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Richard “Dick” Colon

I was born in Miami, Florida in 1943. I was one of six children, five boys and one girl. Because of the racial conditions in that era; my father found it necessary to put us in a Catholic school but that did not take care of the racial aspects or the problems. We still had our times of unrest and numerous confrontations, from time to time. For some reason, I was born the one who ended up with the shortest and crankiest disposition. However, though being somewhat impatient, I did find many things of interest, besides girls. I found I was fascinated with electricity and how it worked. Here was this invisible thing which could make things move, turn and light up. I found that to be most amazing.

At one time or another, I was always tearing an iron or my mother’s toaster apart to see if I could put it back together. I was always piddling around with other electrical stuff, just to see what would happen. Even today, I am rather amazed I did not electrocute myself or someone else before I reached the age of ten.

My brothers would wonder off by themselves and do their own thing, whatever that thing was. My Dad had a job where he would be gone for 25 to 30 days at a time. Without him in control, the Colon boys ran wild and began hanging with the wrong crowds. Most of the time getting into mischief and that was just the beginning of our problems. It did not take long before we landed in a place called “Youth Hall” and not for just a day or two. Many times our stay was twenty or thirty days at a time. It did not take me long to figure out that the local police did not want the likes of us hanging around on the street corner. After a few times being locked up, I began to separate and became more ‘my own man’.

For a few years the Salvation Army and the Catholic Charities would bring food and Christmas gifts for the kids. I took my place on the sidelines and waited until it was distributed. We ate well; we had mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce and all kinds of good shit. I didn’t deserve it, but I got it anyway. I suppose life was good.

Usually, winters are generally very mild in Florida, but sometimes they get really cold. One year when that happened I had to do something to keep my family warm. One night I got one of my brothers, and went down the block out into the cold. We found a house with three small gas heaters. I took one and left the people with two. We also decided to take one light. Running as fast as we could, down the street we traveled, heading home. Right or wrong and where there’s a will there’s a way. The only thing that mattered is that we get some form of heat for our family. There was one other time when such actions became necessary. One Christmas I was working at a Christmas tree lot. When the operation closed for the evening we cleaned up and went home. About an hour later I went back to the lot and reopened. I think I made about $350.00 which bought a few nice presents and allowed my family to have a wonderful Christmas dinner. I suppose there have been times in everyone’s life when situations do not become a matter of right or wrong but more about something one must do because they care for others.

I went on my way to FSB, little did I know, but I learned fast and my ass learned faster than my brain, especially after eleven times to the White House.

I cannot say, in spite of my success, that my stay at the Florida School for Boys at Marianna was an enjoyable time in my life. It is important that we as adults move on in our lives but then the painful memories should not be forgotten and should forever stand as a reminder that we are a better breed than were our abusers.

I, like a few of the other boys, had the unfortunate pleasure visit FSB and OSB, but in the process did manage to pick up a few things which helped me later in life. One such experience was my assigned job in the electrical department. Between giving some of the boys electrical shocks, Mr. F. L. Ludwig did appear to take some interest in the lives of the boys on his crew.

Having a learning disability and having been taken to the White House of eleven occasions because I was unable to learn or pass the required tests; for some strange reason I was fortunate enough to be able to understand electrical technology.

As a young boy, I was unable to achieve or learn scholastically. However, even as a teenager I knew one thing and I knew it for sure, and that how to make money.

Sometimes when the dish breaks you can throw it in the garbage and eat off the floor or you can salvage a small piece of the plate and try as best you can to complete your dinner. I knew that that is what I had to do in order to succeed.

I remember thinking “The State of Florida has a great big rock and they are going to bash me in the head with it. I’m going to squeeze everything I can from that damn rock before they kill me with it” and that I did.

Yes, I too remember many a bad experience at the Florida School for boys, but I also have to thank the man who helped me save that one piece of the dinner plate so that I never had to eat off the floor. For that I am very appreciative.

Some might say "breaking your back" is a sign that you're a hard worker.

But for Richard J. "Dick" Colon, president of Mace Electric Co. of Baltimore, a back injury from a 1976 motocross accident meant a new commitment to hard work and becoming a success in business.

Now, he oversees one of the largest industrial and commercial electrical contractors in the Baltimore-Washington area. With $6.4 million in 2003 revenues, Mace Electric was ranked the 14th largest minority-owned business in Greater Baltimore in June by the Baltimore Business Journal.

Mace was founded in 1954 by Otis Mace. In 1983, a rejuvenated Colon heard that Mace was about to liquidate the company and decided to make an offer. "I want to buy the firm but I don't have a dime," Colon recalled.

Otis Mace was a guy who wanted to help a young businessperson get on his feet. So the two men struck a deal. Colon would pay off outstanding bank loans, and Mace would sign everything over to Colon.

But taking a company that is almost dead and bringing it back to life isn't always easy. Colon used his "little black book," which contained the names of people he previously loved to work with and those who he would never want to work with again. He hired 12 from the book to make up his "team of scorchers." Mace was expected to lose $240,000 in the first year, but Colon's team grossed $2 million within the first two years. And it continued to grow.

Now, the company's work is ubiquitous in area commercial projects, including Spinnaker Bay, a 650,000-square-foot building that will hold 350 condo apartments.

Mace has also secured a $1.2 million contract with the Maryland Port Authority for the South Locust Point Cargo Shed. The company also just wrapped up a $9 million project for the new 125-acre parking facility at Baltimore/Washington International Airport.

Colon said much of his success comes from selecting and managing good people. He gives one option to his 45 employees: "You can be a team player or leave."

In order to be a respected boss, "you need to be able to wear a different hat with each client and employee," said Colon, who is now 61.

One of those hats is a mentor. He understands the difficult road to success.

His father, an immigrant from Puerto Rico, left his family when he was 12. So Colon had to begin working at age 14.

"I earned my street degree," he said.

He learned the electrical trade from the Arthur Dozier Industrial School for Boys in Miami. And when Colon became successful with Mace Electric, he thought back to his times at the school.

"I can't imagine how difficult it must be to go to another country and not speak the language," said Colon. This concern got Colon involved with EBLO, Educational Based Latino Outreach Inc., which provides educational opportunities to better the lives of Hispanic youth. Colon, who is an active sponsor, has worked closely with Jose Ruiz, the founder of EBLO, to prepare Hispanic children for an English-based education.

"It is something he believes in and he actually takes action," said Juan Torrico, executive director at EBLO.

"Often when people do well they forget where they came from. But Richard hasn't forgotten his roots," said Gigi Guzman-Torres, chair of the Maryland Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, where Colon is an active member.

Colon believes there are four important things one should know before becoming a business owner: 1) Learn the business. 2) Learn the risks. 3) Hone your people skills. 4) Develop a new threshold of tolerance.

"Without patience, your job -- and life itself -- will be a struggle," he said.

Richard “Dick” Colon dickcolon@aol.com