Industry execs say pandemic experience will help in long run

There is no denying that the past year has had its share of challenges. But as the commercial construction market slowly makes its way to the next level, some of the industry’s leading women professionals say there are ways to learn from the experience.

Participants in our latest Virtual CCR Women’s Roundtable agreed that the best is yet to come, despite the lumps the pandemic inflicted on every aspect of the industry’s landscape.

Our monthly virtual roundtables feature a diverse set of vendors and end users who connect via Zoom for two days, including several hours of networking. The events are hosted by Commercial Construction & Renovation Publisher David Corson and Editor Michael Pallerino.

Following is a roundup from our third roundtable of 2021.

CCR: Give us a snapshot of what you do.
Nicole Young, IdentiCom Signs and Facility Rx Services: I’ve been working for the company for the past three-plus years. I oversee business development, sales, distribution and manufacturing—what goes on in the shop. My favorite part of the job is meeting all of you, and networking and finding out what you guys need.

Julie Fox, Ashkenazy Acquisitions Corp.: Headquartered in New York City, we are a private real estate investment firm focusing on retail, hotel and office assets. I spearhead our shopping center portfolio and I’m responsible for leasing assets in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Washington DC that total approximately 2.2 million square feet.

Jeca Salas, Urban Air Adventure Parks: I’m A Project Manager under Park Development. I oversee a pipeline of new franchise Adventure Parks during the development process. Each property is a unique footprint and offers a challenge for the team. When our park is complete it provides an amazing guest experience for kids and families alike.

Jennifer Jones, Safe Site Check In: Site Check In’s software provides an easy, customizable, and private check-in and digital screening to ensure the health and safety of employees and visitors on job sites.

Gabriele Lawrence, Chatham Lodging Trust: We’re a self-directed, publicly traded REIT in West Palm Beach, Florida. I am the Director of Project Management, Design & Construction for Chatham Lodging Trust. The Chatham design and construction team are scattered throughout the country. I currently reside in Denver, so I can hit both coasts within three to five hours. Our portfolio of hotels are located withinthe continental United States—from Seattle, Washington to Portland, Maine. We currently don’t have any in Hawaii or Alaska.

At the end of last year (our fiscal year), we had about 240 hotels total. As you can imagine as a REIT, we’re continuely adding or divesting from our current portfolios. All of our existing 240 hotels are major brand flags within the Marriott family, Hilton, Hyatt and IHG.

Kara Demmien, Pine Ridge Construction Management: I am the Architectural Project Manager. We do construction management, but also a lot of design build. I am a liaison between my company and the architects and engineers we work with all the way through construction.

Barbara Schenker, Sinelli Concepts: We have a few brands under Sinelli Concepts, including Which Wich Superior Sandwiches, Paciugo Gelato, Birdguesa and Burguesa Burger, and then some other brands in the works. I oversee the new store opening processes and manage all the development vendor relationships.

Lynne Sperr, USGN Software: We are a cloud-based, collaborative project management software solution headquartered in Scottsdale, Arizona. I manage current customer relationships and contract administration, as well as new customer prospecting and business development.

Sara Iverson, Blain Supplies: We are based in Janesville, Wisconsin. Right now, we have 43 locations in four states. As Director of Real Estate, Construction and Facilities, I help select new locations, relocations and remodels.

Participants in our latest Virtual CCR Women’s Roundtable agreed that the best is yet to come, despite the lumps the pandemic inflicted on every aspect of the industry’s landscape.

CCR: What’s on your to-do list right now?
Blain Supplies’ Smith: I have been visiting a lot of new markets lately. As I said, we’re in four states: Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa and Michigan. Within the last five years, we’ve grown a lot in Michigan, with more on the way there. So I’ve been spending some quality time there. I am also looking at what state is next for growth.

One of the more interesting things you hear today is that malls are dead and retail is dying. It is a bit of a dark box right now. Granted, there are still some K-Marts and Sears locations out there that nobody wants. But within the last three months, there has been a ton of traffic on picking up some of these dark stores.

Another thing on my to-do list is a ground up location I was doing that was put off because of issues with the DOT. The price of steel has doubled over the past year and our prices for building a new facility has gone through the roof. That is why I am looking into some of these dark boxes. I am trying to find where I can go next. I don’t want to be delayed because of supply chain problems.

IdentiCom Signs’ Young: I’m like a one-stop shop. I’m also always looking for new property and real estate that needs signage.

USGN’s Sperr: In terms of our customers, we’re seeing a lot of growth—considerably more than last year, although we did stay fairly steady in 2020. We have a wide range of customers, including Amazon, AutoNation, HMSHost, etc. Services for these existing customers has been picking up steam. They’re asking for complex integrations with finance and looking more toward enterprise solutions—that’s a trend we are seeing.

