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Sylvester D. Clay

Sylvester D. Clay

Pregame Challenges

For Sylvester Clay, growing up wasn’t easy. Born to a teenage mother and largely in the absence of parents, he could have easily fallen into the trap of becoming a statistic. Further proving the odds were not in his favor, Clay was raised by his grandparents who weren’t in any position to take on the responsibility of financially supporting him, so he learned how to fend for himself very early in his young life.

By working at local little league games, often hitchhiking to the ball field with his umpire bag in tow, Clay was able to financially support himself by the age of thirteen. Fortunately, he quickly became a lot bigger than most boys his age and was able to pass for much older that he was, and by the age of 14, he was spending after school and weekend hours working on a framing crew.

By the time he was in tenth grade, Clay began coaching and led the Salem Church pee-wee basketball team to a 12-1 record and the league championship. At 16, he bought his own car, giving him the freedom to take on more challenges. That same year, he was awarded a full scholarship to attend Commonwealth Christian School, where he later graduated with a high school diploma. During his time there, he led his basketball team to the state championships and in 1986, the National Association of Christian Schools Basketball Championship.

The Coaching Days

From 1986 to 1990, Sylvester Clay attended Carson Newman College on a full basketball scholarship. There, he won conference championships, taking his team to national tournaments and further developing his coaching abilities. After finishing school at Carson Newman, he welcomed the opportunity to follow his passion for coaching and leading people by joining the coaching staff at his alma mater.

During the next two years, he went to work for Middle Tennessee State and was later hired as Associate Head Coach for Bristol University in Tennessee, where he polished his talents for recruiting, scouting, game prepping and developing the team’s post position players. From there, he went to Milligan College in Johnson, Tennessee, where he coached the basketball team to victory in the Tennessee-Virginia Athletic Conference Championships with a 27-9 record, the team best record since 1948.

By that point, Coach Clay had developed a reputation for being capable of rebuilding programs to produce winning teams and was in high demand throughout the college arena. Next, he was offered a position with Virginia Intermont College as Associate Head Coach, and the following season, he became Head Coach of Junior College basketball at Knoxville College in Morristown, Tennessee. There, he took a program that had a 1-32 losing streak and turned it around to win 30-5, knocking off the number one ranked junior college in the country. That season, Knoxville College in Morristown witnessed the most wins in college history.

Looking for new challenges, Clay moved from coaching to starting a sports entertainment business. For his first project, he teamed with John Lucas, a number one NBA draft pick from the Maryland Terps and a long-time NBA great. Together, they formed STAND (Students Taking Action Not Drugs), a series of summer sports camps for at-risk children in the Bristol, Virginia area . Clay drew in the participation of nationally recognized athletes and entertainers who volunteered their time to help with the program. Children had the opportunity to meet Green Bay’s Reggie White and Keith Jackson, Tony Page of the Miami Dolphins and Art Moore of the New England Patriots, to name a few. Basketball greats, Dominque Wilkins, Stacy Augman, Spud Web, Gerald Wilkins, Danny Roundfield, Tree Rollins, Doc Rivers, Cazzie Russell and Johnny Davis participated as well. In addition, the program drew the support of entertainers Wesley Snipes, Flavor Flav, Kid’n Play and boxing legend, Evandor Holyfield.

With his connections in the sports industry, he later went on to start the NBA-sanctioned youth summer camp, Stars of Tomorrow, which took on over 3,000 children in areas of Virginia, Tennessee and Georgia every summer. He also founded the Harlem Road Kings Comedy Basketball Team, based out of Morristown, Tennessee, which boasted such NBA greats as Metal Lock Lemon and Sweet Lou Dunbar. During this time, he was also responsible for taking Al Harrington straight from high school to become the number one draft pick for the Indiana Pacers.

Expanding the Play Book

Shortly after the NBA strike in 1998 and 1999, Clay switched gears and invested money into an environmental cleaning service. Always one to go against the grain, he decided to concentrate on hurricane cleanup, securing projects working as a minority contractor. He became the first contractor in the Carolina area to bring in helicopters to do tree removal off plush golf courses and resorts.

Clay expanded his service’s capabilities by obtaining trade certifications, contractor licenses, insurance and bonding and began doing business with the North Carolina Redevelopment and Housing Authority. In desperate need of a take-charge contractor who could assemble a team to do vacancy cleanup in government housing, he proved himself quickly, moving from cleaning floors and appliances to patching holes in walls and completing general punch out work with ease. After learning all the tricks of the trade, he was awarded a contract for a block of apartments. He was now solely responsible for performing a complete turn-key project.

