Huge Career Change Finds Harvey Earning Her Stripes

Oct. 24, 2018
Alejandra Harvey traded in success as a hospital administrator to own a pavement-striping company working on some of Colorado’s most visible highway jobs

It’s a pretty safe bet that Alejandra Harvey is the only contractor around who has studied pre-med and holds a Masters Degree in Hospital Administration. She's also a member of the Under 40 in Construction Equipment Class of 2018.

Harvey, 32, is president and CEO of American Striping Co. in Englewood, Colorado. In a journey that started just two years ago, she has taken her company from seven employees and $400,000 in revenue to 22 employees and $4 million in revenue.

In addition to business acumen, she’s brought soft skills with her from her hospital career that have allowed her to maintain a hard focus on the quality, well being, and personal growth of her employees. The result has been a highly skilled, proud, and dedicated crew.

“I think the ultimate is to surround yourself with the right people,” Harvey says. “I think I have an incredible team that works with me and each other every day. I may not know everything about striping, but I understand business. And I do my best to try and understand people. I really think that’s what it comes down to no matter what industry you’re in, is how can I make this a great culture and a great place to work? The rest comes.”

Harvey’s path from hospitals to contracting was far from choreographed.

“I moved out to Colorado from Virginia eight years ago to finish my residency and start in hospital administration, and I loved what I did in the hospitals but I always knew that I wanted to start something on my own from the ground up,” Harvey says. “I wanted to build something with a new approach to an old industry, bringing an upbeat culture focused on accountability and professionalism not only in our relationship with clients, but also with our workers.”

Harvey had been involved in and exposed to a number of construction projects in hospitals, but that wasn’t the trigger for her career change.

“It kind of fell in my lap, the opportunity,” Harvey says. “My future partner, Andre Esprenger, was looking for various opportunities and he had a found a striping company that was looking for investors. My plan at the time was to stay in the hospital world, but I said I would help do the due diligence.”

As a result, Harvey met numerous striping professionals and spent time analyzing the company. “I looked at what were they doing and how this company was being run, but ultimately for various reasons we didn’t end up partnering with them,” she says.

“Then, a couple weeks later, their head foreman called me and said, ‘You spent some time with us in a good faith effort and paid some salaries and got to know a lot of the business—why don’t you start
a company?’

“So after eight years working in a hospital, on a whim, I said, ‘You’re right, I will.'"

Learn more about an all women's crew initiative to change industry norms. 

Essentially, the start-up was the foreman’s idea, a foreman who ended up coming to work for Harvey. With his guidance, she was able to buy and refurbish two older striping trucks, and the company was born.

In the beginning, Harvey asked potential clients to take a leap of faith.

“We spoke to a lot of the [road] contractors and said we’re a new little company,” she says. “I’m the only woman- and minority-owned striping company in Colorado, so we kind of went out to the community and said, ‘We’re here, we’ve gone to great lengths to get the best guys, we have the experience, so let’s stripe.’”

Three employees became seven at the end of the first year, a year that saw Harvey herself jump on a striping truck. “I was on the road, laying out, doing thermoplastic, and had been on the back of the truck,” Harvey says. “I’ve placed cones, my dad’s been a flagger, and everyone’s helped out to make this a growing, proud company.”

American Striping’s growth has been rapid, but well managed thanks to key hires with striping company experience. “In the beginning, everything was from the ground up,” Harvey says. “I had to learn
how to bid a job, how to price materials from paper clips to pallets of paint, and many people helped with
their expertise.

“And Colorado is a low-bid state, so essentially, they always look to see who is the lowest bid; however, I’ve found that a lot of it is also based on relationships and trust, and whether or not you can show up on time and put down a quality product,” Harvey says.

As 2016’s 15 jobs transitioned into 2017’s 120 jobs, American’s equipment needs also grew. It has 16 trucks overall, including five paint trucks for striping, pickups, a grinding unit for removing pavement markings, a skid steer, and an epoxy truck.

“Epoxy is a two-part resin-paint mix that we use in Colorado, it’s a more durable product,” Harvey says. “Those trucks are very expensive.”

Harvey is keeping a close eye on equipment costs, and she’s embracing telematics to help.

“I’m doing job costing, I’m tracking expenses, I’m tracking gasoline, and maintenance,” she says. “I think all of the folks involved in construction can probably commiserate with me in that it depends on the weather, so it’s either feast or famine.

“In the winter we don’t do a lot, but in the summer it’s full speed ahead,” Harvey says. “So you have to be able to prepare adequately and have enough equipment; maybe it might sit for two months in the winter, but if I don’t have enough in the summer, I won’t be able to meet the needs of my contractors. I not only look at expenses, but also at projected growth.

“How many jobs do we have, how far are they? We are in all four corners of Colorado and also into Wyoming, so a lot of these trucks can’t come back at night,” she says.

“So say I have to put one up in Alamosa or Pagosa Springs for three months, which means I probably need a back-up for that, because these trucks are not only expensive, but they can also go down pretty easily.”

Add that to the fact that striping trucks aren’t like backhoes—when one goes down, it’s not possible to simply call a rental house and get another.

“We have started a small maintenance program on all of our equipment,” Harvey says. “Right now, we just bring a guy in who we have partnered with, he has another job but he comes in a couple of days a week to check everything and make sure we’re good. We’re looking to hire a tech; we’re always growing and always hiring, always looking for the best of the best.”

From a vehicle-maintenance perspective, Harvey uses telematics and GPS to track hours and utilization, and to determine when a unit may need maintenance. American’s third-party provider is Samsara.

“We’re very sensitive to cost,” she says. “I want to make sure that we’re keeping our trucks in good working order, and we continue to work to get newer equipment, and that requires budgeting and good projections.”

Harvey also uses technology for safety.

“We use it a lot of it from a protection perspective, to make sure the guys are safe, because GPS and all these systems have cameras on the outside of our vehicles,” she says.

“We recently had an incident where the pointer bar was out and it hit a car. And of course the gal called and said it was our fault, but it turns out the footage showed otherwise. It saved us a lot.”

Harvey could talk tech all day long, including how she’d like to become more involved in helping the state develop and regulate new pavement marking and removal processes, and how she’d like to be involved in hydroblasting, a Colorado initiative for removing markings with water instead of dust-producing grinding.

But her favorite subject, the one that lights her up, is her employees and the culture of pride and workmanship she’s nourished.

“At the end of the day, they kind of see striping—and now I see striping—as an art,” Harvey says. “We can either make or break an entire construction project. If contractors have spent months laying this asphalt and redoing the streets and everything looks great, and then we come in and do a wormy line, a squiggly line, and it’s everywhere, we could ruin the project. It’s not just a question of aesthetics; it’s all about safety.

“So I think there’s so much credit to be given to these guys who have been doing this for years and really see this as an art form,” Harvey says.

 “And what other job can you see your product, not even two minutes later? There’s so much work put into health care from an administrator’s standpoint; we put policies and things in place that maybe you won’t see for months, and here you can see [the work] as it’s going down on the road. So there’s a lot of immediate gratification in putting down a really good product,” Harvey says.

“I don’t necessarily need to be the biggest company, I want to be the best company. Without my team, I wouldn’t exist. So I’m very grateful for the work they do every day, and I want to make sure they feel they are heard and that their needs are being met so they can go out and do the best job they possibly can.”

Growing revenue tenfold in two years has American off to a great start.