Even in retirement, Ron Leeper is focused on making Charlotte better.

The former head of R.J. Leeper Construction talks about his next steps, including efforts in affordable housing.

It’s been nearly two weeks since Bright Hope Capital LLC announced its acquisition of R.J. Leeper Construction. Under that deal, Ron Leeper, the construction company’s founder, stepped aside as president.

He launched the company in 1993 with a “character loan” from former Bank of America CEO Hugh McColl. Since then, R.J. Leeper has grown to become one of the region’s largest Black-owned businesses.

I met with Leeper at the company that still bears his name to talk about next steps. Packing boxes surrounded his desk.

“Just signing the company over and saying, ‘It’s yours now,’…I can just take a big breath,” he said. 

Leeper cut his teeth in public office as a Charlotte City Council member for nearly a decade in the 1970s and ‘80s. He’s mentored several elected officials who have followed into elected office, including James “Smuggie” Mitchell, who will now run Leeper’s former company as part-owner and president.

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As it turns out, Leeper’s next chapter will be an extension of his last. 

He’ll stay on as a consultant for R.J. Leeper, but also he’ll dedicate time to the work of the Housing Impact Fund, a $58 million private-sector fund with a goal of preserving roughly 1,500 affordable housing units in Mecklenburg County. The fund was announced in November and includes money from individual and corporate investors.  

The project will allow Leeper a platform to increase minority representation in the construction industry by working with several nonprofits to introduce construction as a career pathway. 

“Construction is not just digging ditches,” he said. “We wanted to make sure that we were moving toward a livable wage.”

His former company is completing several projects, including renovations and expansions at the Charlotte Convention Center and at Charlotte Douglas International Airport, that allowed him to prioritize hiring minority subcontractors. He expects that push will remain a guiding principle with Mitchell now at the helm.

Beyond talk of retirement, Leeper also discussed the aftermath of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and its impact on race relations, challenges he’s overcome in his 30-plus years in business and what Charlotte must do to achieve upward mobility for all. 

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Answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

When it eventually slows down, what would you like to do in retirement?

I’m kind of already doing it. I’m working with [Housing Impact Fund managing members] Erskine Bowles and Nelson Schwab on an affordable housing effort. We raised about $50 million in the last several months to buy what’s called NOAH — naturally occurring affordable housing. They’re close to the city and already existing. The goal is to buy those apartments, cap the rent for 20 years, and make sure that we maintain some affordable spaces for people who, from time to time, have challenges with just paying rent.

The role that I’ve been playing is that R.J. Leeper happened to renovate the apartments and use other minority subcontractors to do that, so we’ve got about 100% minority subcontractor participation. We wanted to make sure that as we bought these apartments and made improvements to them, that we use as many minority contractors as we can.

Lake-Mist-apts-Charlotte
R.J. Leeper Construction is the lead contractor for the Housing Impact Fund, an initiative announced in November 2020 that seeks to renovate and preserve about 1,500 existing apartment units over the next two years designated for low-income families. The Fund announced its first purchase in December, the Lake Mist Apartments in south Charlotte. Photo via Apartment Finder

The second part of that is we’re creating a workforce development component. We will hire a person whose sole responsibility would be to do assessments of residents — find out where they are and what we can do to help them to get on a path toward upward mobility so they can increase their income and eventually move out of affordable housing or even become a homebuyer. That’s the ultimate goal that I’d like to see — more people in our community become homebuyers because that’s how we create generational wealth.

I’m pretty hyped up about that. It’s something that I’m looking forward to continuing to be involved in.

What about fun stuff?

I’m able to spend more time with my wife. 

This is fun stuff for me to have the burden of responsibility for people’s lives and livelihoods. Now, it’s just having flexibility. [The company] still wants me to come around and help. I want to see the company do well, and I think it will.

The Lord has allowed me to do well so I can do good. That’s my purpose for being here, so that makes me happy. That’s my enjoyment when I can change somebody’s life.

OK, I’ll take that.

[Laughs]

Preserving existing housing has been cited as a solution to tackle Charlotte’s affordable housing crisis. Some say it won’t solve the problem. Do you think it’s a sustainable option?

There’s no doubt about it. I don’t think there’s any one solution, I think there are multiple solutions. We’ve looked at ground-up apartments, but when you look at how long it takes to get financing, get support from North Carolina Housing Finance Agency, get decisions to vote on and support it and then build, it might be two or three years. Then, you might be talking, at best, 300 units.

With this fund, we’re talking about buying 1,500 units within two years. I’m not suggesting that we don’t do ground-up units, but I’m saying we’ve got over a 30,000 family gap in terms of need. [Combining both options], you’re at least working a little smarter in a more coordinated way to reduce the gap that’s out there.

What have been some of the opportunities and challenges for Black representation in the construction industry?

[Society] has sort of painted the wrong picture about construction, particularly to young folks who may not be college-bound or who may not know much about construction other than somebody says it’s hard work. 

[R.J. Leeper] is working with groups like Charlotte Works, Goodwill, Urban League and Central Piedmont [Community College] to help young people who may not necessarily be focused. What I’ve observed is there hasn’t really been a connection between the job trainers and the companies that need people who are trained. I’ve tried to make some connections.

