How to Thrive During a Recession: Keith Tillage’s Leadership Story

Tuck made me start looking at my business from a holistic standpoint, not just day-to-day. I saw the value of time. I saw the value of money. I saw the value of what I brought to the company and how it could be best utilized.

– Keith Tillage

By Anita Warren; Getting Ink Done

Keith Tillage’s construction firm was just seven years old when the U.S. economy took a nosedive. Many businesses didn’t survive the recession. Others survived only by drastic downsizing. Tillage’s company, Tillage Construction LLC, actually grew, experiencing 294 percent growth between 2008 and 2011. The company’s success is a testament not only to Tillage’s hard work but his responsiveness to opportunity when it knocks at his door.

Previously a consultant with a top financial services firm, Tillage says he’d always dreamed of becoming an entrepreneur. Yet he admits he didn’t know the full extent of what he was getting into when he started the commercial construction company with his father, Ken, in 2000. Ken was an experienced builder, but Keith was a novice. “At the time, I was single and I had this idealistic approach that I could make anything work,” the younger Tillage recalls. The two recruited a friend and a relative and set about finding commercial facilities to build, renovate, and maintain.

Among the jobs they snagged in those formative years was a small project at Barksdale Air Force Base. The work as a general contractor paid just a few thousand dollars, but Tillage signed on in hopes it would lead to something more, and, in fact, it did; that initial project grew quickly and others followed, eventually adding millions of dollars in revenue for the Louisiana-based company. Tillage Construction grew so robust during this phase, says Tillage, that “we were strong enough to go out and compete in the private sector, and it seemed like just as we were getting into private-sector work, a boom was starting to happen again.”

Tillage was determined to continue this winning streak, so he embraced the opportunity to attend Tuck’s Building a High-Performing Minority Business in 2009 when the Southern Region Minority Supplier Development Council offered to sponsor him. Three years later, he returned to Tuck to attend Growing the Minority Business to Scale. Through Tuck’s programs, he began to realize he needed to participate in projects at the decision-making, not just the production, level.

That revelation led him to pursue a multimillion-dollar joint venture. “The reason I’d never done a joint venture before is I was never in a place to negotiate from a strength position. You need governance, and before Tuck, I don’t think that my mindset would have allowed me to see the ramifications and/or the benefits of having governance in a deal,” he says. “Tuck made me start looking at my business from a holistic standpoint, not just day-to-day. I saw the value of time. I saw the value of money. I saw the value of what I brought to the company and how it could be best utilized.”

Today, Tillage Construction boasts annual revenues of $20 million. Its roughly three dozen employees operate out of offices in Baton Rouge, New Orleans, and Fort Polk, LA, and Dallas, TX. The company utilizes local construction labor whenever possible, adding new jobs and revenues to the communities where it operates. “Our growth is targeted for specific industries—healthcare, transportation, specifically aviation, and also casino gaming. From those industries, I’m trying to control growth by keeping overhead as low as possible while increasing volume. We want to do that by going into other segments,” Tillage explains.

Tillage confesses to being a “huge proponent” of the Tuck School’s minority business executive programs. “If anybody asks me what the most significant thing is about Tuck, besides fantastic faculty and the coursework that you learn, it’s the interaction and networking with the other minority businesspeople—the best and brightest throughout the country—that I never would have met,” he says. “I can’t say enough about the program. I owe the success of my company to the things that I’ve learned and the people that I’ve met at Tuck.”

Keith Tillage, Owner, Tillage Construction LLC
Building a High-Performing Minority Business, Class of 2009
Growing the Minority Business to Scale, Class of 2012

More Resources:

Minority Business Entrepreneurs
Building a High-Performing Minority Business
Growing the Minority Business to Scale

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