by Mark Carter
A self-described capitalist protester, Gerald Alley was wise enough to counterbalance the late 1960s idealism absorbed as a student at the University of Arkansas with a healthy dose of ROI-friendly realism.
Imbibing the revolutionary spirit of the times but tethering himself to the grounding principles of his hard-working parents, Alley invested in the long view and the return on that investment has been substantial. Alley graduated in 1972, something of a novelty as an African-American in the university’s (pre-Walton) College of Business, and by the end of the decade had founded his own construction/real estate firm.
Today, Alley’s Con-Real LP is one of the leading black-owned firms in the South with corporate headquarters in Arlington, Texas, and six satellite offices across the country including one in Little Rock. And Alley, 67, is one of four 2020 inductees this month into the UA Walton College’s Arkansas Business Hall of Fame.
Con-Real’s portfolio includes national clients such as Walmart, Frito Lay, Texas Instruments, Kroger and Wells Fargo, as well as the Texas operations of JP Morgan Chase and Home Depot. Projects include the Texas Rangers’ new Global Life Park and the Texas Live mixed-use district adjacent to it; renovation of State Farm Arena in Atlanta, home of the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks, and American Airlines Center in Dallas, home of the NBA’s Mavericks and NHL’s Stars; American Airlines’ Fort Worth corporate campus housing more than 7,000 employees; expansion at Zoo Atlanta; runway expansion and skybridge construction at DFW International Airport as well as land acquisition for expansion at Clinton National in Little Rock; construction of the new STEM center at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and library storage building at the UA in Fayetteville, and renovation of the UA’s Mullins Library.
Not bad for a Pine Bluff kid sent to the Hill — as a 16-year-old high school graduate, no less — to broaden his horizons. Like an older brother before him, Alley was stepping away from the familiar campus of hometown Arkansas AM&N (now UAPB), the historically black school just across the street, and pulling a demographic 360 by furthering his education in Northwest Arkansas.
Turns out, his parents knew what they were doing. “They wanted us to be challenged,” he says. “And they felt that sending me to the University of Arkansas would place me in a challenging environment. Northwest Arkansas was an environment where nobody looked like me.”
Despite the racial tension of the era, Gladys and Troy Alley taught their five kids that hard work overcomes. Troy Alley owned a service station in Pine Bluff, one of the city’s first black-owned businesses, and worked seven days a week, Alley says. His mother was a former educator at Philander Smith College in Little Rock. Work and education were priorities in the Alley home.
“In our family, we were taught that you have to get up in the morning, and you have to go to work,” he says. “And don’t get too discouraged by failure. That’s where you learn.”
Early on, Alley learned some lessons in Fayetteville, embracing many of the extracurricular activities associated with college that ultimately derail many student journeys. These included getting swept up in the anti-war and civil rights movements of the time. Alley was in school for the famed Arkansas-Texas “Game of the Century” on Dec. 6, 1969, for which President Richard Nixon essentially was airlifted into town. Protests, of America’s involvement in the Vietnam conflict and of the Marching Razorbacks’ continued playing of “Dixie,” threatened to engulf the campus outside Razorback Stadium; one protester was shot.
“It was a time of unrest,” Alley says. “It was all moving so fast.”
That day, Alley was smart enough to stick to the off-campus “party house” he shared with friends, engaged in some of those collegiate “extracurriculars.” Of course, Alley’s choices led to “some very predictable scenarios,” and his grades suffered.
“Those elements were not a key to success,” he says. “My challenge was balancing my aspirations to enjoy a spirit of rebelliousness and support the civil rights movement and still get an education. But I was taught, ‘Whatever you sew, that’s what you reap.’ I realized my error and moved back into the dorm.”
Alley says he basically lived in the old College of Business and with exams looming, studied for two weeks straight. Soon back on track, Alley ended up serving as manager of the student union before completing his degree and going on to earn an MBA in finance and real estate from Southern Methodist University. He also studied at the prestigious Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern outside Chicago before being recruited back to Texas by former Dallas department store Sanger-Harris.
Inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame in 2013, Alley also founded The Alley Group, a project management provider based in San Francisco, and Bravado LP, a real estate/hospitality firm in Arlington. He’s served on numerous boards (including at Walton College and SMU) and launched the Candace Alley Family Foundation, named for his wife, which supports underprivileged students.
Through it all, including the challenges imposed in Fayetteville by his youth and skin color, the foundation of hard work and persistence laid by his parents became the cornerstone of Alley’s business success.
“If I’d stayed in Pine Bluff, I wouldn’t have been challenged at an early age,” he says.
“I’m really grateful for the family members, friends and older people I knew who taught me the values of tenacity and sticking with it. I’ve been able to deal with setbacks as a learning opportunity. If you face a challenge, you just have to deal with it.”
This past fall, that ’69 Razorback team — the one sharing the “Big Shootout” stage with Texas 50 years ago — was recognized at the Auburn game. Pine Bluff native Hiram McBeth, now a successful Dallas attorney and Alley friend, was there. Just the second African-American to suit up for the Hogs on the gridiron, McBeth became the first black player to appear in a varsity-level game for Arkansas when he played in the ’69 spring Red-White game.
Alley was among the supporters joining McBeth for the on-field recognition and admits the experience was a little surreal.
“I thought to myself, ‘Did 50 years go by just like that?’ But that’s the way life is. I wouldn’t trade my experience for the world. If you’re still standing, you’re OK — you’re prepared.”