When he realized he was competing against other contractors who were taking two weeks to finish one apartment, Clay realized the true value of building teams to self-perform work. He wanted to perform better and faster than the rest, so he devised a game plan utilizing the talents of his self-performing teams. Running two teams in twelve-hour shifts, Clay’s crews began working around the clock, 24 hours a day and often, seven days a week. This approach, made it possible for to turn over one apartment unit per day with zero punch list items. They quickly proved themselves to be faster and better than the competition.

This time, Clay had developed a real niche in construction and began to market his company at government trade shows. He had become one of the most sought after vacancy prep, turn-key contractors in the country. For the next three years, he lived on the road, going from hotel to hotel with a crew of 15 men. In all, he worked on remodeling over 40,000 housing units across the country.

“I had to make sacrifices in my personal life to remain committed to building the company,” said Clay. “We travelled all over the Southeast and worked in the worst and most dangerous housing complexes in the country. We had projects in North and South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, Florida and Virginia. We were all over the place.”

In 2002, Clay ventured into developing his own private label for an exterior coating product. Working with a chemist, he teamed with a private manufacturing company to develop a product that could be applied in both the winter and the summer months. This development facilitated his creation of the first minority-owned paint material product in the country, and since he had already established his crews, he could guarantee the labor as well as the product with a 30-year material and labor warranty. Clay’s marketing plan paid off. Within the first year of starting out in the Richmond, Virginia market, Clay achieved the Million Dollar Top Producer Award from the paint manufacturing company.

Not only did working in the residential market prove to be a success in and of itself, but it also led him to pursue other projects. In the summer of 2006, Clay obtained his Class ‘A’ Contractors License, giving him the opportunity to work on larger-scale projects. With his team, he moved into self-performing framing, insulation, drywall and ceilings for residential and commercial builders. Soon, he was in direct competition with builders he had subcontracted with.

“I had my share of road blocks,” said Clay. “I may not have been able to get financial backing from banks, but I was determined to figure out a way to bring my dream of being a builder to reality.”

Despite all of the challenges Clay faced, he had set a goal to become and to be recognized as one of the top builders in the Richmond market, so he went out and secured funds from private investors who were eager to make money in the booming real estate market.

“Everyone told me that it would be impossible to accomplish,” remembers Clay. “They told me to set more reasonable goals and to not go for such a high price point. I was told it would take years to achieve that.”

But once again, Sylvester Clay had a vision and a goal, and more importantly, a game plan on how he would achieve it. Within one year of building custom homes, Clay had built and obtained over $10 million worth of assets and houses. In addition, he had built five high-end, fully decorated Parade of Homes houses and won 25 awards finishing first place in every category that his homes were entered into. Clay had done something that had not been done in the Richmond or national markets and had his homes featured in over 15 magazines. In fact, House Trend Magazine did a 16-page article recognizing him for his exceptional work.

In lieu of all of his success in the housing market, when the economy changed and took a turn for the worst, Clay, like many other homebuilders, ended up facing tough financial times. He found himself sitting on too much vacant property. Nothing was moving off the market. It was time to pull from his past and make game-type decisions. Searching for guidance, Clay read the book “Who Moved My Cheese,” a book dedicated to helping people deal with change. Gaining a different perspective, he researched new ventures in what was a down-turned housing market and explored new opportunities. Of particular interest was an article about Governor Warner’s Small, Women and Minority-Owned (SWaM) business initiative. Healthcare and institutional systems were looking for minority contractors to establish diversity in the industry. Once again, Clay saw a huge opportunity to set out to break ground in the commercial construction market. This time, he would work with the government.

Making a Slam Dunk

The highly qualified, motivated and tenacious company president set out for a meeting with the Capital Outlay and Facility Management Department at Virginia Commonwealth University to inquire about the process for bidding on upcoming construction projects. He was advised that his business must be SWaM certified to perform work for the University and was referred to the Department of Minority Business Enterprise (DMBE) to obtain certification. Prepared with applications in hand, Clay made an immediate appointment to meet with DMBE and was finally on his way to qualifying for the job.

“I was eager to get to work and couldn’t afford to wait the normal three to four months to get certified. The department took the time to hand carry my application through the system. With some determination, I was fortunate enough to walk out that very next day SWaM certified and on my way to rebuilding my business,” added Clay.

Within 24 hours of receiving certification, the business was awarded a $140,000 contract to perform interior building work for the Medical College of Virginia. Clay’s team completed the project in less than one month and has since been awarded a combined total of over $1.2 million in work. In less than one year, he has established himself as one of the best self-performing contractors in healthcare and institutional construction.

Today, Clay continues to apply the same coaching spirit and determination to building Team ACP. Positioned for growth and with Clay’s creative approach for doing business, Team ACP’s group of experienced construction professionals has secured contracts worth up to $4.5 million and will continue to tackle multiple projects across the state of Virginia.

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