When Rod Webb moved to the United States from Mexico in 1982, his plan was to make a career as a salesman for an Indianapolis industrial chain manufacturer. But a short stint volunteering for a group that aided migrant workers planted another seed that's now bearing fruit.
After eight years running a temporary employment firm that specializes in offering Hispanic employees alternatives to field work, Webb is embarking on an ambitious plan to transform a dilapidated east-side warehouse complex into a business park to house expanded training programs for construction workers-and eventually a company that could employ them.
By the time work is done in three years, he hopes the property at 2901 E. Washington St. also will include a credit union and a booming retail center.
The $1.2 million renovation will be completed by Webb's Aztec Group, a new holding company he hopes will develop into a full-fledged construction firm.
But observers say that strategy might be difficult to accomplish, given the blighted location and the risks involved in construction-second only to the restaurant business in its failure rate.
"The margins are just so thin and the risk is so high, I'd advise him not to do it," said Charles Garcia, head of locally based GM Construction Inc. and chairman of the Indianapolis Hispanic Business Council.
Still, Webb has been known to go his own way.
Born and raised in Mexico to British parents, Webb grew up speaking Spanish and has used his multicultural background to become a liaison of sorts between Hispanic workers and employers in Indianapolis.
In the 1980s, Indianapolis had yet to see a large influx of Hispanic residents, but migrant workers often came for seasonal farm work. Webb visited some of the work camps to investigate complaints about treatment.
"I'd see so much abuse. The majority of it was not from farmers but from the middle men," he said. "[Workers] were treated like disposable diapers-use them and throw them away."
That memory stuck with him, and in 1998-the year after he became a U.S. citizen-Webb started his Hispanicfocused temp agency, Aztec Resource Company of Indiana. It now places about 800 workers per year, mostly in seasonal construction and landscaping jobs, though it also has made year-round placements at manufacturing businesses and
"My first intention was to start with field workers, but the best bet was to bring them in from the fields and get them good jobs in town," Webb said.
He's made connections along the way. Webb is a member of the diversity committee for the local chapter of the Associated Builders and Contractors Inc. and is on the group's national committee to develop immigration policy.
Through the association, he teaches seminars on how to help Hispanic workers adjust to jobs.
Indianapolis-based R.L. Turner Construction Co. has worked with Aztec for six years and even hired some of the temps as permanent employees, said Vice President Mendel Smith. Smith also uses the firm for training on crosscultural issues and occasional translation needs.
"[Webb] has a genuine concern to make sure that the people he places aren't taken advantage of in terms of work conditions or wages," Smith said.
But Webb wanted to do more. So he created the holding company and in September purchased the 2.2-acre industrial complex for an undisclosed amount. Aztec also owns a handful of houses nearby, most of which will be torn down. He'd like one converted into a police substation.
Neighborhood advocates cheer any development in an area they admit is struggling.
"It's an edgy area of the city," said Mark Stewart, president of the Southeast Neighborhood Development Inc.
Crime is a challenge and the neighborhood has an odd mix of industrial, commercial and residential space, but there's hope on the horizon. City and state officials plan to move Interstate 70/Interstate 65 access ramps from Market Street to Washington Street next year.
"That's going to increase [traffic] on Washington about 30 percent," said Jay Height of the Old National Road Business Association, who is excited about the possibility that more passers-by would be more foot traffic for businesses.
In addition to giving the neighborhood a boost, the rehab project will provide dedicated space for Webb's growing training business.
Aztec already has landed two grants as part of a state program that uses proceeds from the Indiana Toll Road lease to train minority workers for construction jobs.
The company will train about 20 workers this year with $50,250 from the state, offering 12-16 weeks of remediation to prepare them for apprenticeship programs. It will get another $30,000 for "soft skills" training through a subcontract with ABC.
The final step in Webb's plans is to start a construction business to employ some trainees directly. But that's a step that raises eyebrows.
The local construction market is at a peak with large public projects such as Lucas Oil Stadium driving demand for workers, but that isn't sustainable, GM Construction's Garcia said. And privatesector construction is slowing.
If Webb can't be dissuaded, he shouldn't wait to get started, Garcia said.
"You'd have to start [the business] now and entrench yourself in the market in the next 24 months," he said.