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Solano County construction firm CEO trusts her gut in making tough decisions

Inside the C-suite

The Business Journal regularly talks in depth with North Bay business leaders to find out how they manage their companies and adapt to changing conditions. Read more interviews here.

“Busy” is a four-letter Elease Cheek embraces.

The 56-year-old has her hands in a slew of enterprises, including being CEO of the construction firm Important Details Inc. based in Vallejo. She opened IDI in 2014, with commercial construction and residential demolitions starting in 2016.

What she noticed right away was the lack of qualified workers. She would bid on a job, but then struggled to find people to do the work. It only got worse when the pandemic hit. It wasn’t just IDI hurting for laborers; Cheek found the same to be true at construction companies up and down the state.

This led her to change her focus.

“I’ve started providing training for skilled labor. To do this I partnered with unions and adult schools,” Cheek said. “My goal now is to provide the development, training and placement.”

She is working through Griffin Technology Academies in Vallejo to provide training for these future construction workers.

Cheek’s belief is that training workers means IDI and other companies will have a pool of candidates to draw from.

For now, she has paused submitting bids for projects to focus on getting people up to speed to do the work. Cheek’s ambition, though, is to grow IDI in order to compete with the larger, more established construction firms in the greater Bay Area.

“Right now I’m a really little fish in a huge ocean,” she admitted. Revenues in the last year for IDI were $191,000.

Besides running IDI, Cheek along with two partners took over the Marina Lounge near the Suisun City waterfront last summer. She is a past president of the Solano County Black Chamber of Commerce. On Nov. 4, she was elected president of the Northern California Black Chamber Presidents Association. She is also a trustee on the Solano County Board of Education, which is an elected position.

The Business Journal talked with Cheek about what makes her tick as a business professional in the North Bay.

What trends that affect your industry keep you up at night?

The lack of skilled and trained labor entering into the industry. That’s why I have pivoted my company to engage in the development, training, and placement in the construction industry. Specifically working in underserved communities to boost economic development. This is the community of black and brown individuals.

I have a degree and years of service and working, and I had a hard time finding a job. If I could not find a job in the city where I lived, they didn’t have a chance.

What qualities do you admire in other executives that you've tried to emulate?

I admire their confidence, strength, and perseverance.

I’m currently traveling the roads they have already traveled and it’s reassuring that they have successfully made it and can help me overcome struggles that I may encounter or assist in my obstacles so I don’t make the same mistakes.

How have your mentors had a profound impact on your career to make you the executive you are today?

My mentors have continually supported, encouraged, and pushed me beyond my pre-determined limits. Constantly reminding me leadership is not easy but rewarding. Most diamonds go through a process before shining.

What was the hardest lesson you learned early in your career which you now recognize as an important one?

One of the hardest lessons I’ve learned was when I ignore my gut feeling things usually do not go as I expect. I now realize I need to pay attention to my objections or red flags; I must act on and appreciate my gut feeling about every situation. When ignored or slighted I find it becomes a bigger issue that I could have eliminated.

What would you re-do in your career if you could and why?

I would have started earlier. I would have gotten connected to the community. My career as a human resources director in San Francisco and I lived in Solano County. I moved to Solano County in 1995. I was not connected to the community.

Some of the things I am doing now would be at a mature level (if I had started earlier.)

The pandemic caused this awareness of what was happening in the community and now I am urgently trying to fill gaps in education and business communities.

It was difficult finding a job in Solano County, that’s why I started a business here.

What from your childhood was a clear sign you would one day have an executive leadership position?

My mother; she constantly reminded me that as the eldest child of three siblings I must lead by example. This stuck with me and was the center of all my actions and decisions, career, business and personal relationships.

I must be an example to people around me. I understand leaders are here to encourage, support and show people how to tap into their individual best qualities .

Inside the C-suite

The Business Journal regularly talks in depth with North Bay business leaders to find out how they manage their companies and adapt to changing conditions. Read more interviews here.

From an optimistic outlook, where will your business and industry be in the next five years?

In five years, I see myself as a woman in construction leading the industry in management, building, development, training and placement. As a leader, contributing to building the entrepreneur mindset and helping folks identify and reach their goals and dreams.

What concerns do you have for your business and industry looking out five years?

As an African American woman contractor, I’m concerned the lenses from history will not totally correct and reconcile the imparities that have impacted women in the industry and my community.

I’m hoping through the pandemic that experiences have been eye-opening. There are those in the community, some small businesses that did not have the infrastructure to be successful with the federal pandemic loans. I hope our society recognizes that.

Through my efforts with the training academy and internships I want to bring a lens to focus on this so we can develop opportunities for people in Solano County and Northern California.

I hope at the end of the day I’m helping people benefit and succeed for generations to come.

What are you doing to attract employees? What do they want? What are you providing that you weren’t pre-pandemic?

VIP experience for staff and customers. I would go above and beyond to ensure my staff receives the same respect and support as our clients. I want to help them to be the best they can be, helping them to set high standards and feeding their hunger and creating a sense of urgency to attain the lifestyles they wish to live.

My focus will be on underserved communities. I want to be known as someone who motivated people to embrace the space they are in and encouraging them to keep moving toward their goals and dreams for the future. In essence, I want to create future leaders.

Are wages the answer to recruiting great talent? Why or why not?

Absolutely! Wages are essential in recruiting great talent. The cost of living is extremely high in Northern California and if you want to build a solid, experienced, and loyal team, you need to pay them well and add perks to keep them.

What advice would you give someone just starting his or her career in your industry?

Be hungry, you only live once. Take chances, go outside the box, don't be afraid to think outside the box. Fail big, dream big. Dreams without gas are just dreams and fuel disappointment, so have dreams and goals daily, monthly, and yearly.

Understand to achieve success in the construction field you must apply discipline and consistency. Work at it every day. Dismantled dreams happen when we don't plan to fail, but we fail to plan. The construction field is hard work, but hard work works. Working hard is what successful people do. Don't aspire to make a living, aspire to make a difference. The construction field builds legacy.

What are the benefits and drawbacks to being located in Solano County and doing business there?

No drawbacks being in Solano County. Solano County is a centrally located in Northern California with 30-minute access to everything — Napa, San Francisco, Oakland, and Sacramento.

What are some of the challenges of working in a male-dominated profession?

Excellent question! The only drawback I see is mindset, and historical belief. However, the pandemic documented everyone should be focusing on how we move forward with ensuring our state’s growth economically.

How do you balance being a CEO, an elected official, head of a chamber of commerce and enjoying other interests?

My balance is through vision, and I’m encouraged every day in understanding what I’m doing will make a difference for generations after me.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported Elease Cheek’s title with the Solano County Black Chamber of Commerce. She is a past president.

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