The woman in charge
Small Business of the Year runner-up
Garris Grading and Paving Inc.
President: Angela Alvarez Garris
Projected 2013 revenue: $4.4 million
Business: Grading and paving company
By the time Angela Alvarez Garris decided to build an asphalt plant, she was fed up with people who refused to believe a woman could own and operate such an ostensibly manly business. “Everybody was saying to me, ‘Come on, this must be a smoke screen — this is really your husband’s business, isn’t it?’ I said, ‘You know what? That’s it. This is a 100% woman-owned company. I’m going to paint this asphalt plant pink.’ So, that’s what I did.” With its hulking batch tower, curved emission system, tubular storage tanks and drying drum, the 4,000-square-foot hot-pink plant is the latest addition to a paving and grading business that has grown steadily since she founded it in 2006. That year, Garris Grading and Paving Inc.’s revenue was $250,000. In 2012, it brought in more than $2.8 million. “When I talk to people on the phone, they always ask to speak to the man in charge. I tell them, ‘Well, I’m in charge.’”
Born in Savannah, Ga., the 48-year-old Latina who stands just shy of 5 feet moved to rural eastern North Carolina at 16 to live with her sister. While attending Ayden-Grifton High School in Pitt County in the early 1980s, she met and then married Jesse Garris. After graduation, she drove a forklift at a Procter & Gamble Co. plant in Greenville while Jesse worked for S.T. Wooten Corp., a Wilson-based paving company. In 1999, the owner of Farmville-based Grifton Insurance Agency Inc. asked if she would be interested in a customer-service job. “I did that for three or four years, and when he decided to get out and retire, he sold me the business.” The company was doing well when the Garrises were hit with a double whammy in 2006. First, her mother fell ill, and then the couple’s teenage son suffered a collapsed lung. At the time, Jesse was working in the Triangle, but Angela needed him at home. So she hatched an idea — turn her company into a paving business. “I said, ‘If you can pave for them and make them money, you can pave for me and make me money.’”
With capital she raised selling the insurance business’s client roster, she hired three employees, bought motor graders, asphalt rollers and paving machines and began paving parking lots and doing bridge work for the N.C. Department of Transportation. The company was headquartered in her home. After three years, Garris was tired of telling customers that their project would be late because of her asphalt supplier. “I said, ‘You know what? My customers don’t want to hear excuses. I’m going to have to cut out the middle man.’” The UNC System’s Small Business and Technology Development Center helped her draw up a business plan to build an asphalt plant. She got an intern to help with research and a $375,000 Small Business Administration loan. With that, she bought a plant near Charlotte and had it relocated to a 40-acre plot near Fountain, where she moved her company’s headquarters. She has added equipment, including five pickup trucks, three offices, a lab for asphalt testing and a repair shop for equipment. Garris supplies her company with asphalt and sells some to municipalities across eastern North Carolina, including Fountain, Ayden, Greenville, New Bern, Washington, Belhaven and Bath.
When Garris approached John Southern, assistant vice president and manager of the Washington branch of East Carolina Bank (now VantageSouth), for the SBA loan, he was struck by her personality. “When you think of the paving and grading business, you think big, scruffy guy, right? But here’s this small woman with these really big ideas. She came in and told me she wanted to buy a used asphalt plant, have it disassembled, sent across the state, reassembled and start producing her own asphalt.” He laughs. “I was like, you know, that sounds pretty awesome.” More important, Garris had her facts in order. “She had numbers on how much it was going to save her to build this plant, even if she was going to use the asphalt only for her own jobs. It was significant enough that it made us realize this would be viable.” Not only was it viable, Garris paid off that loan — as well as ones for the lab, shop and equipment — this year. They were supposed to take a decade to settle. She’s also added nine employees in the past 12 months. And the company had the winning bids for seven new bridges.
“If you sit back and worry and listen to all the talk,” Garris says, “you’ll never get anything done.” She gives her husband credit, too. “You know, it takes a lot for a man to say, ‘No, this is not my company, it’s her company, I work for her.’ But that’s what he tells people. He has no problem with it. He’s my rock.” She pauses. “Well, him and God. The good Lord holds my economy.”
— Mark Kemp