Though it was two decades ago, Abul A. Islam remembers the launch of his then-fledgling engineering/construction firm like it was yesterday.
In the 600-square- foot basement of his Cromwell condominium, there was a desk, a computer, a drafting table and a sofa. At the time (1991), there were two or three employeees, not including his wife Rubina.
After working eight years in the engineering business for major companies, Islam wanted to run his own operation.
"I always wanted to do something different,'' he said. "I do get bored quickly in regards to doing one type of work.''
AI Engineers Inc. of Middletown today markets itself as a company that does a variety of work in the engineering and construction management business, including inspecting and designing bridges, highways, transportation projects and buildings.
The firm is now located in a two-story 16,000-square-foot building that Islam designed and built. There are 104 employees, offices in Virginia, New York, Boston, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Albany, NY. Seventeen managers report directly to Islam.
Contracts with states and municipalities range from $1 million to $8 million and include a $70 million railroad replacement contract in Branford, signed four years ago and scheduled for completion in 2014. Currently, AI Engineers is working on 12 projects in six different cities.
"We like to call ourselves a diversified firm,'' said Islam, 53. Born in Pakistan, Islam came to the United States in 1983, settling in New York City, where he earned a master's degree in civil engineering from City College in Queens. "When a client calls us, they expect that we do most of things in the world of engineering, from designing a bridge, to designing, building and repairing a building.''
The firm began getting most of its business through federal and state set-aside programs for minority businesses; now it is vibrant enough to compete "with the big boys'' and has secured several bids as the "prime" contractor. If there is a model for how a small, minority owned business can expand and prosper through a government diversity-conscious program, AI Engineers Inc. is it.
The work the company performs is diverse, but so too are the employees. There are about 32 nationalities among the 104 employees, including workers from Poland, Spain, Uganda, Nepal, China, Thailand, Pakistan and India. Islams speaks seven different dialects, most from South Asia.
Being a Muslim businessman competing in American markets can pose challenges, because of stereotypes and biases. Islam says he tries to focus simply on "delivering good products; good people" and being a good communicator.
Strong management and collaboration are particularly important in the engineering sector, he said, because many engineers are introverts.
"Engineers are brilliant people, very analytical,'' he said. "You give them a process and they follow it diligently. But they really don't have good communications and interpersonal skills. I had the personality to talk to people. That was in my nature. I want to give that to the rest of the people (in the company.) Making them talk to each other has been the biggest challenge. So, this has been a great experience. How do you meld these (very smart) people.''
The goal now is to double the size of the company in the next three years, and that will likely mean some expansion overseas, where Islam can take advantage of his and AI's employees' international background. For now, there is work to do in Bridgeport, on the promising Steel Point development project; bridge design work in Virginia and Massachusetts; and building rehab work on two Veterans Administration projects in Rhode Island and West Haven.
Islam has come a long way from the young man who grew up in Karachi, Pakistan, in a working class family, the son of government telephone company workers. He always excelled in math and chemistry. At the time, he was a self-described "socialist sympathizer.'' These days, this accomplished businessman says his political view have moved to the center. He is now an avowed capitalist; a "free enterprise" entrepreneur.
Islam says there are two types of entrepreneurs. The "lifestyle businessman" opens a business in hopes of establishing a certain lifestyle for their family. The "value-oriented businessman'' is in business to create value and expand their enterprise. Islam puts himself in the latter category.
"If businesses do not have forward-moving goals, they will not survive,'' Islam said. "You have to keep moving forward.''
In his spare time, Islam is an avid reader and a classical pianist. He is also a supporter of urban education, and has provided internships and served on the advisory board of the Academy of Engineering and Green Technology in Hartford.
In recent months, Islam has become more widely known as the developer of an ambitious proposal to build a $50 million, 15-story, 195-unit apartment complex in downtown Hartford, site of Channel 3's former building. Islam owns the property, says he has put about $2.5 million of his own money up; the rest he is looking to finance through public dollars. His initial plans to build an office tower at the Broadcast House site had to be revamped because of a sluggish market.
The Hartford project — known as The Residences at River View — is a personal investment for Islam, separate from his business dealings. A fence surrounding a hole in the ground is a reminder that Islam likes to dream big.
"All of the money I've made is in that hole,'' Islam said. "I believe in Hartford. I'm taking a risk on my community.''
It's not unlike the gamble he took in 1991, when his Cromwell basement launched a prosperous enterprise.