How I Thrive as a Woman in the Male-Dominated Construction Biz

Last Updated Jul 27, 2010 1:31 PM EDT


By Beverley Kruskol, President of M.Y. Pacific Building, Tarzana, Calif.
I loved construction and painting from the moment I was introduced to those jobs. I started out working in property management in Los Angeles, and I always got involved in remodeling the buildings-rehabbing, redoing units as people moved out, and painting buildings. At the time I didn't think much about how it was a male-dominated field, I just knew I enjoyed doing it and was good at it. As it turned out, the challenges I faced helped me do a better job.

I was married for awhile and my husband at the time and I launched a painting and drywall company together. I eventually took over the whole company. That was 2001. Over time, I have diversified what we do. I have people who specialize in Venetian plaster, drywall and lacquer, among other skills. We do every type of work from high-end painting jobs to readying apartments after someone moves out-doing the painting, maintenance and cleaning. I work for designers, architects, general contractors and high-end customers. For example, we recently did restoration painting after a flood had damaged a $32-million house.

I employ between 40 and 50 workers depending on our current projects. We bring in close to $2 million a year. I'm aiming for $10 million.
Challenges for women
If I walk onto a job site for the first time and I have anybody male with me, be it a painter or a customer, the workers address the guy, understanding him to be the one in charge. They assume I am the secretary.

This kind of treatment has only gotten to me once or twice. Just recently, I hired a contractor because I was too busy to supervise a job. He was supposed to know a lot about construction, but when I visited, I was not happy with the quality of the work being done, and said so. One of the workers said I didn't know what I was talking about. And I got angry. I told him, "Don't think that because I am a woman I am an idiot. I have done far more jobs than you."

The incident bothered me. I was frustrated that the job wasn't being done correctly, and I was upset at the reaction I got. It was the first time I'd felt so angry in a long time. I spoke to the worker later, and he did apologize. But it's frustrating that if I yell and scream at someone I am a bitch, while if a man does it he is a good businessman.

On the whole, however, this kind of reaction is something I have gotten used to. Once I prove myself, workers respect me.

Understanding clients' needs
As a contractor, you often deal with a female client in the home. I know a lot of painters who will say, "Oh, she is such an idiot. She doesn't know what she's talking about." You do often get a lot of questions from women, but it doesn't mean they are stupid. It just means they want to see the job done well. The average contractor does not make much effort to understand what the client wants.

I train my workers to be respectful of the homeowner, and provide what I want if work is being done at my home: a clean site and polite workers. My guys know they need to take care of the client's property, and they need to be on time.

The trickle-down theory of management
You have to realize you are only as good as the people working for you. If a client respects what you are doing, you will get a lot of referrals. These days, 90% of my work comes through word of mouth. Even in this economic climate, potential clients are still calling me. I think that's because people enjoy working with my guys. When I get a letter from a client saying how wonderful it is to work with a particular painter, that is worth millions.

How do I teach my workers to treat our clients well? I treat them well. I have created a family atmosphere-something that a male-run painting company typically would not do. When I speak to my workers, I do so respectfully. They and their families come to my office every Friday, and I have sodas and cookies for their kids. While a lot of companies have cut back on office parties during the recession, I have good Christmas parties at the end of the year, where the guys can bring their wives and can dance. They feel like they belong to a team.

If I treat my workers well, they will enjoy coming to work and will do as much as they can for the company. I love football, and in work, just as in the game, a quarterback is nothing without a great defensive line.

When she is not building houses, Beverley Kruskol plays competitive poker. She was once ranked the woman fourth most likely to win the World Series of Poker. She still dreams of winning the series, a feat no woman has yet accomplished.
-As told to Caitlin Elsaesser

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