For Women in Construction, the Only Barriers Are the Ones Protecting the Jobsite

"I have never paid much attention to barriers,” says Kathleen Garrity, who this past spring became the second woman ever to be inducted into the University of Washington’s (UW) Construction Industry Hall of Fame. “If you think there are barriers, you become victim to them. If you focus on it, it becomes about overcoming a barrier and not about getting things done. I focus on helping contractors achieve results.”
Garrity
Garrity has become a household name in merit shop construction leadership circles, particularly in the Pacific Northwest. She co-founded the Washington Electrical Education Foundation and set a new precedent as the first female executive hired to lead Associated Builders and Contractors’ (ABC) Western Washington Chapter, where she served as president for more than 30 years and helped found ABC National’s Chapter Presidents’ Council. Together with SanDee Olson-Meyer, who was the first woman inducted into the UW Hall of Fame, Garrity was an early leader at the NCCER-accredited Construction Industry Training Council of Washington, an open shop consortium for open shop craft skills training.  

Now retired but still highly invested in industry mentorship and community service, Garrity has sage words of advice for others seeking to be construction industry leaders: “Try to make a difference. Be authentic. Focus on a result. If you want to be a leader, the essence of that is to be of service. To be a leader isn’t being at the front of the line; sometimes it’s helping someone else move to the front of the line.”

Women business leaders at ABC and throughout the industry will agree, there is no one path to the top. Garrity, who comes from a small family business background, majored in history. Her first job after college happened to be an entry-level position with a homebuilders’ association in Chicago. “It was serendipitous,” she says. “It turned out that I like working with contractors and I liked the association management business.” In 1980, after gaining leadership experience, she moved to Seattle and began volunteering for ABC’s newly formed local chapter.

In 1983, Garrity stepped up to the helm as chapter president and during her decades of service, she significantly advanced the region’s construction career training opportunities and political advocacy efforts by building relationships with the state’s labor department, contractors small and large, and countless industry experts and educators.

“There are advantages to being a woman in business, and it’s valuable to be aware of them,” she says. “We have a lot of emotional intelligence and intuition. We often can read personal relationships better, and we can be in tune to solve problems. Construction is a team sport, and everyone has a part to play. The way to gain respect is to help achieve the end goal,” she says.

A Small Business Standout
Patricia Bonilla, another standout construction leader, founded Lunacon Construction Company, Palmetto Bay, Fla., in 2007 at a time when the chips were stacked high against construction entrepreneurs. The company, which began in Bonilla’s garage, today supports nearly 50 employees, multiple federal government and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers contracts, and is bonded for projects up to $50 million.
Bonilla
“Barriers? In my head I don’t see them. I know some say they’re there, but I don’t see them. I wouldn’t have started a company if I didn’t know I could succeed,” Bonilla says.

Bonilla gained her heart and passion for the industry from her father, an engineer. She followed in his footsteps to earn her bachelor’s degree in civil engineering and her master’s degree in construction management. Post-graduation, she gained experience by working for several multimillion-dollar construction firms, followed by becoming the head of a Fort Lauderdale division, focusing on government work.

As the recession hit, Bonilla was juggling the demands of being a single mother as well as driving long distances to get to scarcer jobs, when she had an “aha” moment. She decided that going into business for herself would be her true path to achieving professional fulfillment while spending more time with her children. “I put it in God’s hands, and two days later, I won a yearlong contract with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This contract, as well as another project with the U.S. Air Force, gave me enough revenue for my partner to come on board so we could expand the business.”

Bonilla’s partner, Emilio Criado, started his career in the field as a laborer and then a superintendent, and now handles Lunacon’s operations, while Bonilla handles the business development, project management  and finance roles.
Lunacon project
Bonilla committed to building a positive and polished company image from the very start. Rather than meet in her garage, she’d invite clients and business partners to meet at a coffee shop for an initial conversation. Eventually, she began to bring surety bonding agents and bankers to visit her small garage office to show them where the real work was happening. In a short period of time, she sought out every certification she could get: DBE, GSA, MBE, SBE, 8(a) SDB, WBE and USGBC. She invested in a small, loyal staff. And her strategy worked.

“When I started in 2007, there was no credit. Banks thought construction was a bad market. I hadn’t been in business for three years yet, so it was especially hard to get credit. I began with a small $100,000 line of credit from American Express. One bank agent in particular saw my garage, he saw the heart and he saw the capabilities. He believed in our story and sold it to the loan officers,” Bonilla says.

“By 2010, the fruits of our labor began to pay off. I started getting calls for larger projects and in turn had to hire 25 people that summer,” she says. In the past six years, the business’ bonding credit has continued to rise incrementally to help Lunacon achieve even more credibility among its peers and potential clients. In 2015, the company was named the American Express OPEN Government Contractor of the Year.

Staying on the Pulse
Bonilla’s leadership style—at the beginning and today—is to stay aware of every part of the business. 

“There are reasons why small businesses fail. You have to be cognizant of that as a small business owner. It’s said that 80 percent of businesses fail within the first three years, and then in the next five years, 50 percent of the rest will fail. So, reaching that three-year point was a big milestone. I’m proud of that, especially during a recession.

“As a business owner, one wants to make sure there is a business plan that is evolving with time. One should understand a financial statement and have a pulse on all aspects of the business—what’s happening with marketing, estimating and operations. If someone asks me about any project, I know where it stands because I stay engaged with my clients and my staff,” she says.

