Foundation Mechanics rise to new heights with help from Illinois Tollway diversity programs

Foundation Mechanics rise to new heights with help from Illinois Tollway diversity programs

When Jennifer Kelecius and a business partner launched Foundation Mechanics in 2011, they mostly did consulting work for another company, then began doing a variety of smaller construction and landscaping projects.

The firm continued with only a handful of employees until 2016 when Kelecius won an Illinois Tollway contract under a small business set-aside program to serve as the prime contractor on a $1.4 million project to make landscaping improvements along a 30-mile stretch of the Jane Addams Memorial Tollway (I-90).

Buoyed by that success, Kelecius soon enrolled her business in other Tollway diversity initiatives intended to give small, diverse, woman-owned firms more opportunities to compete for Tollway projects--and the company began winning additional contracts for Tollway construction and landscaping work.

Since then, Foundation Mechanics has participated in 26 more Tollway contracts, including a new $2.1 million construction contract it won in March, while serving as a prime contractor on 19 of those contracts. During that time, the company has doubled in size from six employees to 13, allowing it to take on additional work from the Tollway as well as doing projects for other public agencies and private businesses, Kelecius said.

“I don’t feel that we would have been able to get to this point, without the aid and resources that these Tollway programs have provided for us,” said Kelecius, who is president and owner of the Chicago-based business. “We were given the opportunity to show everybody what we could do.”

The company has progressed to the point it was named the Tollway’s Small Business Contractor of the Year in 2021 for the work it did in helping construct an access road from a toll plaza near Aurora on the Reagan Memorial Tollway (I-88) to Illinois Route 25. Foundation Mechanics installed a retaining wall, built drainage structures and did earthwork that included mitigating lead contamination found in the soil.

The Tollway asked for the work to be accelerated so the road would be completed in time for snowplows to use it during the winter—a request Kelecius is proud her company was able to accommodate by working six days a week.

“So we were able to meet a request from the Tollway that required longer hours, larger crews and overall a faster-paced schedule while being a small business with limited resources,” she said, noting her company had won the contract under the Tollway’s Small Business Initiative.

The program identifies specific construction contracts usually valued at less than $5 million that can be done by smaller companies serving as prime contractors. Joining that initiative helped open up new opportunities to bid for a portion of larger projects, she said. Her company has won eight Tollway contacts as part of the agency’s Small Business Initiative.

“We were able to have more bidding opportunities,” Kelecius said. “We were able to bid on more diverse projects, doing things like roadway work and bridge repairs.”

Each of the Tollway programs offered a different type of assistance that helped the company grow.

Kelecius also enrolled in the Tollway’s Technical Assistance Program, which is designed to help smaller, diverse firms to gain knowledge of Tollway protocols and bid procedures and also offer the support needed for those businesses better compete for work on agency projects.

“The Technical Assistance Program has great resources we were able to reach out to, who helped guide us through any type of questions we had,” she said. “We’ve been able to better provide for the Tollway as a client now because we are more understanding of their policies and procedures.”

Looking to the future, Foundation Mechanics more recently joined the Tollway’s new Emerging Technology Partnering for Growth Program, which encourages large contractors to help introduce smaller, diverse firms to new, developing technologies.

As part of that program, Foundation won a $3.9 million contract in October 2022 to perform earthwork and drainage improvements along a portion of the new I-490 Tollway. That work will include using computerized 3D grading equipment to more accurately and rapidly perform the required drainage work. 

“This is advanced technology we wouldn’t necessarily have access to without the emerging technology program,” Kelecius said. “We’re always looking for opportunities in the innovative market.”

Taken together, the Tollway programs have provided vital assistance that has shaped the way the company looks today. 

“I believe our business, if we hadn’t taken advantage of these programs, would be back where we were in the first five years after we started,” she said. “We would still be a little bit scared to take on these larger projects.”