There was no shortage of construction work in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. But as thousands of migrant workers — many from Spanish-speaking countries — poured into the city, reputable local contractors who could maintain high standards amid the dizzying pace were at a premium. Among those who came through in the chaos: Rufino Saavedra, a contractor who had emigrated from Peru more than two decades earlier and who oversaw restoration of one of the city’s largest economic drivers — the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, a .6-mile-long building that draws 740,000 visitors and brings $2.3 billion to the Crescent City every year.
“I took the whole painting job,” says Saavedra. After 18 months, his company delivered the convention center, cleaned and restored inside and out, to the city on time, a critical feat given that “many conventions were already scheduled,” he says.
Saavedra launched Rufino’s Painting & Construction in 1990 with his American wife, Wynonne. He’d worked three months as a painter for someone else, but when an apartment manager called him with a job request, Saavedra did what he had always done had in a history of 16-hour work days: He said Yes. He picked up $27 in supplies and two friends, and from then on became his own boss. Today Saavedra provides year-round work to more than 100 people, many of whom were born in the United States. Other, foreign-born workers — most often Hispanics, who did much of the rebuilding in New Orleans — were all authorized to work in the United States. Recently Saavedra reached a milestone: More than $100 million in revenue generated over a quarter century.
“That’s my contribution as an immigrant,” he says. “That’s a lot of years in business. And it’s not easy. This business can be one of the most difficult businesses to survive in.” In 29 years, Saavedra has never left a job unfinished, even when unexpected cost overruns threaten any profit for himself. “And all of these big general contractors in this region know this.”
“I fight very hard for acceptance of immigrants in this country, and it’s paying off,” says Saavedra, who also volunteers in the community and mentors young contractors, some of whom are fellow Latino immigrants. “You have to show that you can deliver sooner, better, on budget. You have to show that you are not only good but that you are better than that. That’s your role as an immigrant, and that’s what I’m teaching my mentees.”
Saavedra was raised in a north Peruvian port town dominated by international petroleum companies. He won a scholarship to study engineering at a technical school and was working in heavy construction in Venezuela, helping to build steel plants, when that country’s economy spun into a free-fall and he accepted a friend’s job offer in Hawaii. But he stopped to see relatives in New Orleans en route and became enchanted by the city’s cultural diversity. “I never made it to Maui,” he says.
You have to show that you are not only good but that you are better than that. That’s your role as an immigrant, and that’s what I’m teaching my mentees.
That was in 1983. Saavedra says he worked “whatever I could get,” took night classes in English, and spent five years in quality control at Caterpillar Tractor Corp. before he was pink-slipped along with 200-plus workers a few weeks before Christmas 1989. After the layoff, he found work as a painter. “I never said No,“ he told a Times-Picayune reporter. “I worked from 7 o’clock in the morning until 11 o’clock at night sometimes. Three months later, I figured this little bird could fly on its own.”
After that early, bold launch, Rufino’s Painting & Construction expanded into carpentry and drywall services with a specialty in fire, freeze, and water-damage repair. The company has helped the region rebuild following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Large-scale projects include work for the U.S. National Guard, the U.S. Coast Guard, U.S Customs and Border Protection, the National World War II Museum, and, most recently, the new terminal of the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport. His firm has also done restoration work at nearly 40 schools, a particular area of passion for the father of three. “I want to leave a legacy for our children and give them a great environment in which they can learn,” he says.
“It is something that I could only dream of in my country,” Saavedra says. “I became a U.S. citizen and not only a job provider but I am also mentoring smaller companies, trying to help them to succeed as well.”