Some of our fitness and QSR customers are beginning to build again, too. It’s especially exciting to see these customers returning as they were hit pretty hard in 2020.

Another trend we’ve seen is the greater shift toward a distributed workforce which is necessitating collaborative, enterprise solutions.

Pine Ridge’s Demmien: Since COVID, I’ve diversified my portfolio, going from mainly retail projects to adding hospitality and mixed-use. I’ve been partnering with architects, engineers and suppliers—strengthening these partnerships and focusing on creating an A team, so to speak, for my projects. With this type of change and diversity comes a lot of room for learning and growing.

We are also the developers for multiple mixed-use sites that I’m focused on the design and programming, and keeping them moving. There is just tremendous opportunity within the communities we are developing.

Chatham Lodging’s Lawrence: Obviously, hotels and airlines were some of the sectors hit the hardest during COVID. Not that it didn’t cross industry lines, but we seem to have had an inordinate impact. I’d say my to-do list right now is to ramp back up again with the renovations we had put on hold the past nine to 12 months starting in Q4 of 2020. As we know, there will be large timing and turnaround impact in the pipeline from sourcing FF&E to freight. The cost of raw materials from timber to steel has also been strongly impacted, which will impact everyone’s project budget moving forward until the market stabilizes again.

There’s always timing associated with permitting. I have something in DC right now where we’re removing a rooftop pool and converting into a outdoor living room experience while also adding guest rooms. Over the past year, I’m sure all of you have seen that you have to increase a project’s timing due to permitting as the offices have either been closed periodically and/or the staff is working remotely, which is causing much longer review and turnaround times than in the past. I’ve had to build in a lot more time on the front end because of this.

Right now, as I look at my 2022 pipeline, I see a full slate of projects across the country that will bring us back to our New Normal. This has given us time to look at our department and see how we interface and build best practices into the process. Nobody likes to deal with the administrative back end, but that’s always important to review and realign. You don’t want to reinvent the wheel each time.

Chatham as a whole has always been very much Made in America focused with the help of our Purchasing Agent Benjamin West. We are lucky we have companies like JTB, MTS, Durkan and Southfield that have served us well over the years and continue to do so. We’re not dealing as much with the supply chain issues from Asia, but there still are components of our renovation projects are impacted by freight and container backlog issues. The cost of freight has increased dramatically since COVID started and will continue to have a cost impact in the near future.

Our monthly virtual roundtables feature a diverse set of vendors and end users who connect via Zoom for two days, including several hours of networking.

Safe Site’s Jones: My to-do list is relationship building within the construction industry. That includes job site management and supporting the transition back to the office. We help customers facilitate the collection of data to help keep job sites and workplaces safe.

I’m also getting feedback from current and prospective customers about the types of enhancements we can include in future releases to become even more competitive and valuable. Post pandemic, it’s not only about focusing on job sites and workplace safety, but on broader data collection at our job sites.

Some of the key issues Safe Site Check In helps general contractors tackle are subcontractor management, workforce management, and always knowing who is on your job site. Administrators can easily look at their smartphone and know who arrived, what they’re working on, and when they checked out. In the event of an emergency, they can be immediately notified.

Urban Air’s Salas: Right now, our department is focused on recruiting new franchisees, signing leases, and beginning construction on new parks and ultimately developing the team to be equipped and set up for success. As with most entertainment businesses and other industries in 2020 we had a moment where development projects came to a halt but now the race to get new Parks open is fast and furious.

We are positioned to have an amazing 2021 and laying the foundation for unparalleled growth in 2022 so we must be prepared to take on a record number of new projects in a compressed amount of time. Now is the perfect time for us to work on new and existing relationships with vendors, general contractors, architects, and design firms and lay the groundwork for the future of Urban Air Adventure Parks.

Ashkenazy’s Fox: Right now, my to-do list includes a lot of leasing and repositioning of our assets. During the the pandemic, I worked with our tenants and handled a lot of rent deferral agreements. Today, I am focused on leasing vacant spaces in our shopping centers. I handle about 10 shopping centers and work closely with our brokerage community in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and DC to lease our centers.

I’m seeing lots of discount merchandisers and QSR expanding. My time is divided in several categories. I work with the local business owners looking to rent space, as well as with the national retailers and franchisees. I also work closely with our construction and legal teams overseeing deals from start to finish.

IdentiCom Sign’s Young: I made it my personal mission during COVID to take a step back and let people I’ve done business with before figure things out. My theme for 2021 is to maintain service. When COVID hit, a lot of people had to make changes. I have so many customers who have the same issues, so the goal is to do preventative maintenance.

