The following content is featured in the Chicago & NW Indiana Spring 2016 edition of The Who’s Who in Building & Construction.
Veteran. Business Leader. Advocate.
Opcon Founder Clay Graham Personifies Perseverance and Integrity
Clay Graham, Founder and President of Opcon, a general contracting firm based in Carol Stream, Ill., believes his is a common story–one of hard times, good times, tenacity, and most important of all, commitment to family and country.
Chicago-native Graham says, “I’ve only ever known two careers in my life—construction and military service.” With Opcon, he’s parlayed his devotion to both into a highly successful business that supports his family and military veterans while feeding his entrepreneurial spirit.
Graham’s professional path to the construction industry, which began in his early 20s, was somewhat circuitous. He was a stand-out wrestler in high school, which helped him earn an athletic scholarship to Northern Illinois University. When his college wrestling career ended abruptly in his first year, he was at loose ends.
“I was somewhat lost in terms of career choices,” he recalls. “I went to college thinking I’d study biology and/or chemical engineering. I also loved animals so considered veterinary school.”
The price to stay in school was too high without the scholarship, so he dropped out and got a job in construction—and found a new love. Graham worked his way through the various trades taking on greater responsibility from lead carpenter to foreman to superintendent.
While construction was an acquired passion, his commitment to the military is embedded in his DNA.
The son of a Chicago police officer, Graham’s ancestry abounds with service to the military and to the public. On his father’s side, members of his family have served as police officers and firemen for six generations. His family’s history includes military service back to the Civil War.
With pride, Graham says, “Service to the public and the military are things that we’ve always done. It’s part of my founding principles to emphasize God, family and country. Everything I’ve done is based on those principles.”
Several years later, at the age of 27, he joined the Navy as a reservist with the Seabees.
Looking back, Graham says, “The Gulf War had just started and the Navy was growing the Seabees program to help build camps, ship docks, runways and other infrastructure necessary to support troop operations in that region. So I enlisted.”
During his time, he led more than 300 utility infrastructure and vertical construction projects in Iraq. Over the years, he and his Seabees teammates have supported war time activities around the world as well as a number of humanitarian efforts, including four separate trips to South Korea to rebuild communities, a trip to Alaska to build sports fields and a transportation museum, and a trip to Camp Pendleton in San Diego, Calif., to build barracks.
Along the way, he continued to enjoy a successful career as a senior project manager for F.H. Paschen. Looking to start his own business, Graham and his wife moved to the Lake of the Ozarks, Mo., in 1999, to start building homes and developing residential properties—a venture that would face economic challenges when Graham’s Seabees group was called to Iraq in 2003.
ONE MORE SHOT…
The Naval Mobile Construction Battalion that Graham was assigned to was dispatched to Iraq from March to October in 2003. By the time he returned home, his business had been lost. He also faced physical and mental recovery from his tour, including post-traumatic stress disorder. He and his family returned to Chicago, where Graham found employment with Chicago-based F.H. Paschen.
“Military personnel go through so much, particularly those who’ve been deployed to war zones. Often they return home only to find themselves unemployed and adrift.” – Clay Graham, Founder and President, Opcon
Unwilling to give up on his dream of owning his own construction business, Graham saved money with the goal of setting up shop as a general contractor. He attended the Oklahoma State University’s Veterans Entrepreneurship Program offered by the Riata Center for Entrepreneurship and the School of Entrepreneurship.
“I had $6,000 when I opened Opcon in 2009,” he recalls.
As a Service-Disabled, Veteran-Owned Small Business, Opcon specializes in government and military construction projects that range from interior/exterior renovations to green building (e.g., LED lighting and mechanical upgrades, solar arrays, etc.) for federal facilities, commercial businesses and hospitals. What makes the company unique is Graham’s desire to employ military veterans.
Graham explains, “Military personnel go through so much, particularly those who’ve been deployed to war zones. Often they return home only to find themselves unemployed and adrift. Through Opcon, I can help.”
His team of project managers, superintendents and tradesman is made up of about 35 percent military veterans, including some that Graham had served with over the past 20 years. Opcon’s first job was to renovate and repair the terrazzo floor at the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Mo., for the National Park Service.
By the end of the first full year of business, the company earned about $280,000 in revenue. By 2015, revenue jumped to $10.2 million.
Since inception, the company has completed 260 projects valued at $40 million across six states: Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Missouri and Kentucky. Opcon has 23 full-time staff members and up to 24 seasonal craft workers, depending on the work available. The company was selected for the Best of Business Award by the Small Business Community Association in 2015. Projects of note include the Edward Hines, Jr. VA Hospital in Hines, Ill., the Oscar G. Johnson VA Medical Center in Milwaukee, Wis., several schools within the Chicago public school system, and the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial at the St. Louis Gateway Arch in Missouri. The company has also replaced and restored the signature roof of a historic landmark—the Clement J. Zablocki VA Medical Center, a Federal Aviation Administration parking lot in Des Plains, Ill., and worked on projects for commercial real estate companies, such as Blue Start Properties.
When he’s not working or with family, Graham continues to advocate for his fellow veterans as a board member for the Elite Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Business Network, a nonprofit organization that helps service-disabled veterans and veteran-owned small businesses.
He’s now retired from the Seabees, with over 21 years of service.
“I loved the Seabees and had some great times. No doubt, I would still be in it if I were physically able…and life didn’t get in the way,” he concludes.
That “life” is the growth of Opcon and, of course, his continued commitment to family, to his fellow veterans and to his community.