Ken Canty may have only lived in South Carolina for the past ten years, but his breath of knowledge and love for the state rivals that of any native. As he readily admits, his work on the Ravenel Bridge was just an avenue for him to move to South Carolina. He wanted to BE here.
In just over a decade Canty has managed to build (no pun intended) his company, Freeland Construction into a renown and internationally recognized company that currently has projects in progress around the country including, the Gaillard renovation efforts here in Charleston.
Poised and focused with an infectious, ambitious approach to his work and life, Ken Canty is destined to achieve any goal he sets out to accomplish. He thrives on challenges and believes it is his duty to also help others achieve success as well.
Canty gladly sat down with Phil Noble recently to discuss his career, his adopted home, and South Carolina becoming truly world class.
NOBLE: I understand you have a fascination with bridges.
CANTY: I think it all started when I was about five or six years old. I was deathly afraid of going over bridges and big structures in general just frightened me. Eventually, I became fascinated by them. I said to myself, "How do I become a bridge builder?" Well you have to get a Civil Engineering degree. I started that, worked various internships and that's how I started my career.
NOBLE: And then you ended up working on the Ravenel Bridge.
CANTY: I worked in Boston and New York on some really big, mega-projects up there and three weeks before I got married, I got a job offer to come down to Charleston. Three weeks after the wedding I told everyone, "Look we're moving to Charleston, South Carolina" and there was just silence in the room. I came down here with Flatiron to work on the Ravenel Bridge and then the company who was hired to do the demolition was the same company that I worked for in Boston. They called me because I was already here and hired me to work on that project with them. I literally got a five year jump in my career just on maintaining those relationships. I ended up being the Assistant Project Manager of the entire project.
NOBLE: I know Skanska was the lead construction company on the bridge project. I was always impressed by that company. How was it working with such a world class; renown company? How did that compare to other companies in South Carolina?
CANTY: One of the things I learned and I continue to learn when dealing with international companies, international players, especially those from Europe is that they don't have some of the hang-ups that we have here; cultural hang-ups. So by their nature, they don't necessarily look for diversity, like we do here in the United States because of our history, but it ends up happening because they just want the best.
NOBLE: South Carolina is an interesting paradox of sorts. On one hand we've been called the most polite city in America, but simultaneously there seems to exist this innate xenophobia and suspicion of strangers. As someone who is not a native South Carolinian how do you see us bridging that gap? This seems especially prevalent in Charleston at times.
CANTY: I think as time goes on this will change. Charleston is becoming a truly international place. It's going to take young business leaders and community leaders standing up and saying things. One of the things that prevent that is this underlying attitude that people are afraid of being criticized for speaking out. I've seen this feeling become less and less prevalent in the ten years that I've been here. People are speaking up. I didn't move here to build a bridge. I moved here because I wanted to be in South Carolina. We're overcoming those things, but it's going to take frank and open communication from those in power to say things and identify the problems that no one wants to speak about. We need more politicians, business owners, and educators stepping forward together.
NOBLE: The construction business here in South Carolina is a bubble business. Here you are an African American, who isn't from here, and you're young. How have each of those elements contributed or hindered your success?
CANTY: When I came here I immersed myself in the language and the culture and I think that helped a lot. In terms of being African American to be quite honest with you, in terms of obstacles there were more of them in Boston than there were here. I'm not saying it doesn't exist but it was just much worse there. In terms of the construction business I was fortunate enough to have excellent mentors and this has really helped me throughout my career. There are times when people say, "You can't do that." And I don't accept that.
NOBLE: You talked about the system being closed to young folks. What is your advice to young folks that are trying to change the system or do something non-traditional? What's your advice to them?
CANTY: Develop your relationships. Not just here, but outside South Carolina. That's something that I've done. There are firms who want to come to Charleston and South Carolina, because they want to come here and do business. Develop relationships with those firms, but you're going to have to leave here in order to do that. Develop those relationships outside of the community and the fact is you're not beholden to anyone in the community who may want to do it the old way. People coming into the community want to do it the business way. The right way. Which a lot of times is not the old way.