I had an old boss show me the KISS method: Keep it Simple, Stupid. By nature, if you allow someone in your space, you have to trust them. So I worked hard to stay in contact with my customers even if we weren’t doing business with them. I stayed in touch keeping up with what steps they were taking and what they needed. It is all about building personal relationships. I always tell my customers to just show me the way. That’s my job.

Our goal is to provide better service and to listen to what our customers need. It’s not about selling you; it’s about giving you what you need.

CCR: What lessons have you learned over the past year?
Urban Air’s Salas: As a company, I feel we learned how to pivot in 2020. I read this definition of pivot “making a change in strategy without a change in vision” and it describes our company perfectly in my opinion. We could not continue with the status quo and survive the consequences of the pandemic. I was asked to move into a support role as the development projects in the queue slowly came to an end and I think as with all businesses everyone was asked to do more with less. But one of the silver linings is by taking on this new role I’m developing a new knowledge base working in operations that can only enhance my skills as a project manager.

SafeSite Checking’s Jones: When we launched Safe Site Check In last June, we were addressing an on-going need in the construction industry—to streamline the job site check-in process and have digital records of who is on the job site. COVID-19 and the heightened awareness for health and safety accelerated the urgency for a digital solution. One of the most important lessons we learned was to really listen to customers and ask for feedback as we continue to develop our product.

Today, customers are using our software for more than COVID-19 health screenings. They’re realizing the benefits of digital record keeping. It saves time on set up, provides insight on job site productivity, supports workforce management, and provides an added level of insight for compliance and record keeping. Having agility is important in our business world. We also learned that there are a lot of data gaps that exist within recordkeeping. For example, we learned how to better track and manage people and job sites in order to create that data. It helps keep our workforce safe.

Keeping essential workers safe as they go back to work in this environment is critical. We have created better efficiencies within our workflow to protect our workforce. I think that those are the main lessons we learned—trying to optimize and implement those lessons going forward.

Chatham Lodging’s Lawrence: Professionally, I’ve always worked remote in my position with Chatham and I travel out to my hotels or corporate office as needed, so the past 12 months or so have seen me focus more on soft skills. The two biggest for me was wellness and self-care, trying hard to realistically affect that healthy work-life balance. We always throw words around like “boundaries” and “healthy work-life.” But COVID really made me take a look. step back and say, “This isn’t just talk. I really need to focus on it.” I have better realistic work-life balances. I’m going to be a better Director of Project Management, colleague, mother, and daughter and friend. This will have a direct affect at how I am going to be better at how I approach my job in the future.

In addition to that, I am focusing on the empathy component. Lead by listening, not lead by talking. I found that this was way easier said than done because I tend to be the person who likes to jump in and solve the problem. Sometimes I can solve the problem much better by just taking a step back and listening to “what is not being said.” COVID has helped me become a better leader, team member and all-around person.

Pine Ridge’s Demmien: Prior to the pandemic, the industry’s mentality was all hustle and grind. That just wasn’t a sustainable mentality to me. The pandemic has given me a chance to take a step back and focus on that work-life balance. I know that’s kind of a cliché, but it is really about putting myself and my family first. As a mother, it was difficult to take care of an entire household while working simultaneously There was no sustainable balance that was healthy for my kids or my career—I think a lot of families felt that. So I have been able to reevaluate my priorities and set new goals. I will never take for granted the extra time I got to spend with my family. The opportunity to put family first and focus on self-care has really been a blessing to us.

It has also helped me embrace diversity and see things in a new light. For every retailer, entertainment company or restaurant that struggled came immense opportunity for innovation and refinement. From my standpoint, how can I add value to them, or how can I help? I really became passionate about helping others, whether it was looking for a new career opportunity due to lack of work or a company that needed help figuring out how they were going to keep up with the demand of online ordering. I wanted them to know I was there for them.

Ashkanazey’s Fox: I’ve learned a lot of lessons over the last year. One, especially when the pandemic started, was the importance of getting involved and being a team player. As a landlord with over 15 million square feet of real estate across the country, we received thousands of rent relief requests from our tenants. We created a response team to handle all the requests in a timely manner. It helped me get out of my leasing box. In the beginning of the pandemic, leasing came to a halt so we all pulled together to collect rent and stay afloat.

One of the things I’ve learned as a leasing person is how to be more creative. With capital tightening up, I learned how to be a creative dealmaker—what does it take to get a deal done? What are our owners and prospects willing to do to meet in the middle? It made me a better listener.

