Memphis small business helps put trolleys back on track downtown
“My daddy started this company while he was working for the Tennessee Department Correctional work release program,” says River City Railroad owner Clarence Howard.
“My father met an inmate who was making a lot of money as a railroad foreman. The two partnered to start a small business in Memphis in 1971.” Clarence says he remembers his father saying, “If that kind of money can be made in two days, I’m in the wrong job.” And here River City Railroad is more than 40 years later.
River City Railroad is a Memphis-based construction company that builds and repairs railroad tracks, mass transit and trolley systems.
The small rail contractor boasts projects in Dallas, Atlanta, Baltimore, D.C., and of course, the iconic electric trolley lines in downtown Memphis along the Main Street Mall. As a subcontractor on the original trolley line installation, Clarence has a unique insight into helping bring the trolleys back online through the MATA Pavement Improvement Project.
“In Memphis 30 years ago, there were just two railroad contractors in the whole town,” says Clarence. “And back in the day, there weren’t minorities in the field, so breaking into the rail industry was hard for me and my dad.” Clarence taught himself every inch of the rail industry on his own, expanding from his father’s original construction expertise. He’s self-taught on how to read rail drawings, specifications, and plans to put together estimates to submit projects bids.
“I’ve really come full circle with the rail scene in Memphis,” says Clarence. “Riding the trolleys is a big part of folks coming downtown. The trolleys lend another dimension to the downtown experience. Memphis is booming and we’re proud to be a part of that.”
Life as an entrepreneur rarely stays on track, and unchecked expansion in the seventies secured River City $28 million of work in six months’ time. “I grew too fast and was spread too thin over too large an area,” says Clarence. “Once we got through those projects, I had to pretty much start everything almost over again in 1979. I was busy looking at the monetary numbers. I wasn’t looking at the organization’s numbers. We had never been there before, but I know better now.”
Clarence Harris credits the staying power of his business to knowing the rail work trade like the back of his hand.
“Know what you’re doing. Know your business,” says Clarence. “One thing no one can ever take from you is your trade knowledge and that you know what you’re doing. I tell my team ‘you can lose your money and everything else, but in the end you’re judged on your skills.’”
That dedication to taking care of his employees is what brought Clarence to Pathway Lending. In the contracting industry, payments lag at least 30 days, and often stretch to 60 or 90. With his term loan from Pathway Lending, the small business owner covers his payroll for 15-20 employees. “I worry about paying my employees more than I worry about myself,” says Clarence. “They’ll always eat before I do.”
Watching Clarence on his knees with the crew, insulating steel rails with an elastomeric rail grout (Mastic-One) in his neon vest and steel-toed boots, you’d never know that he suffered some severe medical issues and was confined to a wheelchair just three months ago.
“Life isn’t always rosy. I left the Rehabilitation Center in a wheelchair and couldn’t move one of my hands,” says Clarence. While in recovery, his long-time employee would bring the job site reports to review together every single day. “It’s changed my outlook on life. Sure you have life goals and material wants. But most of all you need to be glad to have each day, and use it to shine something that’s good into someone else’s.”
How is Clarence shining something good on someone else? He’s now mentoring the same employee who visited him in rehab to open his own welding shop in Memphis.
The Commercial Appeal ran an article on April 19, 2017 about the return of the electric trolleys and River City Railroad’s plans for the project. Click here to read the full article. Pathway Lending is proud to help this small business do big things for Memphis.
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