Updated: Sep 21
AJL Group started with an $8,000 contract to fix rain gutters. Only two years later, the Cincinnati-based commercial roofing company landed a $5,000,000 roofing contract.
Their astronomical growth is no fluke. Owner and President Alma Cochran’s education, experience, leadership skills, and adaptability fueled this growth, along with her tight connection to her team. “I knew the business. I had contacts. I knew floor plans, specs, and how to estimate,” Cochran said. “But without my guys and my family, we wouldn’t have grown like this.”
Cochran was born in America to Latina and African American parents. At the age of 10, her parents divorced and she moved to Mexico with her mother. “There I was, a curly-haired girl who spoke no Spanish, couldn't roll my Rs, and had never eaten spicy food. My last name was Cochran, so everyone asked me, 'where are you from?' As I grew up, I learned my mother's wonderful culture," Cochran said.
In addition to learning Mexican culture, Cochran gained her education in architectural engineering. "Down there, you learn to design, but you also learn to design the electric, the plumbing, and the structural. You have to do it all. When I came back to America, everybody thought I had a master's degree," she said.
In 1995, she moved to Cincinnati to raise a family. Eight years later, she started in the roofing industry and eventually worked up to running operations for roofing companies.
In 2020, Cochran formed AJL Group. “My husband said, ‘Stop making other people millionaires. Just do it for yourself.' So I did! The construction firms already knew and trusted me, so I just had to tell them I was on my own," she said. "I also already knew the best and smartest workers."
“My husband said, ‘Stop making other people millionaires. Just do it for yourself.' So I did!"
Cochran invests in her employees which, for Latinos in construction, isn’t always the case. “I treat my guys like family,” she said. “In the beginning, they can't believe that we care about them and want them to become foremen. When I see talent, I'm like a mama bear, and I encourage it. Some of these guys have been told they aren't smart or good and have been ignored and overlooked because they are Latinos in America. They sometimes are nervous, but I tell them, 'Do you know how special you are? You would make a great foreman or superintendent. I see you working hard at the job site. Look at your cultures: the Mayas and Incas. Those civilizations were so advanced and built great structures that still stand today,'" she said. "'You have those genes, and you have that talent. Be proud.’”
In Cochran's crew are her two sons, Adam James Cochran and Aaron Lee Cochran (whose
combined initials make up the name AJL). "My sons and their childhood friend, Kevin Jimenez, are out there getting their hands dirty with everyone else. They are working
their way up from the bottom. I want them to know the products and systems completely. I want them to know first-hand how to solve problems like why condensation might be coming through or exactly how a wall wasn't done right. I tell them to be respectful, look the general contractors in the eye, and encourage the team when they do a good job. If Miguel, Alberto, Juan, or any of my workers ask them to grab a tool or something, they run and grab it right away. They are learning the right way to do this so they can take over one day," she said. "And they are learning to keep everyone safe."
Safety is of major importance to Cochran. She not only teaches her employees, but she gives OSHA training in Spanish to other companies all over the Midwest and East coast. “They need to learn in their native language. It could mean life or death. They need to know their rights. I cannot tell you how many horror stories I’ve heard about Latinos being exploited in this industry, so I make sure they learn safety and their rights so well that they can repeat it all back to me. Safety is so important,” Cochran said.
AJL's growth wasn't without issues. "I would need loans for equipment, and I'd show banks my $100,000 and $500,000 contracts, and they would only let me borrow $10,000. That was so frustrating.” she said. Alma had been working with Ella Frye at the ECDI Women’s Business Center (WBC) and was referred to ECD for lending. "I went to ECDI, and they looked at my experience, knowledge, contacts, and contracts, and they helped me get the money I needed right away." ECDI helped AJL Group purchase tools and fund payroll, which increased exponentially with these large contracts. "ECDI is a great resource for the community. I showed them my business plan, and they okayed everything. There were no revisions. There was nothing. If you start to grow fast, go talk to ECDI.”
In addition to funding, the WBC helped Alma push her business to the next level. They guided her through loan readiness training to help her secure more funding in the future, connected her with Messer construction and Kroger. They even helped her get Women Business Enterprise (WBE) certified so she would qualify for more government contracts.
These days, AJL Group is working with construction giants such as Messer, Oswald, and Neyer. They recently completed work on Playhouse in The Park, a giant theater space in Cincinnati. "It's such a high-profile job, and we were so proud to have our sign in front. It helped us get more high-profile work," she said. As for AJL Group's future, Cochran has a plan. "My sons Adam and Aaron will become the Vice Presidents, and Kevin will be the Director of Safety. I want them to run the business when I'm gone. In the future, I don't want anyone to say, 'AJL was so much better when Alma was running it.' The boys carry lumber and learn construction basics now so they can someday lead this company with the same vision and love.”