I also utilized my extensive brokerage network, which has been helpful. I learned a lot about the value of relationships. I’m very involved with ICSC, NextGen and The Pipeline. Since we couldn’t meet together in person, I knew it was important to stay connected.

I co-founded the Pipeline Group, a network for women in retail real estate. We have over 210 women in our group. During the pandemic, we continued to meet virtually. We were able to have virtual monthly events with the women, whether they were in the legal field, construction, leasing, landlords or retailers. We were able to address different topics. The virtual aspect enables us to reach women all over the country and to grow our network.

Identicom Sign’s Young: COVID helped me to listen more, which I’m grateful for. I did manifest the fact that I actually was able to talk to my customers. They opened up that gentle side. Some vendors are very protective of their home lives and personal spaces, as we all should be. But as a person who provides a service, it was nice to find out about people’s children and everyone was dealing with the events.

I’ve taught my team to meditate. We did yoga and they hated it. But it taught them the softer side of business. The whole experience made me feel more personal. I know that when we all regroup we will come back stronger. It’s about the connections. I had to make sure that people were grounded and that they remained hopeful. I had to be a cheerleader when no one else wanted to cheer.

We’re national so we survived the hump. We improvised some things as we went along, but it brought the tools and unique talents of our team out. We created logos and did some different things we hadn’t done before to help people.

Blain Supply’s Smith: I started at Blain’s in fall 2019 and went right into January 2020—right before everything hit. My staff was just getting to know me. I’ve learned so many different things professionally during this, starting with being flexible. We stayed open as a business, but closed our corporate offices. Being in charge of construction, me and my team were tasked with figuring out how to protect our customers. We put up plexiglass barriers. We had retailers in Wisconsin show us what they were doing.

The grocery business was in the same boat. They need to keep supplying food to their customers, so we looked at how they were doing it. Within the first couple of weeks, we figured out how to get plastic acrylic flexi panels and how to jerry rig our checkout lanes to get people through faster.

On the home front, I looked for projects to work on. I stripped my patio furniture and repainted it. But then I realized that I just needed to settle myself down a little because when you get busy you just keep going. I have three kids, so as a family, we learned to play a lot of games. We bought a trampoline. We just had to pivot and figure out how to have fun stuck in the house.

On the personal front, I renewed relationships with some of my college sorority sisters. We started Zoom meetings that went on for about six months. We all kept up with the people we wanted to keep up with. I’m grateful for what 2020 gave me, but I was so bored. I want to travel. But overall, I’m really just focusing on the good things.

USGN’s Sperr: One of the lessons we learned at USGN over the past year is that we are a company designed for a distributed workforce. USGN’s cloud-based, collaborative project management system allows people in various industries to work seamlessly and collaboratively from anywhere in the world. But we were not, as a company, operating as a distributed workforce model ourselves. USGN’s tools allowed us to make that transition easily and seamlessly.

The shift to primarily virtual and digital communication was a little overwhelming initially, but USGN software and tools are designed to improve and streamline communication, so we were able to get that “dialed in” quickly.

We also had opportunities to help our customers adapt. Some of our customers got hit pretty hard. We worked collaboratively with these customers to develop creative solutions to ease their situation and maintain mutual sustainability: How can we help our customers and maintain a stable, steady level of revenue for our company while they’re not building or growing?

We also became aware of areas of inefficiency within our company operations. USGN has outstanding tools for managing our company, but we weren’t fully taking advantage of them ourselves. When we made shifts towards greater efficiency using these tools, our profitability increased.

Sinelli Concepts’ Schenker: COVID has taught us how to be more agile. With my role and skill set, I’m in charge of different projects happening, even outside of development. From a development perspective, our flagship location for our new chicken concept Birdguesa just opened. We also have the WICH flagship location under construction. WICH will have a smaller footprint and more limited menu than Which Wich, geared more towards takeout and delivery and online ordering. It is exactly what COVID brought to the table, but it was in the works prior to COVID ironically.

My goal is to value engineer the concept with our strategic partners after the flagship location is open. Also with some stores being temporarily closed during the pandemic, we took the time to refresh some of them. Which Wich uses materials that can stand the test of time, but some of the locations could use a little touch up, so we went in and added some wallpaper, paint and different materials. Outside of the development projects, I have also been in charge of rolling out the Which Wich custom Mountain Dew called Dew Vibe to the entire system. This should be in all locations by Memorial Day.

On the personal side, I just learned to be appreciative of what’s around me—appreciative of my family and friends and thankful to have a job and have great people to work with every day.

During the the pandemic, I worked with our tenants and handled a lot of rent deferral agreements. Today, I am focused on leasing vacant spaces in our shopping centers. — Julie Fox, Ashkenazy Acquisitions Corp.

