Meet Swift Tenants
Mark McCalop, Owner/Operator of MCM Plumbing
MCM Plumbing Owner, Mark McCalop looks out of the North-facing window in the Swift Offices’ shared conference room and wishes everyone in the community can see what he sees. “I can see my 6 year old self playing in the huge backyard the Waltons had here. I can look out this window and see the house I grew up in. Nobody wants this project to work more than me. Nobody can understand what this project means to me,” McCalop said. “I come to work here every day and know I belong.”
McCalop described growing up around Swift when it was a working factory, explaining that the Walton family lived in the Swift Campus’ Grey House. “All of that Habitat for Humanity land on Risley Street was an employee parking lot. It was full of cars. But, this back yard was a destination for all of us neighborhood children. We played here as the Swift workers worked,” McCalop reminisced. “We were like one big family on this block”.
McCalop’s childhood centered around neighborhood assets. “I went to Waverly School. I played in Waverly Park and here at Swift. It was while playing in Waverly Park that I became fascinated with water,” he said. McCalop said he got thirsty playing in the park and went to get water from the fountain. “I was fascinated with how the water got all the way out to the fountain. I wanted to know where it was coming from and how it got there. I was on the road to becoming a plumber from there.”
That’s not to say the road was smooth. McCalop grew up in the Northeast Neighborhood at a time when the neighborhood saw extreme poverty and the rise of an illicit drug economy and resulting extreme violence that filled the economic vacuum left by disinvestment. Unlike many in the neighborhood, McCalop said it wasn't just positive examples of success in the neighborhood that drew him, the leaders had a greater draw on him.
“It was easy to be a follower. You could see the guys getting cars, women, quick money. But, I knew that was fake. You’d see these guys one day and they’d be locked up for years the next. I looked to people who were leading. They were fewer, but they had real success,” McCalop said. "It's natural for me to want to provide those examples today," he said.
McCalop referred to a who’s who of the legacy of Northeast’s past Black entrepreneurial leadership to explain how positive examples saved him. “You know it all begins with your mother,” he told me. “And, Waverly had a great Principal, Mr. Holloman. My teachers; Ms. Cohen, Ms. Betts, and Ms. Long were awesome. But, we were lucky here. We also had entrepreneurs to look up to. We had Mr. Nelson who ran a market we called ‘West Bar’ (now JR’s Bodega). We had Mr. Hugley who had the barber shop in the plaza. They inspired me to get my own business,” he said.
But, there was something more that equipped McCalop for success. As he spoke, I could actually sense the inspiration still resonating in him from a person who left an indelible mark on his life—Gertrude Blanks; the storyteller. “I can still hear her reading ‘The Man with the Golden Arm’ and ‘Rikki Tikki Tavi’. I can honestly say, becoming an avid reader opened more doors for me than anything else. I credit that to Ms. Blanks,” he said.
By the time McCalop went off to A.I. Prince Technical School in 1992, Hartford’s neighborhoods were strangling under the effects of an active drug war—between dealers, gangs and police. But, by this time, McCalop was hyper focused on becoming a plumber. He graduated from Prince Tech in 1996 and went to work for G and R Valley Plumbers for 2 years before moving on to work for Macca Plumbing.
Building on the serious work ethic and focus he learned from his neighborhood mentors, McCalop caught the attention of one business owner who knew North Hartford was underserved by licensed plumbers. “Frank Macca Sr. encouraged me to get a business and serve my community. He offered me every opportunity to learn this business,” he said. McCalop went on to secure a contractor’s license and went into business for himself.
It was then that the real lessons began to present themselves. “I was faced with obstacles everywhere. The biggest challenge was getting start-up funds. I found that everything could be overcome through the art of negotiation. Instead of seeing my struggles as rejection, I turned them into opportunities,” McCalop said.
McCalop kept it real, saying being realistic and focusing on building up his portfolio so people could see his capabilities was key. “It came gradually, not overnight. It’s all about timing. I always wanted to be ready for when my opportunity comes. Not force opportunities,” he added. “I knew I wasn’t going to get a million dollar bond at that time. I wasn’t trying to be something I knew I wasn’t. I didn’t blame anyone. I just worked toward my goal. Many people don’t want to put the work in. They think it just happens.”
McCalop went on to dispel other myths related to business ownership. He explained that many people think that when you own your own business, you can relax and enjoy the role. “No, that’s where the real work begins. I had to learn how to be an estimator, moderator, sales person, architect and a foreman before I could even hire anyone to do those jobs. It’s similar to working for someone else, but you’re responsible for everything,” he said.
When asked why some community-based businesses fail, he said for the same reason any business fails. “Sometimes people are not realistic about their capabilities. They bite off more than they can chew, not being realistic about their limitations and what they actually can accomplish,” adding, “You can’t go into business seeing yourself as a victim no matter what you are facing. Sometimes the problems are exactly what we need to find our solutions. Here at MCM, we don’t focus on the problem. Plumbing is all about seeing the problem and finding the solution,” he said.
In the 16 years he’s been in operation, McCalop never lost sight of Frank Macca Sr.’s challenge. He’s always offered direct hire opportunities to “troubled” youth who might otherwise seek less positive opportunities. “If you put someone in the jungle, they gotta to have jungle ways to survive. I see myself in them. They are a little rough around the edges and misunderstood; but the ones who want to become better people, productive members of society, I see that. And, I am there to provide them better opportunities than I had,” he said.
McCalop grew MCM’s reputation over the years and competed in the bidding process for the job at Swift. Once securing the contract at Swift, he felt an alignment in hiring goals. “I have been on many public jobs where they struggle half-heartedly to meet local hiring requirements. I can say, I knew the team at Swift put their heart into local hiring. I saw that you all hired directly from the neighborhood,” McCalop said. That realization led to a deeper commitment to the project.
Soon after completing construction, McCalop was in meetings with Project Manager, Tarek Raslan to secure an office at Swift in spite of the fact that he was still in a lease at his facility in West Hartford. “I know it was early and over time, the potential of this site would be realized, but I had to do it now. I belong here. I looked at the potential this campus has to bring a deep level of diversity and a spirit of cooperation and creativity. I wanted to be a part of this,” McCalop said.
Many people in the neighborhood cannot get past an organization making a $35 million investment into North Hartford without there being some kind of nefarious hook involved, but McCalop does not have to rely on that sort of speculation. Looking forward, McCalop would like to partner with other contractors and provide construction training opportunities for Hartford residents that lead to direct hires. And, Swift plays a central role in his plans.
“Every time I go to Swift, I get this feeling. I can’t describe it other than belonging. I am pushing Swift because I have watched it go from dirt to what it is now. I was involved here and I know it is real,” he said. “As a matter of fact, I want to get the bulk of my operations here by 2023, that will make 20 years in operation for me.” “My only wish is that my mother could see Swift in the shape it is in and with all we have planned to happen here moving forward,” McCalop said. “The rest of it is in my hands.”