A Black Eye Affair

A minority firm takes a hit for no good reason

"When I left the mayor's office, I didn't have an easy time finding a job," says Tim Person Jr., as he stands, all hot and sweaty, on the three-acre site of United Materials Companies Inc., the startup concrete business of which he is president. It's been four-and-a-half years since Person was unceremoniously booted out from his post as the top aide to then-Mayor Freeman Bosley Jr., after a story in the Post-Dispatch questioning Person's ethics. Person, the newspaper breathlessly reported, had served as the mayor's rep on a panel that awarded airport contracts to two companies, without disclosing to anyone that his wife had previously done subcontract work for the companies. Stung by the scandal and facing a re-election bid, Bosley announced the next day that although it pained him, he had asked for Person's resignation, and that was that. A noteworthy footnote: Weeks later, a reconvened seven-member selection panel picked the same companies.

Three months later, the Post-Dispatch had another scandal to report, this time about city officials -- including Bosley and Person (before he left his post) -- making personal calls on city-issued cell phones. A month later, in March '97, Bosley lost his re-election bid to Clarence Harmon.

Since their exit from City Hall, Bosley and Person have remained friends. When Person first left his mayoral post, he had a little time on his hands. Friends would call, knowing he was good at home-rehab projects. "I wouldn't do it," he says. "And they'd say, 'Look, man, you're not doing a damn thing. Come over and fix my bathroom. My steps are broken -- come fix my broken steps.' So, yeah, I knew a little bit about concrete, but not a whole helluva lot."

Tim Person Jr: "I can run a business -- I know how to do that -- but I had to learn about the concrete industry."
Tim Person Jr: "I can run a business -- I know how to do that -- but I had to learn about the concrete industry."

Person received a crash course in the concrete business beginning last year, when he hooked up with Bosley to form United. Bosley, who has done well as a lawyer at Caldwell, Hughes & Singleton, says that about two years ago he and Person began having conversations about starting a company and looked at "electrical supplies, plumbing supplies, sand, steel manufacturing and then at concrete, to see where the opportunities were."

They found them in the concrete business, especially with city-funded projects that had a goal of spending 25 percent of construction dollars with minority companies. They found James Lohse, a white businessman with companies of his own and years in the concrete business. He had expertise and money. They had city contacts and the right skin color. With two other minority partners -- Osagie O'Basuyi, an engineer and businessman from Ohio, and Walle Amusa (who has since withdrawn from the company) -- Bosley and Person approached Lohse and formed United Materials in April 2000. Lohse would own 49 percent of the company, and the minority partners would own 51 percent. Person would be president. To cut down startup costs, the company would own virtually nothing: The three-acre site was leased; the equipment -- a two-story-high "batch plant," which mixes sand, gravel and cement to produce concrete -- was leased; the nearby trailer that serves as the site office was leased; the trucks picking up the concrete for delivery belonged to a company owned by Lohse's wife and contracted by United.

Whereas Bosley is merely an investor in United, Person says he runs the company as president. United now has three employees besides Person -- two whites and one black.

Late last year, United sought and received certification as a minority company from the St. Louis Minority Business Council (last August, Harmon had agreed to accept certification from the MBC and other agencies as legit, to cut down red tape). Based on that certification, which United sent to the city for review, the company has done more than $400,000 in business with two city-funded construction projects downtown: the $276 million convention center hotel downtown and the $74 million city jail.

Along the way, says Person, he has learned a lot about the concrete business. "It's been a real learning process. I can run a business -- I know how to do that -- but I had to learn about the concrete industry," he says. And, yes, Lohse has been a great resource for that, he adds. By late next year, says Person, he hopes to expand the company by purchasing about 10 concrete delivery trucks and hiring 10 drivers. He speaks optimistically of doing "a few million dollars a year" in business in a matter of a few years.

The only time his tone changes, turning dark and serious, is when he is asked about the recent allegation that his company is "a front company," with him as the front man and Lohse as the white guy in the shadows telling him what to do.

At about the time when United sent its MBC certification to the city in February, Bosley was engaged in a three-way mayoral race, with Harmon trying to hold on as mayor and Aldermanic President Francis Slay as the odds-on favorite. Slay won and took office in mid-April.

United has been working on the hotel and jail projects. It never heard a word from the city about any problems or questions about its minority certification. Yet, just two months after Slay took office, the Post-Dispatch again went after Bosley and Person. A Sunday front-page story, headlined "Firm's Minority Status Has Critics Crying Foul," questioned whether United was "a front company" because Lohse owned 49 percent and had the expertise in the concrete business. Among the critics were Percy Green, who heads the city's certification program, and Eric Vickers, a longtime civil-rights activist who had successfully led the Interstate 70 shutdown in 1999, a protest that demanded more minority involvement in public construction projects. Both men have also been critical of Harmon's decision to accept MBC certification; they believe the city ought to have its own, more rigorous investigation before certifying minority firms.

Next Page »