CCR: Tell us a little about your story.
Chatham Lodging’s Lawrence: I was born in the Black Forest area of Germany, but I was fortunate to have grow up in Hawaii (Maui & Kauai). I spent my childhood in Maui and Hawaii surrounded by hospitality and the spirit of aloha, as my Dad was the general manager of resorts in Hawaii and eventually opened his own restaurants there as well. I think even if my dad hadn’t been in the hotel business, I would have fallen into that as my preferred career path. I just enjoy everything about the hotel and restaurant business.

My first job was at the Kapalua Bay Hotel for Regent International. After graduating High School in Maui, I attended UNLV (University of Nevada, Las Vegas) to get my bachelor’s of science degree in Hospitality, during which time I also worked at Caesar’s Palace. Before graduation I was lucky to get into the ITT Sheraton Corporate Management Training Program. I started with the ITT Sheraton, prior to the Starwood acquisition of the Sheraton brand, which is now part of the Marriott family. I started in the North America division at the Denver property with the intention of following in my dad’s footsteps to becoming a future GM back in Hawaii.

I was in the program for six months, during which time the hotel was undergoing a complete guestroom and public space renovation. We had a third-party project manager who they had to fire. They needed someone to take the job to the finish line, so they offered me the chance, as they knew I already had the front of the house and back of the house operations experience and did not require the added six months of the training program. I embraced the challenge wholeheartedly.

It was the best six months of my life. Not only was I able to be in the hospitality world, but I literally found a new career path I didn’t know existed. I found my passion and through fate the opportunity fell into my lap. The timing of the renovation was right in line with the timing of the end of my corporate training program. And I knew wanted to do more of this.

I had a wonderful mentor within the Sheraton family at the time who told me that if I really wanted to do this as a career path he was going to give me the opportunity. He gave me the chance to be the assistant project manager at the Sheraton Fisherman’s Wharf renovations, so I jumped into my Nissan Sentra and drove from Denver to San Francisco. The project manager I worked with was amazing and taught me so much in a short amount of time. After that project was completed, I was given the change to manage my own projects as the owner’s rep for ITT Sheraton. My career took off from there.

As I moved through multiple new construction projects within North America, I was given the opportunity to join the Europe/Africa/Middle East Division. I spent seven years in Europe doing projects in Germany, England and Russia. During my time on the Moscow project, I lived and worked through those multiple coups in Russia as it turned from the Soviet Union into the Commonwealth of Independent States, and finally Russia. I always tell people there is not a whole lot that can throw me off my game after that.

We are positioned to have an amazing 2021 and laying the foundation for unparalleled growth in 2022 so we must be prepared to take on a record number of new projects in a compressed amount of time. — Jeca Salas, Urban Air Adventure Parks

I left the hotel industry for about six years to not only get my MBA at Pepperdine University, but also to work for The Walt Disney Company and various Tech companies. But I felt after that time away I had to get back to my passion of hospitality. After sojourns at KSL Resorts, The Parker Group and Sage Hospitality, I landed at Chatham Lodging Trust. I continue to love the hotel business and am grateful during the times of COVID that I am still able to do what I love.

Sinelli Concepts’ Schenker: I’m from San Antonio, Texas and attended the University of Texas in Austin. I was never one of those kids who knew what they wanted to be when they grew up. So at UT Austin, I majored in Spanish and minored in business, but I was able to meet lots of people at UT who have helped me throughout my career path.

When I moved to Dallas, I reached out to my group of friends and landed a job in the non-profit sector at Green Mountain Energy, a pollution-free energy company. While I enjoyed the job, I was at a point in my life where there was a wedding practically every weekend, so I was always running to the airport on a Friday from our office in Uptown Dallas. When our office moved to Plano, the commute became too difficult, especially for those Friday airport runs. So I reached out to the same group of friends, which connected me with our founder, Jeff Sinelli.

At that time, it was the beginning stages of Which Wich—where they had around 20 stores. And now I’ve been with them for over 14 years. When I started, there were only a few of us and everybody was doing whatever needed to be done to support our franchisees. While many hats were worn at the beginning, I was working more on communications, making sure we were engaging with the franchise system because at first we had no platform in which to do that, so I created a system.

After a while, I was wanting to interact with our franchisees more, so I started to become interested in the development side of the business, working with franchisees on the construction and new store opening processes. I started in that department and have never looked back! It’s a great group of people, which I think is the most important thing. I love every single one of them.

