BY CHRISTINA KOCH AND LAURIE GRANT CREATED: FEBRUARY 9, 2012
It sometimes is difficult to remember a time when women weren’t a vital part of the workforce. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2010, there were 123 million women in the civilian noninstitutional population; 58.6 percent of them were working. Despite the number of women working today, it still is newsworthy when a woman excels to a position once considered a man’s job—think Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton; Janice Fedarcyk, the first woman to lead the FBI’s New York office; and Indra Nooyi, chief executive of PepsiCo. Women also have been blazing trails within the male-dominated construction industry, demonstrating traits often considered innately female (emoting, multitasking, nurturing) can be beneficial to running thriving businesses no matter the type.
Qualified Remodeler’s female editors spent time talking to some of the successful women of the remodeling industry and learned almost all of them wanted to work in construction since they were children. The editors also learned about the women’s families, pets, belief systems, neighborhoods, etc., illustrating women often make their businesses very personal. As all business owners struggle to attract leads and set themselves apart from their competition, these women provide insights into their methods.
What are some of the challenges of being a woman in remodeling?
Schwab: When I entered the housing construction industry 30 years ago, there was a stereotype that women were the bookkeepers for their husband’s company. I relied on experience from growing up in my parents’ “dirt construction” business and my previous career to offset that assumption by working with our employers, vendors and clients to show I was a principal decision maker in the company. It didn’t take long to learn a woman needed to know the industry jargon and specifications; that was how she earned respect. Today, our vendors and clients are used to working with women.
Hutter: I am not someone who thinks being a woman is a challenge. I think the challenges I’ve seen in my career had more to do with my age and experience level years ago. Since the day I opened my door, I get a lot of work and I think it’s because I’m good at what I do. I’m a firm believer that you create your own reality out of where your brain is.
Walters: When I first started in this industry 20 years ago, I would go out on sales calls and countless times customers would come to the door and say, “Oh my gosh, they sent a woman?” Now the challenge is vendors who call don’t recognize a woman is in a management role. I think you have to know your stuff more because people don’t expect a woman to know much in this industry.
Davis: The main challenge has been the assumption I’m not the boss because I’m a woman. I’ve dealt with it by taking the initiative in conversations and setting the proper expectations. I have learned to communicate my role more clearly as it impacts final decision making to emphasize the importance of including me in CG&S conversations.
Do you think there are enough women in the construction field?
Hsu: I don’t think there’s enough emphasis on the trades in general. I think I heard a statistic that the average carpenter is 55 years old. Everyone wants to go to college right now, which is good, but we need more people to go to trade school. I think women are just as qualified to do this work. Our electrician doesn’t need to be able to bench press 150 pounds; he or she needs to be detail-oriented and connect A to B.
Harrell: Unfortunately, there aren’t any guidance counselors saying to women, “You can make good money and have an enjoyable career in construction.” To offset that, we’re having the Girl Scouts work on getting their Ms. Fix-It badges here. We have four events per year with two different programs to get them excited about plumbing, audio-visual, sheetrock, framing and design. We’ve been doing this for at least 10 years. We want girls to realize this is an option for them, and we’ve heard they are checking things at their homes.
How do you do business differently than men?
Hsu: Most of our clients are women. As far as the kitchen goes, most men want food in it and want it to be clean but don’t really care about the backsplash or cabinets. Women tend to have a higher consideration for the aesthetic, and I feel like they are more comfortable dealing with Felicia [Lakeville Home’s project manager] and me to hold their hand and help decide whether ivory or biscuit is the right answer. We definitely have a softer approach and focus on relationships and communication to build trust with clients.
Davis: I take time, try to understand all perspectives and attempt to get all information before making decisions. I was told very early on by my brothers I needed to be more of a bulldog, and what I’ve learned through 20 years of doing this is I don’t need to be a bulldog. I’m just very clear, true and honest to my style.
Walters: Women are more sensitive to feelings and aren’t as black and white. Therefore even in the selling cycle they tend to get more in-depth about the feel. It’s more cosmetic-driven. Every call I go on, I ask, “Does that feel good to you?” Guys are like, “I guess.” If something doesn’t feel right to a woman, she doesn’t want to proceed. Men make judgment calls. Women oftentimes will say it just doesn’t feel right.
Florio: I spend a lot of time listening and asking questions. Often women are the ones who make the decisions on projects for their homes. They identify with me. They feel like they’re being heard while in the past they may not have felt heard if they worked with a man on a project.
What have you done to grow your business during the difficult economy?
Shirey: One of the things is teaching our men to talk to clients about other things they can do within the house. We have a list of maintenance items that should be done four times a year. We did a survey of our clients about this and found people want to do maintenance but only two times per year and that’s fine with me. The important part is how to introduce clients to that maintenance piece.
Hsu: Previous to the economic downturn, we basically had zero marketing efforts. We now are doing social networking and have a blog. I manage my Facebook page among my friends so it’s personal, but I also interject what I’m doing because I’m finding a lot of business coming from people who were already in my network. For instance, I reconnected with a friend from college who is in mortgage banking, and he has been sending over referrals once he approves the construction loan.
Florio: We feel communication is extremely important. We hand write thank-you notes to our customers and make a lot of follow-up phone calls. We spend a lot more time during the initial phase of a project before the design phase to help clients see the big picture of the project. It is very important to pay attention to details, which requires a more hands-on approach. We look for creative solutions in how we approach each project; sometimes it means thinking outside the box.
Harrell: We increased our belly-to-belly networking and got very refined at who’s covering what geographic territory. For example, our marketing director lives in Los Gatos so she belongs to the Los Gatos Rotary. I live very close to Menlo Park and I’m in a referral group there. We offer our building to the Build It Green network and they come here once per month. We are trying to meet other people who have continual referral sources as opposed to trying to meet a client.
Davis: Every other week we meet to evaluate our sales leads, our facts and if we are hitting our benchmarks. We’ve flat lined since 2008, which I think is a huge accomplishment; we didn’t just take a huge nosedive. I think it’s in large part because we stay very focused and committed. We were running a pretty tight ship to begin with.
What motivates you?
Shirey: I’m always motivated by doing a good job and helping people. I want to make the company the best it can be. The economy has been a real downer, but we all still have a lot of really good things going for us. We do our best to keep our eye on that.
Harrell: I love my work. When I hear people say they can’t wait until they retire, I can’t imagine living like that. As the company grew, my job changed, too, which has created more interest for me.
Schwab: The best part of being a business owner in this industry, aside from the great people I have met and the friendships I have formed, is every day offers variety. Knowing I am able to meet the challenges, provide a service and satisfy clients provides a good feeling. Working with family members and seeing the company extend into the next generation with our son is another positive.
Hutter: My clients. I can be having a bad day and then have a client interaction and truly understand all over again these are really cool people we get to do really cool projects for. I firmly believe we are creating these new projects for our clients so the new house becomes a springboard for them to go out and do good things in their life. Basically, I support them so they can support somebody else.
Although women may not dominate the remodeling profession, they add a new dynamic that did not exist years ago. When speaking of the evolving industry, Davis points out the addition of women to the field has led to a more multidimensional viewpoint. Today, women’s contributions to remodeling continue to expand and elevate the industry, as well as provide balance to an individual firm or jobsite. For instance, Shirey notes, “I’m more of a soft sell and my husband, who is also my business partner, is not as patient as I am. Sometimes my patience isn’t a good thing, but if I hang in there and am persistent and consistent in talking with people, they like that. We balance each other very well.”