Construction isn’t just for men, and neither is starting a construction-related business.
Women make up a small fraction of the construction workforce, and the C-suites of large construction companies also skew heavily male, but that doesn’t mean women aren’t making their mark.
In addition to the women in professional and management positions in construction — project managers, estimators, business developers, etc. — there are women who chose to open their own companies. We checked in with a handful to find out what it’s like and how they came to be in construction or a related industry. Many of these companies are a certified Women’s Business Enterprise (WBE).
Loving the independence that comes with ownership
Grainne Keane is principal and owner of Quality Excavation, Inc., in Chicago. “We are a demolition and excavation company, offering a full range of services from excavation and earth retention to demolition,” said Keane.
“We started out very small, with two machine operators, and initially I took care of all the paperwork. Fast forward 25 years later, and we currently have 22 employees on staff.”
“I would have to say the independence that comes with self-employment far outweighs the inevitable stresses that comes with the territory of business ownership. There is a constant learning curve in the construction industry, with changes in technology and regulations. As a result, we are always evolving and looking for new ways to improve the services we provide. On a person level, providing employment and opportunities for our staff to grow is very rewarding. There is also sense of accomplishment of being successful working in an industry that is dominated by men!”
Her best advice for women considering a career in construction: “Keep asking questions until the answers make sense. Every day is a school day.”
Growing a business while raising eight kids
Cheryl Obermiller is founder and owner of Obermiller Construction Services, in Harrisonville, Missouri, which provides asphalt, paving, concrete installation and trucking services and is celebrating its 25th year in business.
“I started the company as a small business to supplement the income for our large family,” said Obermiller. “I was doing percolation tests for septic systems and also provided inspection services for subdivision developers. After a few years I branched out into paving, which changed the entire direction of my company. I took on some large commercial clients and made a name for myself doing asphalt and concrete parking lot maintenance, repair and construction. Several years ago, I branched out into commercial trucking and now have a fleet of 15 dump trucks.”
Obermiller said one of her biggest challenges was surviving an embezzlement that put her accountant in prison. Now that she’s turned 60, she plans to sell the business to several of her children, who are deeply involved in the business.
“In my spare time, I raised a family of eight children, and just welcomed my 16th grandchild — because women in business have to be versatile, you know!”
Blazing a trail in estimating
Karen Sarnowski started Preferred Construction Management Co., Inc., based in New Jersey and Maine, with her husband out of frustration with her job in nursing. “I was fortunate enough to have past construction company experience — a prior general contracting company that folded during the early ’90’s’ recession.”
She thought she had the experience, organizational skills and work ethic to build a successful construction estimating company. “This was back in the days when there were few estimating firms out there. Today it is a bit different, with many firms across the country. But I was right; cost estimators were hard to find and in high demand.”
She said it’s been interesting to see the changes in attitudes toward women in construction. Back in the 1990s, men were surprised to learn that the woman who answered the phone was the one who had done their estimate, “not to mention that oftentimes I would be informing them of items they had not seen on the plans or in the specs,” she added. “Today, that reaction is pretty much gone. But, occasionally, there are still men out there that suggest that they would prefer to work with ‘your father.’”
Sarnowski said she believes including more women in the construction industry brings many benefits. “Science supports that woman pay more attention to details, and cost estimating and project scheduling are two areas where details are vital to the final product. This heightened attention to detail can likewise be valuable on a jobsite, too.”
Keeping road workers safe — and heading up NAWIC
When Catherine Schoenenberger answered a blind ad for a business manager in 1996, she had no idea it would lead her to a career in the traffic control industry. Today she’s the owner of Stay Safe Traffic Products, Inc., a supplier of traffic signs and safety products throughout New England. The company also offers flagger certification training.
“I appreciate and respect our road crews, who are literally in harm’s way all day long,” she said. “I love being part of the conversation and being part of the solution when it comes to infrastructure and compliance and safety for all road users. I am able to add value to my customers by knowing what will keep them safe and legal — protected on all fronts.”
Her two greatest supporters? “My husband, who is also my partner, and my mother.”
Schoenenberger was named national president of the National Association of Women in Construction in 2017.
Providing staffing services — and getting young people interested
Debbie Rodriguez is the owner/operator of several Florida branches of Quality Labor Management, LLC, a skilled staffing service for construction and other industries, and president of Competitive Edge Partners & Consulting, LLC, a subcontracting firm that provides staffing, material management, document management and OSHA training for construction and industrial trades.
She is also founder of iBuild Central Florida, a collaboration between the construction industry and educational system in Central Florida that aims to show young people and adults the construction career opportunities available to them.
Rodriguez came to the construction industry through trial and error — “life lessons through the school of hard knocks.”
“I did not have a lot of support when I started in this industry in 2000.” She recalled her first job managing a day-laborer company office in Jacksonville. “I was young and a woman in the construction industry, so I had a lot of negativity directed at me.” But she persevered.
“I love what I do because I make a difference in people’s lives every day.”
Photo Credit: Obermiller Construction Services