Urban Air’s Salas: I’m from the Dallas-Fort Worth area and I graduated from TCU. I really enjoyed my time there and studied radio, TV, and film. I started out as a Special Events Coordinator at a major Dallas radio station, and I just knew I was destined to be in the entertainment industry. I was honored when I was recruited to work for the Walt Disney Company, a lifelong dream of mine, which is where I found a love for marketing.

Post pandemic, it’s not only about focusing on job sites and workplace safety, but on broader data collection at our job sites. — Jennifer Jones, Safe Site Check In

My next stop was Marketing Manager for Ticketmaster Texas and Oklahoma territories. I left Ticketmaster to take a break and pursue other opportunities and found myself working in commercial real estate marketing and public relations for Staubach. It was a new industry for me no doubt, but the marketing and PR principles in my previous jobs still applied so it was a natural fit for me. In 2008 I moved into a residential real estate sales and marketing job closer to my home and was very happy in that role for many years.

One day I received a call from my former boss at Walt Disney Parks and Resorts. She asked what it would take to get me to come back and work for her at Six Flags. Honestly, it didn’t take much because I missed creating those experiences and moments for guests. I worked for Six Flags Over Texas and Six Flags Corporate Headquarters in Marketing and Sponsorships for several years before I was asked to come work for Urban Air Adventure Parks in the role I have now.

Even though I’m not in marketing anymore and now a construction project manager I still feel like I’m in my dream job creating fun memories and experiences for guests.

Blaine Supplies’ Smith: I grew up in Minot, North Dakota, which is about an hour from the Canadian border. There are probably 35,000-40,000 people living there. I couldn’t wait to get out of North Dakota. I ended up moving to Des Moines, Iowa to attend Drake University. I was just bound and determined to be an attorney. I had double majors, political science and philosophy. I worked three different legal internships, which was not what I expected at all. I wanted to be Perry Mason and they were just not Perry Mason like. I need to do something else.

I ended up graduating and getting married. I took a job at a temp agency thinking I was going to be an HR recruiter. I ended up being a facilities coordinator. I am still not sure how that happened. There was some break in communication, but I gave it a shot. My first job was in downtown Milwaukee. I checked out fleet vehicles, phones and computers.

They ended up asking me if I wanted to help build two remote offices. I figured, why not. The first one was in Madison, Wisconsin and the second was in Appleton. It was kind of fun. I liked working with the contractors and enjoyed the design aspect. Our company ended up getting bought out and I need a new job.

Right now, as I look at my 2022 pipeline, I see a full slate of projects across the country that will bring us back to our New Normal. — Gabriele Lawrence, Chatham Lodging Trust

So I decided to try project management and construction management. I started out in retail construction after my facilities job in 1997 and did retail construction for a number of years. First, I was a GC, where I ended up moving to Kohl’s in the late ’90s. I worked there for a number of years, starting on the store side and ending up on the corporate side doing strategic planning. We did their eight-story addition when they were in this explosive phase of growth, building 100 stores a year for five years.

I built their cafeteria and clean room for the computers. I loved the breadth of opportunities. After deciding my life was too chaotic, I decided to take a step back. I call it “retired.” I spent almost 10 years with my kids. It was a wonderful experience. But it wasn’t enough for me. Our family was just pulled in too many directions.

I got back into the construction business in 2014 as an executive director of healthcare construction only focused on the construction side. It was a great education. Compared to retail construction, health care construction is much more challenging.

North Dakota was going crazy with the oil boom and fracking. Jobs were aplenty and my parents begged me to come back. I spent five years really working there, but knew I couldn’t stay. It was just too cold and too far from everything. But the opportunity got me back on track. Now that I am back in Wisconsin, I am doing real estate construction and facilities. I love it. I’m never going back to healthcare construction. I can’t imagine what it was like working in that business during COVID, especially when we were at ICU capacity even on a normal day.

I just wish that women could be introduced to all the development opportunities in construction and real estate at a much younger age. I just had no idea. If we could get them interested early on, they would find much more success. I’ve been the only woman at every job I’ve worked. I’m still the only woman. I have 16 men who report to me.

USGN’s Sperr: I’m originally from Scottsdale, Arizona, but have lived in various areas—San Francisco; Ashland, Oregon; Breckenridge, Colorado; Minneapolis, and Tucson, Arizona. I recently returned to Scottsdale. I was the kid who knew what I wanted to do “when I grew up.” When I was 10 years old, I told my parents I wanted to play French horn in a symphony orchestra. They said, “We have a saxophone, you can play in the band.” This is probably just after I said I wanted a pony. I don’t think they thought this phase would last long. But I was serious. I switched to horn and I ended up playing in symphony orchestras.

