Kindergarten teacher. Public administrator to at-risk populations. President and CEO of award-winning construction firm. Three seemingly disparate job titles. Yet Aldrica Lattimore has had them all.
Lattimore's current role is as president and CEO of Accurate Engineering Integrated Construction Services, which her younger brother, Rod Thompson, now director of operations, started in 1992. Lattimore started helping out then as well -- when she was on holiday or summer vacation from her jobs in education and public administration in New York. Eventually, that work turned into full-time.
"I came out originally in the summers and during vacations to give (Rod) a hand with the business," Lattimore said. "I was a typical contractor wearing 12 hats."
Lattimore found that not only the job responsibilities, but also the perspectives in the construction field, were new challenges for her compared to what she had faced with at-risk parents and students.
"The industry wasn't so receptive to me, being an African-American woman and being a woman in general," she said. "Some were very welcoming, but not a whole lot. It's changed now, but that was 10 years ago."
Despite the differences between her former professions and her current role as head of the $10 million Accurate Engineering, Lattimore still draws on the skills she honed in tough neighborhoods in New York during client meetings or in the boardroom.
"I am 5 feet 2 and all of a hundred pounds," she says. "And I often find myself going into situations that you would think I would run away from. But any time any one says no -- such as this child can't learn -- then that becomes my project. It's no different with this company. I have worked hard and have overcome obstacles and doubts out there."
Lattimore also credits her background in the classroom with helping her to be receptive and resourceful. Perhaps, she mused, her experience in a completely different arena actually facilitated the company's growth. She has no formal education in construction or engineering.
"Many CEOs in construction today only have on-the-job-training and life experience," she said. "And that's what I have. Can I go out and put on a tool belt? No, I cannot do that. But when I go out do I know what I am looking at? Yes, ma'am. Do they know that I care about the success of our projects? Yes, ma'am."
This somewhat unconventional candidate took over Accurate Engineering ICS in 2000, when it was more than $100,000 in the red. At the time, Lattimore's attorney told her she'd be taking over a lot of debt and advised against it. She stood firm in believing that she could turn the company around. The following year Accurate Engineering did $1 million in sales, a reported 100 percent growth.
According to Lattimore, the company's success is attributed to a great staff of people and the way she knows her clients personally and creates strong relationships with them.
She also noted that the San Diego office of the Small Business Administration (SBA) was an integral part of Accurate Engineering's ability to grow. The SBA helped with one of her biggest challenges -- getting a small business loan. Its loan guarantee and surety bond guarantee programs helped the company take on projects over the $25,000 mark, which was imperative for it to move to the next level.
"As much as they are short-staffed, those three people have been such a source of support. Sometimes they can't do anything but listen and say, 'Hang in there,'" she said. "I am no longer in a position to need as much of the small business support programs, but I can tell you that wasn't always the case. We probably wouldn't be here if it weren't for the loan guarantee programs from SBA."
Lattimore said her role has gotten easier, not just because the company is in a stable position financially, but partly because women in construction are more commonly accepted -- to a certain degree.
"I would say it is still challenging," she says. "It's gotten easier for me because I've been around for 15 years and people typically know who I am now. Someone starting new might face the same type of challenges. But we all hope we make a mark, change some perspectives. I hope I was able to do that, in San Diego at least. I would say I hope it got a little bit better."
Beyond helping dispel stereotypes about women in a still male-dominated field, Lattimore believes her role is also about helping others, especially women, run their own companies well. From giving advice to a local woman-owned restaurant to making herself accessible to the advice-seekers from across the country that reach out to her, she believes any woman-owned operation can contribute to other up-and-coming businesses just by being successful.
If that's true, Accurate Engineering is certainly paving the way for the next wave of businesses.
It has received numerous awards over the past several years, including such diverse honors as the "2007 Construction Firm of the Year" award presented by the Los Angeles Mayor's Office, the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) "Minority Owned Business of the Year" Award for 2004, and the "Construction Company of the Year" Award by the Greater San Diego Business Development Council in 2001.
The company has now grown to four offices, including one in Georgia. While many contractors shy away from federal government jobs because it entails more paperwork and inspections, Lattimore said the military is among the company's biggest clients, and she finds it personally rewarding to be able to support it.
True to her career roots of giving back to the community, Lattimore wants to find other tangible ways to contribute now that she is in a position to do so as a local business owner. She talks about opening a childcare facility in lower income neighborhoods of San Diego. Primarily, though, she hopes she has set a precedent to make it easier for others to achieve success in owning their own small businesses.
"I hope I have set a mark for women in business," she said. "When people are struggling to get loans or loan officers are skeptical of a women-owned business or an African-American-owned business, hopefully Accurate will be able to make it easier for someone else coming up the ranks, or will help counter in some way any negative perceptions of women or African-American women."
When probed for what advice she most likes to share with small business owners, Lattimore's enjoyment the various challenges -- and vagaries -- of business surfaces again.
"The first thing that comes to mind is to have fun," she says. "Certainly work hard, be persistent and consistent, and have integrity and character. But you've got to have fun, too. You want to be around. You have to be dedicated and overcome some obstacles, but if there's not fun and joy in it -- you end up with what? Money, but not a lot of happiness. Find a way to encompass all of it."
Blackford is a San Diego-based freelance writer.