Mohawk Lady's Big Heart Wins in Construction Biz

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Franki Arquette is breaking double barriers as she prepares to go national in the tough, mostly non-Indian male construction business. Her Akwesasne Construction Co., Inc. is thriving in her home state of Connecticut and she's bidding on projects of $100 million and more as far away as California and Washington state.

So what brought her to the upper ranks of this fiercely competitive world? She credits her strong family foundation, but she is also reaping the reward of a good heart.

Arquette grew up in a strong Mohawk family near Syracuse, N.Y., with roots in the Akwesasne Reservation on the Canadian border. One of six children, three sons and three daughters, she was deeply influenced by her late father, Francis, one of the famous Mohawk high-steel workers. "I would listen to his stories," she said. "The Mohawks had the natural balance to walk on the steel girders, to get up there and not be afraid. They built all of New York City in the 1930s."

But it was her mother Nonie's example as a compassionate teacher of handicapped children that gave her the inspiration for her new career. In 1993, Franki was taking time off with relatives on the Akwesasne Reservation and volunteered to care for a wheelchair-bound cousin. "There are scarcely any paved roads in Akwesasne," she said, "so you can imagine that there aren't any sidewalks."

As she struggled to push the wheelchair through grass and gravel, she experienced first-hand the problems handicapped individuals have getting around. She saw a business opportunity in making buildings accessible to the handicapped, a requirement of the newly passed Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

In a round-about way, her generous spirit positioned her to make that move. She had recently sacrificed a 14-year career with United Technologies Corp., the giant defense contractor in Connecticut. Defense cutbacks had forced UTC to announce large layoffs and Arquette, single with no children, volunteered to give up her job so an older, married worker could keep his.

She used the time to return to school and earn Certified Public Accountant credentials so she had the skills to launch her own business. Still, she was taken aback when advisers from the Small Business Administration told her that preparing a business plan for bank financing would take some 300 hours.

"Once I started my research", she recalled, "it took me eight months to finish. Three hundred hours was a real low estimate."

Her work paid off. By 1993, the government had begun enforcing the new ADA rules, and Arquette identified three primary markets. First were public buildings that had to be brought up to code for handicapped access. Second were the Native American elderly on the reservation, so many of whom live in substandard housing. Third was the Mashantucket Pequot Foxwoods Casino. The Foxwoods boom was starting and all the new buildings had to meet the ADA standards.

On top of this clear focus, she offered a double whammy to potential partners. As a minority-owned and woman-owned business, her company would satisfy government job allocations on two counts.

She decided to name it Akwesasne Construction Co. Inc., with the permission of tribal elders. In Mohawk, the name of her ancestral home means "where the partridge drums".

Arquette didn't just look good on paper. Underneath a cheery gabbiness and youthful good looks, she drew on reserves of persistence. "I would call back 25 times if I couldn't get an answer."

With her completed plan in hand, she found bankers falling over themselves to lend her money. "They even asked if I needed more.

I was at the right place at the right time."

From her first project five years ago, Arquette grew into an established figure in Connecticut construction. She declines to discuss her company's finances, for fear of tipping her hand to competitors. Because it is privately owned, Akwesasne Construction doesn't have to make its books public. But, she has no trouble getting bonding for her projects, the crucial insurance company guarantee that a construction company has the capacity to finish a job. In fact, with the right combination of partners, she is eligible for bonding of $100 million and more.

With this base, she is scouting for multi-million dollar projects around the country. She is visiting California, Washington state, Texas and Oklahoma, focusing on the mushrooming Indian casino market. She is applying for national Section 8 certification, establishing her as a federally registered minority- and woman-owned contractor. Calls are pouring in from major national contractors, seeking her as a partner or subcontractor.

A guiding light in Arquette's success is the memory of her father, who died in 1988. Among her most prized possessions are items of a steelworker's memorabilia he left her. Although she thought it strange at the time, now it seems prophetic.

Inspecting a building site about 18 months ago, she took the chance to carry out his legacy. The steel frame was in place for an addition to the Norwich Inn and Spa. "It was only two stories high," Arquette said but it was still daunting. "I was there with my work boots on as well as my hard hat. I decided it was time to show I'm Mohawk."

"I took a breath and I walked that steel just like my dad."