Since COVID, I’ve diversified my portfolio, going from mainly retail projects to adding hospitality and mixed-use. — Kara Demmien, Pine Ridge Construction Management

But then, reality struck: How would I support myself? I wasn’t on the track to be supported so I decided to shift to performing arts administration. Northern Arizona University offered a bachelor’s degree in Arts Administration with a music performance minor, which was a good fit for me and also offered fantastic orchestral performance opportunities.

My first job was with the Arizona Opera where I fell in love with opera. I moved to San Francisco so I could have a steady diet of opera and ended up being offered a position with San Francisco Opera. But when I saw the salary offer, I was shocked. It would not have been possible to support myself on that salary in one of the most expensive cities in the country. Reality struck again.

With good admin skills, I made a quick transition to working for mid-sized architectural firms in downtown San Francisco, first as a member of the admin team at Ebert Hannum and Volz, and later as the Admin Manager for GHI Architects. It was a natural fit and I enjoyed the creative environment. Immediately after work, I headed straight to the symphony, opera and ballet and nourished my passion for performing arts in that way.

My older brother, Doug Sperr, was the CEO of Sperr & Associates, an architectural firm in Phoenix. He made the transition into tech very early. When he founded USGN 21 years ago, they were first to market with cloud-based, collaborative Project Management software for multi-unit corporate roll-outs, which they started out developing for their architecture customers. PetSmart was their first customer, and they are still a major account today.

A few years ago, USGN was exploring ways to grow their company and use their software as a sales and marketing tool. I came on board and helped build a USGN sales management tool. My broad skill base made it a natural fit for me to expand into other roles in customer relationships, contract administration and new business development. Today, I head up inside sales and customer relationship management where I wear many different hats and keep a lot of balls in the air. Who would have thought I’d be working for my brother and communicating with him countless times each day? Growing up, we had our own lives like most siblings. Now we are a collaborative team leading the of the growth of the company he created.

Our goal is to provide better service and to listen to what our customers need. It’s not about selling you; it’s about giving you what you need. — Nicole Young, IdentiCom Signs and Facility Rx Services

Pine Ridge’s Demmien: I was born and raised in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. I received my bachelor’s and master’s degree in architecture at Kent State University in Ohio. Prior to graduating, my husband was living in Ohio with me. We started looking at houses and began looking at settling down. We decided we wanted to be closer to family, so we moved back to Williamsport after graduation.

I got my first job at a small architectural firm doing mostly high-end residential, healthcare, and higher education projects. It was a great first job out of college because the firm was small, which forced you to take responsibility for your projects from client meetings to consultant coordination, to being in the field making sure everything is running smoothly during construction.

I was there for a couple of years, eventually moving on to a national retail firm doing retail, fitness centers and restaurants. I had the opportunity to fly all over the country working on those projects. I learned a ton and worked my way into management where I really enjoyed working with a great team of people and helping others grow and thrive. I spent seven years there before I ended up at Pine Ridge Construction Management, where they really value relationships and treat everyone like family. Retail was fast-paced and exciting and I really enjoy that world. Now I’ve added in larger mixed use projects. Instead of my portion of the project only being three months long, I’m going to years-long projects.

It’s a little bit of a mentality shift for me. Instead of working on behalf of the architect, I’m now hiring the architect. I’m also learning a lot more about the construction industry.

I’ve been married for 10 years and have three kids, ages 7, 5 and 3. Outside of work, I enjoy writing, party planning and spending time with the family. I just enjoy being creative—designing—so architecture was right up my alley.

COVID has taught us how to be more agile. With my role and skill set, I’m in charge of different projects happening, even outside of development. — Barbara Schenker, Sinelli Concepts

SafeSite Checking’s Jones: I was born in South Los Angeles County in California and I’ve been in construction or a related field most of my life. My family is third generation general contractors and my sister currently holds the contractor’s license for our family business.

When I was younger and before the family business was formed, I vividly remember my father working for Anchor Paving in Irvine. It was at the base of Wild Rivers Water Park. They shared a parking lot. I remember we’d go there for the summers, where I would sit in his office and sneak out through the chain link fence into the water park. My dad finally got tired of working for other people and started his own GC company, specializing primarily in flat work; asphalt and concrete.

I believe they started the business with less than $5,000, so as you can imagine it was all hands-on deck. As a child, I can remember sealing envelopes and putting stamps on them for mailers. As the company started to grow and my sister and I became older, the division of responsibilities within the family business became very apparent. Although my father held the contractor’s license, my mother was the owner and we had a Minority Woman-Owned Business designation. My sister started doing a lot of the administrative work and accounting, while I spearheaded sales and marketing.

