Keeping the Capital Cool
Hugee Corporation’s founder reflects on decades of growth and success
Perry Hugee has been around the block in Washington, D.C., and his company, Hugee Corporation, has installed heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems on hundreds of those blocks over the last few decades.
Since founding the firm in 1984, Perry’s journey includes memorable projects such as installing air conditioning in the Pentagon, the Federal Aviation Administration headquarters and several area buildings operated by IBM.
The team has worked in countless other commercial buildings, installing and servicing heating and cooling systems. Hugee Corporation also offers plumbing and COVID-19 sanitization services.
“The only place I don’t think I put air conditioning in is in the White House,” Perry quips.
But all that success didn’t happen overnight. Perry had to overcome several substantial challenges.
Right out of the gate, at age 13, Perry faced a major setback. On the school bus one day, another child was playing with a knife, and Perry’s left eye was stabbed, leaving him blind in one eye. It’s something he has only recently come to terms with.
“It’s been something I have been dealing with for the last 50 years, and now I have come to the point where I can speak about it freely,” Perry says. “It’s been a challenge, only being able to see half of what other people are seeing.”
After graduating from technical college in 1972, Perry got a job at the Washington Navy Yard as a trainee, and over seven years, worked his way up to first-level senior mechanic in heating and cooling systems. But his promising career was put on hold abruptly after he was diagnosed with sarcoidosis in his lungs, a rare condition that causes small patches of swollen tissue to develop in the organs. He reluctantly went on disability.
“The doctors said I would never work again, and that did not go over well with me,” Perry remembers. “I was determined to work. I get my strength from challenge. Some people run from a challenge, but I look for a good fight.”
Perry did indeed fight back, and four years later, he accepted a job at Fort Belvoir military base, after getting his master mechanics license in Virginia. Perry then obtained licensing in Washington, D.C., and Maryland, with the intention of starting his own company, as he didn’t want to be seen as a liability when working for others due to his disability.
“With my determination to fight my way through this disease, I decided to start my own business,” Perry says. “I wouldn’t have anybody else saying I was a high risk for them.”
Not surprisingly, one of his favorite songs is James Brown’s “I Don’t Want Nobody to Give Me Nothing (Open Up the Door, I’ll Get It Myself).”
It’s not unusual for companies in their beginning phases to have trouble attracting startup capital, but Perry says it was especially tough for him. “Getting financing was terrible,” he recalls. “I had no security. I had to take small jobs and save and save until I got to the point where I could borrow against my own money.”
Perry remembers needing to have $20,000 to get a loan of the same amount, and then $50,000 for that identical amount, and so on. He worked determinedly until he had $500,000 in the bank.
Getting bonded in order to take on bigger jobs was another obstacle.
“Bonding is one of the hardest things in the world to get,” he says. “Nobody would bond me because I didn’t have the right capital.”
In the early days of his company, projects valued at $25,000 or more required bonding. So in response, Perry led the firm to what he calls a “sweet spot” of specialization, installing HVAC systems just under $25,000 in the computer rooms of government buildings. Since, initially, the company was just Perry and his wife, Clemenstine (who passed away in 2020), he was able to price jobs affordably because his overhead was lower than competing firms.
After nearly a decade of hard work, and some luck, Perry was bonded for $200,000 by a U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) loan in 1992 that was arranged by insurance agency Tom Brown & Company, Inc. Today, the company is bonded for $10 million.
Catching Some Breaks
While Perry was in the process of building up his experience to get bonded, his firm gained the notice of Philip Gibbs, President of Maryland-based Hamel Builders. Philip ended up hiring Hugee Corporation to do the HVAC work on several jobs, which led to a larger project portfolio for the firm.
“I got a favor from Mr. Phil Gibbs,” Perry says. “He saw my heart and my passion for my jobs. People realized how much my word meant and that I would stand on my word.”
Another big break the firm received was through Keith Forney, the former owner of Washington, D.C. contracting business, Forney Enterprises, Inc. Through that company, Hugee Corporation received a $4.5 million contract to service the HVAC systems of District of Columbia Public Schools. As with Philip, Keith simply asked for Perry’s word that the company would fulfill the contract.
Other larger contractors followed, and in 1988, Perry had a service contract with the U.S. Department of State to service its heating and cooling systems in several buildings. He says he was the first minority contractor to get hired by the entity and stayed with it until 1996.
And though he faced some challenges early on in his career, Perry says that being a minority-owned business has given him one large advantage: “It’s been a great benefit because it gets me to the table,” he says, pointing out that projects involving federal money are required to have a minority-owned bidder, as dictated by the SBA’s 8(a) Business Development Program.
But that requirement didn’t necessarily mean the Hugee Corporation was guaranteed to land certain jobs. The competition was fierce, but Perry persevered.
In the mid-1990s, one of the biggest jobs the Hugee Corporation ever landed was a service contract with IBM on its area buildings. One evening, Perry received an emergency service call from IBM. The building’s management was having trouble controlling the waterflow in its HVAC system, and its maintenance team couldn’t resolve the problem.
Perry went in and was able to take care of the issue.
Several days later, he received a phone call from the building’s manager. Perry remembers him saying, “It normally takes three years for anyone to get a contract with IBM, but because of what you did last week, if you sign these papers, you will be a minority contractor for us.”
His partnership with the corporation lasted until 2000.
As word about the Hugee Corporation spread among contractors, the company also attracted potential employees. Perry credits this to his and Clemenstine’s desires to create a family environment at the company.
“My guys know that if something happens to their family or their children or them, I’m there not as an employer, but as a friend,” Perry says. And in turn, his employees are very loyal.
Perry says his philosophy, built on respect and concern for others, is in large part driven by his faith. He says it creates and motivates a dedicated workforce that attracts others.
Perry keeps the company growing. In 2016, Perry was able to hire a five-person plumbing team and added that specialty to his business offerings. In 2001, he got into fabrication and opened a plant to make customized duct materials instead of waiting to have them produced by other firms. “If we make it ourselves, we can prep for the job before it even starts,” he explains.
Now the company is making another push with the recent launch of Hugee Environmental, a distributor of Invisi Smart Technologies cleaning products, which reportedly kill 99.9% of all viruses, including COVID-19, for one year, according to Perry.
Hugee Environmental, which has a distribution deal with Invisi Smart Technologies in Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia, initially applies the products in commercial buildings and then trains building owners to do it themselves.
Besides its Washington, D.C., headquarters in the Arboretum neighborhood, Hugee Corporation also has offices in Baltimore and Landover, Maryland. The company employs 49 workers.
While many company employees at Hugee Corporation feel like family, some literally are family and will take on the enterprise after its founder moves on from the business.
Perry’s son, Demetrick Hugee, currently the firm’s Vice President, is in the process of taking the reins. His daughter, Shauntise Hugee, is Chief Financial Officer. Another daughter, Jada Leonard, is a Project Manager. Other extended family members also work at the company, such as Perry’s cousin, Kevin Clark, who is Senior Vice President of Operations – Aeroseal. (The company distributes and installs Aeroseal, which seals air ducts.) And though Perry can look back on decades of accomplishments and challenges overcome, his mind is focused on what’s ahead.
“We’re excited about what’s coming in the future,” he says.