Stephens Engineering is not used to setbacks


The announcement yesterday that the state will not bail out Wallace O. Stephens' engineering firm is a setback for a man unaccustomed to them.

As he has told the story time and again, he started Stephens Engineering Co. with a few of bucks in his pocket and operating out of the back of his car in 1979.

With hard work and some luck, Mr. Stephens turned his Prince George's County-based business into a company that last year employed more than 130 employees and reported annual sales of $25 million.

"He's a really great businessman," said Betty Buck, a Prince George's businesswoman and County Executive Wayne K. Curry's transition chief. "His business is vital to our county's well-being."

Mr. Stephens, 53, rose to be recognized as the president of one of the top 100 black-owned businesses in the nation, primarily because of a chain of federal contracts -- a revenue stream that began to dry up in the past year, prompting his company's financial difficulties.

His company's past success brought him wealth -- including a sprawling $1 million Potomac home in Montgomery County -- and LTC his position as chairman of the Prince George's County Chamber of Commerce.

A registered Republican, he is politically well-connected with the Democrats and the GOP -- in the state and on Capitol Hill.

Republican Helen Delich Bentley, the former 2nd District congresswoman he has supported financially for years, sits on the Lanham company's board of directors.

Judith P. Hoyer, wife of U.S. Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, the Democratic congressman from Prince George's County, is a former board member. Mr. Hoyer has enjoyed campaign contributions from Mr. Stephens, his company, employees, and his wife, Alexis Stephens.

Mr. Stephens and his company also supported Parris N. Glendening, the former Prince George's County executive, in his gubernatorial bid last year -- to the tune of $4,300 in campaign contributions.

So when his company's financial difficulties arose recently, he turned to Mr. Glendening and the state of Maryland for help.

Ironically, the self-described conservative had told other minority business owners that the government should not be the source of handouts. He did qualify for the government's so-called "8(a)" status as a minority contractor in 1981, but grew large enough to graduate from that program in 1991.

"I believe in supply-side economics," Mr. Stephens told Minority Business Entrepreneur magazine in a 1991 interview. "I believe I can supply goods and services which will bring an income. [Minorities] should be given the opportunity to be trailblazers. We should use what's available to do that, like the 8(a) program, and not look at it as a social program.

"It's not a cow that you get milk from whenever you want it," he told the magazine.

Mr. Stephens did not return repeated phone calls seeking comment, but Mrs. Bentley did speak on his behalf.

"It's an unfortunate situation at the moment," the former congresswoman said.

"I do hope Wally is able to find some revenue to help him, to help the firm, because he has hired over 150 Marylanders over the years and kept them employed," Mrs. Bentley said. "I think the outlook for new business is good. He needs a little push right now, and I hope he gets it."

Mr. Stephens, a former Navy lieutenant who was born in Macon, Ga., worked for the Navy as a civilian and then did a seven-year stint with the Federal Aviation Administration before starting his own business.

He enjoyed contracts with such agencies as the Department of State, Department of Labor, Internal Revenue Service and Federal Aviation Administration, which honored him in 1986 as the "Minority Contractor of Year."

One of the company's largest contracts involved maintenance of U.S. embassies and consulates for the State Department in about 50 countries.

Mr. Stephens kept his company's name before elected officials of both parties in Washington with his campaign contributions. He supported Rep. Albert R. Wynn, the Prince George's County Democrat from Maryland's 4th District.

Mr. Stephens was on Mrs. Bentley's campaign finance committee and held a fund-raiser at his home for the former congresswoman. He and his wife also contributed $5,000 to George Bush's 1992 presidential re-election bid and two of his company's employees gave another $1,000 each.

He supported the unsuccessful 1988 U.S. Senate bid by conservative Alan L. Keyes, the Baltimore talk show host now running for the GOP presidential nomination, Federal Election Commission records show. He, his company and his wife also have supported a handful of other congressmen from both parties in Virginia, Georgia and New Jersey.

In 1993, he reached out in a new direction -- gambling.

Mr. Stephens joined forces with Gamma International, an Atlantic City, N.J., company now known as American Gaming, and put together a deal for a riverboat gambling venture in St. Louis.

The group, with Mr. Stephens' company in the lead, launched a high-visibility campaign to try to gain favor for its project -- a $362 million proposal for an 800-room hotel with a 16-story, 500-room tower on the St. Louis riverfront.

That proposal, however, was rejected by the St. Louis Development Corp. last year, though final selection of the winning proposal has yet to be made.

"They tried something that didn't work," Mrs. Bentley said of the gambling venture. "I think that did set him back some financially."

Mr. Stephens has apparently been forced to move from his Potomac home to a house in Washington, Mrs. Bentley said.

An answering machine greeted callers yesterday with this message: "Let love be the foundation of everything you do and say, and success will surely be yours. Have a good day."

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