Construction exec helps others on way up: James Phelps Jr.
Reporter - Milwaukee Business Journal
Before an early February meeting, a JCP Construction worker discovered a 2008 business plan from around the time the company was founded.
It came off the shelf, and president James Phelps Jr. took a look. He recognized milestones JCP Construction has hit since he helped write the business plan more than a decade ago. Like Phelps, the plan was ambitious.
James Phelps Jr....“I don’t like dealing with what could have been."
In 2008, JCP Construction was a fledgling Milwaukee business — brothers James, Clifton and Jalin Phelps took money out of their 401(k) savings to establish it. Even at that time, they aimed to grow the subcontracting company into a general contractor that leads significant construction projects.
“We have definitely seen that through, in a different way of getting there than we first thought,” James Phelps said. “I actually thought we’d get there quicker. But as mentors have said, ‘Grow smartly.’”
It is an unusual achievement for Phelps to shepherd a business through a construction recession that killed more companies than it raised, and emerge in 2017 as a minority-owned general contractor.
Asked how he did it, Phelps said “we’re stubborn.”
The firm recently landed its largest general contracting job on the $9.5 million Bader Philanthropies Inc. headquarters. Phelps will use that opportunity to help other Milwaukee subcontractors make the uphill climb toward bigger contracts on bigger jobs.
As more in Milwaukee seek ways to promote economic opportunity in the central city, Phelps said he wants “to help out where we can, and be a part of progress where it makes sense.”
Phelps has come a long way to be in a position to help other businesses grow. He worked eight years as a painter at Milwaukee Public Schools, and then expanded his horizons by participating in the Associates in Commercial Real Estate, or ACRE, training program. That led to an internship at KBS Construction. Eventually, Phelps asked his brothers to join him in founding their own business.
“It was a leap of faith, but I guess I am not a shoulda, woulda, coulda person,” Phelps said. “I don’t like dealing with what could have been. I would have rather, at that time, taken that risk and not succeeded, than have that itch still there, needing to be scratched.”
JCP Construction’s first contract was worth $30,000 to do drywall and other work on Talgo Inc.’s Milwaukee manufacturing plant. It slowly grew from there. Its contracts include interior finish carpentry on Northwestern Mutual’s downtown office tower, site concrete work for the Milwaukee Bucks arena and serving as general contractor on the Pete’s Fruit Market on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.
Phelps shares credit with his brothers for the company’s success, saying each brings their own talents to the table. One of his roles, for example, is networking in the community to make connections, and build a pipeline of work.
Clifton Phelps, vice president of administration at JCP Construction, said the three have great brain-storming sessions, and James provides “the oversight and direction.”
“It’s easy for us to create ideas, obviously, there’s three of us,” Clifton Phelps said. “But James is the ultimate vetting process.”
In the future, James Phelps said he wants to be lead developer on more projects. JCP Construction last year started down that path when it bought and renovated a building on MLK Drive for its offices.
Phelps said he also wants to collaborate with more entrepreneurs. He recently joined the board of the Center for Teaching Entrepreneurship in Milwaukee.
“There are a lot of needs I see that are out there, and other people have identified, that just haven’t been met,” Phelps said. “I want to partner with like-minded people to see some of this stuff to fruition so Milwaukee can continue to grow and change its culture to more of an entrepreneurial culture.”
JAMES PHELPS JR.
- Title: President
- Company: JCP Construction
- Education: Bachelor's degree in finance, University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee
- Family: James III (13), and Olivia (2)
- Age: 41
- Resides: Milwaukee's Harambee neighborhood
- Best decision: "Starting a construction company"
- Toughest decision: "Starting a construction company in the middle of the Great Recession"
- Like best about your job: "The ability to impact lives and neighborhood positively and earn a living in the process"
- Most important lesson learned: "That relationships and your character go a long way in this town"
- Pastimes: "Traveling, cooking, shooting, and I always appreciate a cigar with good whiskey."
- First job: Caddie at Milwaukee Country Club
- What’s playing on your car radio: "Hip-hop and assorted podcasts"
- Tool you’ve owned the longest that you still use: "Corded Milwaukee drill that was my father’s"