Nuckles Services seizes opportunities to grow, thrive in Birmingham
Birmingham, Ala. — When the walls of the Ramsay-McCormack building came tumbling down in April, an excavator bearing the name Nuckles sat nearby, having done its part to transform this spot in the Ensley Business District.
The machine and the moment belonged to Emmett Nuckles, an energetic young entrepreneur whose demolition company blossomed from a side landscaping business he launched in 2014 while working as a data analyst manager for AT&T.
Nuckles Services is a testament to its CEO’s determination, spirit and vision — traits that have helped him overcome adversity in the past and that keep him looking beyond obstacles to reach opportunities.
If you looked at Nuckles’ background, you might not consider it a recipe for a successful businessman. Growing up in Montgomery, his reading disability required an individualized education program at school. His parents weren’t together, and he lived most of the time with his grandparents. While they provided him a good home, their surrounding neighborhood didn’t always brim with opportunity and hope.
James Nuckles — a teacher, preacher and Montgomery City Councilman — wanted his grandson to learn important life skills, to stay occupied and to stay out of trouble. He steered his grandson toward his first experience in business — as the 14-year-old owner of a produce store.
It was not love at first bite. On Nuckles’ first day in business, he hired his aunt to help with the work, and he quickly learned the pain of meeting expenses and payroll. The first week, his business netted only $50. The second week, profits slid to $32.
Nuckles wanted to quit, but his grandfather pressed him to stick with it. Nuckles soon learned that he could make some extra sales by taking bags of produce to church. And that he could make even more sales by cutting up the vegetables, shelling the peas, and saving his customers some work. And before long, restaurants came calling, wanting to buy Nuckles’ cut vegetables in bulk.
He achieved a respectable bottom line and continued operating the business until he turned 16 and got a job at Church’s chicken.
As he began his adult career, Nuckles initially did not appear to be charting an entrepreneurial course.
The day after graduating from Alabama State University with a degree in computer information systems, Nuckles moved to Birmingham to start the job with AT&T, a company where some spend their entire career.
But before he’d finished his first year on the job, he’d started a side hustle — a landscaping business with his dad. He remembers the thrill of his first contract — $80 every two weeks to cut grass at a local church — that was soon eclipsed by a landscaping deal at an apartment complex that paid $1,500 every two weeks.
Although Nuckles kept working at AT&T, his heart wasn’t in it.
In 2016, he began hearing rumors of downsizing at AT&T and saw an opportunity to follow his heart. He volunteered to be laid off, and when AT&T instead offered him a chance to move to Dallas and keep his job, Nuckles said no thanks. He collected his $12,000 in severance and doubled down on his landscaping business — which at that time consisted largely of a few weed wackers, a mower, Nuckles and his dad.
The gamble paid off when he received a $7,000-a-week weed abatement contract to address overgrown lots for the city of Birmingham. He invested $19,000 in a Kubota tractor — which was barely adequate for the job — and began running his business full-time.
As the landscaping company thrived, Nuckles scouted new opportunities. When he saw someone else tearing down dilapidated houses in 2017, he thought: “I could do that.” He found the right subcontractors — someone with an excavator and someone with a dump truck — and won that city contract as well.
But before the work began, city elections occurred, and projects like weed abatement and demolition stalled as the administration changed hands. Nuckles’ business suddenly went from busy to bust. At 26, he’d saved little, and he was in no shape to weather a six-month interruption in business.
When city work finally began to resume, Nuckles struggled to regain his momentum.
The city demolition work required bonding, and his credit had just taken a beating. Nuckles pursued every avenue to get bonded until he found someone willing to give him a chance. When his subcontractors demanded payment upfront, Nuckles scrambled and got a loan from a friend at church so that the work could begin.
And after all that, the early days of his demolition business were a lot like his early days at the produce store. Between the subcontractors and other expenses, Nuckles barely broke even. And once again, the challenge forced him to make changes to help his business succeed.
Among other things, he began looking for opportunities to buy his own equipment. In 2018, when his mom lost her job as a truck driver, Nuckles secured a lease-to-own deal for a dump truck and hired his mother as his lead dump truck driver. With his dad still working on the landscaping side of the business, Nuckles now has both of his parents on his team.
In 2019, Nuckles secured his first excavator. He found that having his own equipment helped him finish jobs more quickly and expand his capacity even more.
“Since 2019, I went from having one excavator and two dump trucks, to having two excavators, two Bobcats, five trucks, two lowboy trailers and a two-story office on a six-acre lot,” Nuckles said. “I went from paying people in cash to having 15 employees on direct deposit. I have grown from just a mom-and-pop construction company to a full-grown corporation. I have the capacity of a real company.”
The growth comes with newfound pressures. At 31, he has a wife and two young children, and employees who are counting on him. “I’m responsible for other people’s families,” he said. But instead of holding him back, the responsibility propels him forward to future opportunities, like site work, tree clearing, septic tanks and dump pans for remodel jobs.
“What’s on the other side of fear? Success,” Nuckles said. “If I was scared, I’d still be with AT&T in Dallas.”
Over summers, Nuckles hires local teenagers because he wants them to learn skills and get a glimpse of their options. “I tell them, ‘You can work doing this, or you can have your own business,’” he said. “There’s more to life than drug money.”
Asked about barriers faced by young, minority entrepreneurs, Nuckles recalls times he has been required to provide more documentation, furnish a bigger down payment, or accept less advantageous terms to get a deal done. The answer to these barriers, he said, is to push past them.
“I’ve embraced the fact that I’m going to have to do more,” he said. “What I’ve found is, if I’m willing to put up my last, I can find somebody willing to take a risk on me. And if I’m not willing to put it all on the line, why should I expect you to?”
It is a formula that has worked. He is particularly proud that his grandfather, who initially was a skeptic, later asked for the opportunity to invest in his grandson’s business. Nuckles happily reports that he not only repaid his grandfather’s investment but enough interest to repay four years of college expenses as well.
Nuckles’ work is his best advertisement, and he smiles as he pulls out a simple yard sign on wire stalks — the kind that typically advertises political candidates. “Demo by Nuckles Services,” the sign says. “205–593–4641.”
“Cheapest marketing ever,” he said. “It isn’t flashy, but it has gotten me more business than anything else.”
The whiteboard in his office near Wenonah High School is now marked by rows and rows of jobs to complete along with a general admonition, “Be great!”
For Nuckles, these two words are not just a slogan but a call to action. His goals are big, and he is always on guard for self-imposed limits.
“I don’t want to be the biggest Black company,” Nuckles said. “I want to be the best company.”