson, DTE Energy chairman and CEO
Four years later, in 2006, he landed $12.5 million in contracts. In 2007, he increased that to $52 million in contracted work, surviving the recession. In the last three years, Tooles Contracting Group has amassed projects that have generated an average of $58 million in revenue annually.
“It’s about growing the organization, growing the people and growing the talent,” he says.
Tooles’ company, which is among Detroit’s largest construction management firms, has gained more notice since it was awarded a $28-million contract for completing concrete work at Little Caesar’s Arena, slated to open this fall.
The Detroit Regional Convention Facility Authority awarded Tooles Contracting Group a $120-million contract to renovate Cobo Center. Tooles’ company and its work are visible around Detroit, at the center of many high-profile development projects, including the portions of the Detroit RiverWalk and the Guardian Building renovations.
Recently,thousands of metro Detroiters celebrated the Motor City’s newest development and Tooles’ latest project, DTE Energy’s Beacon Park, a 1.5-acre stretch at Cass Avenue and Grand River, adjacent to DTE Energy’s headquarters. Tooles’ company served as general contractor for construction of the park, which opened July 20, launching a four-day celebration of events, including live music, a market and family entertainment.
“From the beginning, we envisioned this public space would shine light on the western edge of downtown Detroit, becoming a beacon for development, a beacon to bring more visitors and businesses to Detroit, and a beacon of continued progress for a city in the midst of revitalization, says DTE Energy Chairman and CEO Gerry Anderson.
DTE praises Tooles Contracting and Roncelli, LLC, who partnered to make the vision for Beacon Park a reality.
“Our efforts to shift our purchases to local, women and minority-owned suppliers began during the economic downturn in 2010,” says DTE Chief Procurement Officer Anthony Tomczak. “Over the past six years, we have increased our spending with Michigan suppliers to $1.3 billion and quadrupled investments in Detroit. We chose Tooles-Roncelli not only because they were a minority-owned business, but because they had strong experience and a solid working relationship with the city of Detroit.”
The park features a European-style brasserie restaurant offering mussels, Griffin Claw and Belgian beers, a central lawn with intimate walking paths and areas to relax. A multi-use space for programmed outdoor activities, performance site, areas for food truck vendors and bicycle parking are some other features.
For Tooles, Beacon Park is a resume-builder and part of work he calls “rewarding.”
“It’s certainly something nice to see,” he Tooles. “It’s rewarding to see these projects go up. It’s rewarding to know so many people will get to enjoy it and to know you built something from start to finish.”
Tooles, who employs 50 people and has clients that include FedEx, General Motors, Ford Motor Co., and the University of Michigan, says he doesn’t have a magic formula for his sky-rocketing success.
“You have to be able to understand a process,” he says. “We manage the process. We manage the schedule. We manage the trades, costs, and specifications to make sure the right products are put in place.”
He’s been certified as the Detroit-based Minority-Owned Business Enterprise and is affiliated with Michigan’s Minority Supplier Development Council. Tooles Contracting also is a Wayne County Minority Business Enterprise and Michigan Department of Transportation Prequalified Contractor.
“We’re selling management,” Tooles says. “We have to show we can deliver on time, we can deliver within budget and we can eliminate some headaches that occur in construction — not all of them, but most of them.”
Just as his uncle, who owned motels, gas stations and real estate, took Tooles under his wing and taught him how to run businesses, Tooles feels obligated to help more young people find their way into the construction industry, to take advantage of its immense growth and opportunity. For his projects, Tooles hires interns who learn the inner workings of his business, and apprentices who get some on-the-job training through the Carpenter and Millwright Union.
“If you look at Michigan, we are going to lose about 30 percent of our skilled trades in the next 10 years,” he says. “Those jobs pay anywhere from $70,000 to $140,000 a year. A kid who is not going to college is a kid that we need to be leading toward those avenues. That’s something I get excited about – getting these kids into these opportunities.”
Positions are ample right now, Tooles says.
“The construction industry is the largest employer in America, and there are so many opportunities for the skilled trades such as electricians, journeymen, carpenters, project engineers, superintendents, and all of them pay very high wages. Some of those jobs require a college education, but college graduates don’t necessarily make more money than the ones who don’t have a degree. It’s an industry that’s globally rewarding.”
He says the crux of his business acumen is simply being a great salesman and “good at what you do,” gaining potential clients’ trust that his company will get the job done, and using his reputation and the skills of his project managers.
“We manage mistakes and problems, and try to bring resolutions that make customers feel comfortable,” he says. “It’s about past experiences and past performance. I’m also selling talent. I’m selling resumes.”
See additional coverage of DTE Energy’s Beacon Park and related grand opening events: