"Multiculturalism" may sound like a pass & #233; political buzzword, but for George Pla, it's been a competitive advantage.
Pla's engineering firm, Cordoba Corp., had revenues of $31 million last year. About 40 percent of that total came from public projects in the multicultural melting pot of Los Angeles County.
"There are 52 languages spoken in the City of L.A. There are 15 spoken in Cordoba Corp. We are more than relevant to the work at hand," Pla explained.
The company's biggest local contracts include overall management for the $200 million Long Beach Community College Construction Bond Program, a runway remodel at Los Angeles International Airport, the extension of the Exposition Blvd. light rail line and construction management for high schools and junior highs in the Los Angeles Unified School District.
According to Pla, the multicultural dimension affects all these developments.
"It's a huge advantage because when we propose projects, we just have a different perspective," he said. "Decision-makers nod their head and say, 'Yeah, they understand what this community is like.'"
Eloy Oakley, president of the Long Beach Community College District, said Cordoba's multicultural angle is not the primary reason for hiring them, but it is "an enhancement of their services."
"Their ability to bring in a diverse work force complements our mission as a community college, because we try to reflect the diversity of the students we serve," Oakley said. "It provides examples of career paths for the student body."
Pla started his career as deputy director of housing for L.A. County. By age 28, he was chief deputy at the California Department of Commerce under former Gov. Jerry Brown. He started Cordoba in 1983, and in its early years about 70 percent of its business came from minority contracting programs, Pla estimates.
"We're a very proud Hispanic-owned firm make no mistake about that," he said. "However, with respect to minority contracting, we've used it for its original purpose: Get in, get started, grow, and go past that."
Today, about 10 percent of Cordoba's revenues come from minority programs, which have been scaled back since the passage of Proposition 209 in 1996, which banned preferential treatment on the basis of race or ethnicity in state contracting.
But the entrepreneur's intermingling of politics and bidding on public projects has led to some controversy. Pla managed an early campaign for L.A. Councilman Richard Alatorre, and LA Weekly columnist Marc Haefele once called Cordoba an "enterprising 'consulting' business whose prestige and prosperity rose with the councilman's star." During Alatorre's political flameout in 2001 for tax evasion, corruption and drugs, Haefele published a list of Alatorre-connected projects and declared that "taxpayer dollars financed all of Cordoba's failures."
In 1996 a congressional investigation resulted from Cordoba winning a $3.2 million contract to run a small-business assistance center, even though accounting firm Grant Thornton submitted the low bid. Pla, an active Democratic fund-raiser, maintained he lost money on the center, which closed after about one year.
Pla denies any quid pro quo between his political activity and his company. "These elected officials come and go. The fact of the matter is elected officials have very little to do with procurement, if at all. The process is staff-driven," he said.
Pla agrees with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's model of rebuilding Los Angeles, and believes multicultural urban design will play an increasing role in the city's evolution.
Politically, Pla no longer works on campaigns, although he continues to advise candidates. But he maintains that his activism lives on through economic development.
"The quest I have is to create opportunity and wealth. Back in the '70s, the movements Latino and Chicano were political developments about empowerment. Then came the cultural and educational," he said. "Now we simply need to create wealth and not for the sake of yachts and planes, but for the sake of creating opportunity."
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