With a solid footing in the local and federal government market, Lunacon now manages commercial projects with contract values in excess of $4 million, and it has recently made inroads to win competitive design-build government projects, including a community center and pool facility.

“It’s all about work ethic,” Bonilla says. “Being overly prepared for people who assume you are less than capable makes gaining their respect easier once you’ve exceeded their expectations.”

Reaching Milestones
While the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ number of women in the industry may appear low, with only approximately 9 percent of construction workers in the United States being women, leadership positions abound on exceptional projects defined by innovation and new ways of thinking. The statistics don’t necessarily reflect the rapid pace of women moving up in office or field-office hybrid roles, including project management, safety, QA/QC, testing, coding, training and estimating, to name just a few.

Garrity, who has been monitoring industry trends for decades, admits that while most women still don’t gravitate toward physical labor in the field, she’s seen rising interest among female carpenters, electricians and welders to advance into foreman and superintendent roles—especially if they have a great eye for detail. Earning a construction management or civil engineering degree is another powerful launching point to advancement, as many companies are eager to change the face of their executive management teams.

“Companies looking to have a more diverse leadership team need to be intentional about it. They have to know they’re looking for leaders—people who have that spark,” Garrity says. “Start by investing in your people through soft skills training and giving them achievable challenges. Give them a mentor, and foster a culture where it’s OK for them to fail and learn from their mistakes.”

Suffolk Construction certainly takes this mindset to heart. On its high-profile All Aboard Florida - MiamiCentral Station project in Miami, Suffolk boasts a leadership team that is nearly 50 percent female. The project, which will be completed in phases beginning in 2017, will create a multimodal icon that connects the city’s public transit systems and stimulates new retail, commercial and residential development. The team is calling on lean project delivery principles to deliver a 59,000-square-foot station facility, 41,000-square-foot loading area, 180,000-square-foot passenger platform, 178,000 square feet of retail space and 344,000 square feet of parking. The Miami terminal will be the southernmost stop for the express passenger rail service that will run from Orlando to Miami in just less than three hours. Additional terminals will be located in West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale.

RiveraIn June, the team set the first steel beams on the central block of the project—a major milestone for Jackie Rivera, assistant project manager, who earned her bachelor’s degree in civil engineering and has worked for Suffolk for about three years. She was charged with managing the steel erection from concept through the shop drawings, fabrication and delivery. “When those steel beams arrived at 7:30 a.m. this summer, it was such a gratifying moment for everyone who had worked so hard on the team,” she says.

Rivera’s interest in construction leadership was sparked when she signed on for an internship working for her aunt, who is an estimator for a small general contractor in California. Rivera doesn’t perceive a significant challenge for women to succeed in the industry.
Suffolk
“Early in my career, when I had less technical experience because I was young and still learning, I was more hesitant. Now I’m more confident expressing my opinions without fear of getting shut down. If anything, I was my own roadblock because I didn’t speak up enough,” Rivera says.

Her colleague Jessica Chen, project executive of MiamiCentral Station, agrees that any barriers in the industry were self-imposed. “I have felt supported every step of the way, with Suffolk giving me opportunities to grow into various types of work, from residential high-rise to educational construction and casino work,” says Chen, who earned an architectural technology degree, worked in the cabinetry industry and then for a small construction management company before joining Suffolk 12 years ago.

“It’s actually surprising that more women aren’t working in construction. When I started in school, there were only two or three women in my construction management class in a room full of guys. But on this project, it’s rewarding to see so many women working at different levels, from the field to high up,” Chen says. “I’m fortunate to be part of a leadership team that welcomes your input, with people asking one another for advice. I can always go to my ‘floor cousins’ to talk about a difficult situation, and to me it’s a great comfort to work with other leaders who feel like a family.”
Planz
Suffolk Vice President John Planz oversees the project, and as a mentor, he celebrates his team’s leadership achievements at every turn. Planz began his career as an electrical engineer and electrical mechanical contractor and joined Suffolk in 1996 as a project manager.

“I am in a unique position to be out there on the front lines surrounded by talented people, and they happen to represent skills of all forms and shapes. For me, as a vice president, it’s really about creating a group of people who care about themselves and their career growth, and equally care about the project and the client,” he says. “I have come from a subcontractor’s background, which is not always easy. As an emerging leader, you have to find your place and show you’re as talented as anyone. As soon you do that, the opportunities will become easily available at any stage in your career.

“At Suffolk, we do a good job of providing younger employees with various opportunities in small and large markets so they do not get stuck in a box. They learn to turn over small jobs quickly as well as commit to long-term, complex projects,” Planz says.

Suffolk’s Career Start program puts promising new hires through eight-month training rotations in various departments that encourage emerging leaders to learn all aspects of the business—from estimating to project management. Through reverse mentoring, experienced superintendents and foremen can gain feedback from the younger generation regarding what’s working well and what’s not throughout the organization.

“People want to support your career growth when you’re young,” Rivera says. “The folks in this industry who are nearing retirement really want to take the time to show young workers things. And the younger people who are more in tune with the latest technology and training can teach the older, more experienced employees a lot as well.”

Building a company culture that supports a diverse group of leaders is the same as building a strong project team—it’s all about matching talents to tasks, fostering business relationships and embracing creative problem-solving.

“It’s important for me as an executive leader to remember I once had a respected leader who gave me an opportunity to do something that maybe I wasn’t quite ready to do. It’s important to pass down the opportunity,” Planz says.


Lauren Pinch is managing editor of Construction Executive. For more information, email pinch@abc.org or follow @ConstructionMag.