Concrete Plans

Author: Patrick Kelly
An entrepreneur’s path is seldom set in stone—even in a field as specialized as cement production.

After earning his BS in chemistry from Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Kumasi, Ghana, Ebow Coleman (PhD ’81) had an idea. A new cement plant was being planned for construction in his native country, and he wanted to ensure the plant had the proper expertise on board from the start. So, being the self-assured and enterprising man that he is, Coleman traveled to Prague’s Institute of Chemical Technology and enrolled in a master’s program in Cement Production Technology. Upon completion, he planned to return to Ghana so he could bring his newfound knowledge to the fledgling cement plant.

Instead, he ended up in West Lafayette.

“I had every intention of returning to Ghana,” Coleman says. “But the more I immersed myself in my studies, the more I realized I had more to learn. Then I was presented with the opportunity to travel to the United States and enroll in a PhD program at Purdue. I couldn’t resist."

Ebow Coleman (PhD ’81) built a business out of his concrete expertise.

Seizing opportunities represents a common thread in Coleman’s life. From Ghana to Prague to Purdue, he carefully surveyed the options at each stage of his academic career and chose the path that would result in the greatest return—perhaps a trait inherent to an entrepreneur’s DNA.

Coleman cites Purdue’s close-knit civil engineering school and valuable mentorship from several professors, including Sidney Diamond and Bill Dolch, as major influences in his doctoral years. With a broad understanding of advanced methodologies in concrete and cement production, Coleman departed Purdue in 1981, once again in search of that next big opportunity.

Venturing southwest from Indiana, Coleman landed a job in Tulsa, Oklahoma, designing cements for specialty applications. But after nearly a decade in a corporate setting, his doubts continued to mount, and he began looking for a way out. “I didn’t see a real opportunity for upward mobility, working in that world,” he says. “Plus, I suppose I’m just a very self-directed person, an independent person. I knew I possessed the knowledge and training to do this type of work on my own, and that idea appealed to me greatly.”

And so Coleman struck out to Houston, Texas, and founded his current company, C3S, in 1991 (the company’s name is derived from the chemical formula for tricalcium silicate, the principal component in the world’s most widely used construction material). At first, the going was tough, and Coleman employed exactly one person: himself. But over time, his business grew, and he managed to lay inroads with large construction firms like Bechtel, as well as government agencies like the Port of Houston. His staff grew to eight, and C3S consulted on projects not only in the U.S. but Equatorial Guinea, Angola, and Peru as well.

“Our main goal,” he says, “is to help clients build quality upfront so they can avoid extensive repair costs down the road.” And the higher the stakes of a project, the greater the need for C3S. “The capital projects we consult on run from several million dollars to upwards of billions. That kind of investment makes it absolutely critical to carefully monitor the processes at each stage and employ the correct materials dependent upon the environment in which they’re being placed.”

Coleman has certainly come a long way since his youth in Kumasi, and he never could have predicted his current situation. Reflecting on the past 30 years, he says “I’ve always felt that flexibility with regard to my time was extremely important. That’s one thing that drove me to start my own business. And now that I’ve been consulting with C3S for more than 15 years, I enjoy the challenge of facing the market and trying to win my share of the business.”

Enjoying the challenge. Perhaps another trait inherent to the entrepreneur.