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‘Leadership Howard County Opened My Eyes’

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Brett Plano, owner and founder of Baltimore-based Plano-Coudon Construction, traces his work ethic back to his childhood.

“Neither of my parents owned businesses,” he said. “My father worked for the federal government and my mother worked as a nurse.”

But his father had a financial mind and tasked Plano and his brothers with figuring out how they would pay for college at a very early age. “It wasn’t a matter of if I was going, it was a matter of how I was going to pay for it,” he said. “When my older brother was 14, he did lawns for several families in our neighborhood. When I was 10, he brought me in to help him.”

Plano quickly learned the value of hard work and a dollar, and the boys expanded their business.

“Together we grew it to provide lawn care for 18 clients spread over several neighborhoods. He went away to school when I was 14 and not old enough to drive,” he said. “I had to figure out how to get to the neighborhoods that were not within walking distance. I hired my neighbors (twin brothers who had driver’s licenses) to help me, and with them as partners was able to grow the business to 45 clients per week, including landscaping and other work.”

Building Equity

By the time he left for college, Plano had saved more than $14,000 and was able to pay for his entire first year with money left over.
“The lawn business was one of many jobs I had while in high school and college,” he said. “My degree from Virginia Tech cost about $66,000, and my family and I were able to pay for all except about $20,000 which I borrowed and paid off within eight years of graduating.”

Plano grew up in Catonsville, and remembers visiting many ethnic festivals in Baltimore over his childhood years, along with the Inner Harbor and Rash Field, and even being able to smell the McCormick spice plant. “When I came back to the area after college, I was set on buying a home instead of renting,” he said. “Federal Hill seemed like a great place to be, and I was able to find a house that needed to be gutted on the outskirts of that neighborhood with a water view.”

Realizing his dream of having a rooftop deck, he bought the house and renovated it while he lived in it. “I ended up doing that twice more on that same block, using sweat equity to build financial equity,” he said.

Still Building the Résumé

As engineering students at Virginia Tech, Plano, who majored in civil engineering, and Ryan Coudon, who majored in mechanical engineering, already were dreaming about creating their own company together. In 1999, after spending some time working for a large general contracting firm, they put their entrepreneurial instincts into action.

The company’s initial setup was two desks, two computers and one pet dog in Plano’s basement. At the beginning, there were several projects that felt like “starter jobs,” Plano recalled. “Our saying was: ‘Let’s eat humble pie now, and it’ll be worth it in the long run … it’ll be a résumé builder.’ We laugh, because we are still eating humble pie today and still doing work that we think will build our résumés.”

Some of their earliest projects included a sidewalk for Morgan State University, as well as renovation work for a small advertising agency in downtown Baltimore. “We did all the work at night on that one, and my partner and I cleaned it ourselves between midnight and 3 a.m. at completion,” Plano said.

Now, in addition to being proud of those “humble pie” projects, the company has completed more complicated, landmark projects, including an animal care and rescue center for the Baltimore Aquarium; a 15-story Towson Tower renovation at Towson University; an adaptive reuse on Under Armour’s campus; the Stadium Square office tower; a four-year-long, full mechanical and electrical infrastructure upgrade at the University of Maryland Baltimore Medical School Teaching Facility Tower (while it was completely occupied); and a renovation of a four-story HUD housing apartment complex that also was 100% occupied.

“I’m also extremely proud that we were selected to be the design-build contractor for the Guinness project in the United States,” Plano said. “This is their first time building in the U.S. in over 60 years, and they picked a Baltimore location and Plano-Coudon as their partner above all kinds of national and local competition. We are about halfway through that project.”

Best Class Ever

Plano, Leadership Howard County (LHC) class of 2010, got involved in LHC because he was looking for a way to invest in the community but didn’t have a feel for where to place his time and efforts. “I was told about Leadership Howard County being a way to learn how government, businesses and the community can work together to solve problems,” he said. “That appealed to me, and the experience delivered on that and more.”

Plano still sees his classmates a few times a year, in addition to meeting up at Leadership events. “I just attended the Big Event and sat with 10 classmates,” he said. “Our class stays very active.”

A classmate sends out a breakfast invitation once a month, and also gets the class involved in food drives and other initiatives. “I get together more often with a smaller subset of classmates that I have become very close with,” said Plano. “I volunteer as a selection committee member for upcoming classes. Many of our classmates are involved in Leadership in one way or another. After all, we truly are the best class ever — we’ve been named the Best Class Ever three times.”