The two major projects that we’re on right now are the convention center and airport [expansions]. Both of those are very large jobs and multi-year jobs. We developed a workforce-development plan and attached it to the contract for all of our subcontractors. We’re calling this a pre-apprentice program.

We said, “If you’re going to work on this project, one of the requirements is that we want you to hire at least one person from one of our external partners. And we’re encouraging you to pay them no less than $15 an hour.”

What we found is that our subcontractors didn’t necessarily need trained people. What they needed were people who had been vetted. It’s working so well that the average person that’s been hired on both of our projects — we’ve got about 60 people who have previously been underemployed or unemployed — is making $17 an hour. So, we’ve raised our starting rate to $17 an hour.

A large part of your influence has also been in politics and civic engagement. What has been your takeaway from those experiences? 

I’ve tried to be accessible to new people interested in serving in public office and telling them the truth. I find it so often that people are unwilling to tell young people or old people or anybody, the truth. I mean, we can see a lot of that going around on the national scene.

I’d like to think that being honest with folks has helped some people to make the right choices, the right decisions. A constant reminder to them is that when they chose to be a public official, that it’s really a service position. It’s called a public servant for a reason; it’s not called “public serve me.” 

I often use that to remind elected officials when they get to a certain place. It’s pretty easy, after a period of time of being in public office, for people to try to put you on a pedestal or try to raise you up to a level where you begin to think that you deserve to be a little bit higher than everybody else.

Ron Leeper. Photo: QCity Metro

You’ve been an activist and stood up for the rights of people who have been marginalized. Thinking about the moment we’re in right now, particularly following the insurrection at the Capitol, what are your thoughts about the conversation around double standards when it comes to protests?

I’ve seen this play out over the course of my life where Black folks who are fighting for basic rights, human rights, constitutional rights, have been judged and treated differently. So to see how the rioters were treated recently at the Capitol reminded me that we’ve come a long way but we still have not achieved that fair and just treatment for all citizens.

I think seeing what happened during the protests after George Floyd and the other murders that took place over the course of the summer, and seeing a broader cross-section of people join in that, reminded me of the 1960s and early 70s when I was actively involved in civil unrest. There wasn’t quite the media exposure, and I think it’ll change some people just seeing it up close and personal. 

The insurrection that took place at the Capitol, I think is going to cause some people to understand exactly how unfair the system is and how unfair Black folks and people of color have been treated in this country. It’ll cause some people to acknowledge that we’ve still got some serious racial problems in this country that we have to address.

Are there issues more urgent than others when it comes to access and opportunities for the Black community?

I think that all of these issues are interconnected, and it all comes down to systemic racism, to be honest with you. Whether it’s access to something like transportation, access to jobs, access to business opportunities, a lack of access to capital, they’re all intertwined. They’re part of the same system.

I was in this business for almost 30 years, and I got a lot of accolades about significant projects that we’ve been able to do. But it was a constant struggle for 30 years.

I’m about as well-known as anybody in the city. I have a lot of access to a lot of people. If I struggle to get access to capital, imagine the other Black and Brown businesses that don’t have nearly the social capital that I have. Imagine how they do from day to day.

There is a segment of our society, when it comes to economics, their mindset is, “If we have anything to do with it, we’re not going to let you be on par with us in an economic arena.” And that’s where the power is controlled. I’ve just seen it too often.

Even the big projects that I’ve done, because I have had limited access to capital, I’ve had to take smaller pieces of those big projects. People see me working on the airport and the convention center, but I’ve got a smaller piece. Had I had access to capital, I could have taken a bigger piece. I’m not complaining; I’ve done reasonably well. But I’m saying, how much better could I have done had I not had the barriers put in front of me?

A rendering of the convention center expansion. Photo via charlottemeetings.com

What does Charlotte need to do to provide more opportunities for Black business owners to get that access to capital?

Charlotte needs to put the mirror up in front of its face, look at it and say, “Are we just always talking about upward mobility and how to improve people’s lives? Are we really serious about it?” 

If you’re really serious about it, then you put some things in place. 

Either Charlotte needs to decide that we are serious about changing the upward trajectory of all of our citizens in our community, and let’s identify the thing that we can do to change that trajectory, or, do we just want to talk about it? We want to set up task forces, we want to set up review processes and all that. 

It’s just as simple as a lending institution saying, “We’re gonna take a risk on this.” That’s what Hugh McColl did with me when I first started this business. He said, “I’m gonna give you a character loan.” 

He loaned me more money than I could have afforded to pay back, and I didn’t have to put anything up but my character. There are a number of people out there who I could vouch for today if a bank said, “What do you think about so and so that’s doing business with you?”

What’s your message to young people in business trying to make a way for themselves in this city?

The message I consistently give to young people and others who are in business is that you’ve got to be willing to stay the course. I’ve seen so many people give up and give out and quit when the opportunity was right around the corner. They just get discouraged. 

Despite all the odds that I have been confronted with over the course of my life, I have just refused…in fact, when the system or the world seems to make it harder for me, put barriers in front of me, I get more determined.

There are people who know that if this guy can strive and survive under those circumstances, what would he do if the playing field was leveled? They know that there are folks in our community who, if given half a chance, will pass them like they were standing still. 

The goal is that if the playing field is leveled, that every American citizen can live up to their greatest potential. That can’t do anything but make the country better, make the city of Charlotte better.

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