When I met my husband, I decided I wanted to follow a slightly different path. I graduated with an undergraduate degree in business finance from Cal State Fullerton. I did some coursework at UCLA, the Anderson School of Management—mainly business development for entrepreneurs since we were an entrepreneurial family.

I told my husband I wanted to try something new, so I shifted my career focus to tax credits and incentives. IRS sanctioned strategies such as cost segregation, research and development tax credits and 45L energy efficiency credits. I spent a lot of time doing consulting work for different owners of real estate, developers, and small businesses.

Some of our fitness and QSR customers are beginning to build again, too. It’s especially exciting to see these customers returning as they were hit pretty hard in 2020. — Lynne Sperr, USGN Software

When the opportunity presented itself to join Safe Site Check In, it really seemed to be the perfect marriage of my career experience. It combines my experience with strategic sales and relationship building, development and construction, but still allows me to grow and gain enterprise software experience. I’m lucky in that I also truly believe that not only does our software make job sites safer, it bridges the data gap that has long existed within the construction industry to allow contractors to know who is on their job site, when, why and for how long.

Ashkanazey’s Fox: I was born in Bangkok, Thailand. I moved to the United States when I was 6 years old. My family and I Iived in Queens, New York. My mom was in the banking industry. In the early ’90s, a lot of bankers were leaving New York and relocating to Delaware, so we moved there. I attended a local high school in Delaware and graduated from the University of Delaware Honors Program.

I was very far from real estate. I majored in Psychology and Spanish. I graduated around 9/11, so the job market was very tough. I thought at one point that I wanted to be a psychologist, but I changed my mind. My first job out of college was with the Latin American Community Center in Wilmington. I was able to utilize my Spanish skills and ran a mentoring program.

I was very interested in marketing and took some marketing classes at a local community college. I enjoyed it a lot and decided to pursue my MBA. I moved to Philadelphia and enrolled in the One-Year MBA Program at Drexel University. While at Drexel, I did about 20 to 30 informational interviews in a number of different industries. I researched everything from consulting to banking to pharmaceutical to real estate.

My Career Services Director mentioned a real estate company in Philadelphia that had recently created an Assistant General Manager (AGM) training program. I did an informational interview and learned everything about the mall business. The industry fascinated me. They owned regional malls in the area and I was intrigued with the program. When I graduated, I was selected to be an AGM in their training program and was responsible for managing a local mall in Pennsylvania.

One of the more interesting things you hear today is that malls are dead and retail is dying. It is a bit of a dark box right now. But within the last three months, there has been a ton of traffic on picking up some of these dark stores. — Sarah Iverson, Blain Supplies

I was out of business school with no business experience and I was second in command overseeing construction, tenant relations and mall management. I was responsible for overseeing maintenance, security, housekeeping and leading managers who were 20-30 years older than me. I learned a lot about operations.

I was ready to graduate from the program and get assigned my own mall. I looked at the leasing side and liked what I saw. The leasing agents looked like they were having so much fun meeting with clients. I figured, “Why not try leasing?” I gave up a stable job managing my own mall and went into brokerage. I worked for a brokerage firm in Philadelphia and spent six years doing landlord representation, tenant representation and land disposition. The company was acquired by CBRE and I was at another fork in the road.

I decided to make another move and get into landlord leasing. I worked with a private landlord in central New Jersey, which was a great experience. It was different being an in-house leasing representative versus a third party agent. The commute took a toll and I accepted a position with a REIT closer to home. I was responsible for leasing a 2 million square foot shopping center portfolio in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware.

Then, one of my friends recruited me to work on a leasing and redevelopment project in Queens. I was excited about the opportunity of working where I grew up and helping Asian retailers expand into the US.

Afterward, I decided to get back into brokerage to assist the Asian retailers expand into the US. My current employer was also one of my clients. I was handling an asset for them and they recruited me to work for them. That’s how I ended up at Ashkenazy Acquisitions Corporation.

One of the more interesting things you hear today is that malls are dead and retail is dying. It is a bit of a dark box right now. But within the last three months, there has been a ton of traffic on picking up some of these dark stores. — Sarah Iverson, Blain Supplies

My career has come full circle. My property management, construction management and tenant coordination experiences help me to be a better leasing person. I believe in working closely with my construction and property management team.

IdentiCom’s Young: I started at Merry Go Round in retail. From there, I went to Darden, where I worked for a long time. I worked my way up from bartending to Director of Operations. They transferred me to Hilton Head, South Carolina, where I met my husband and at the time. We moved back and I opened up my own commercial construction company.

During the dive in 2011, we lost a lot of things, so we had to reroute. I went into operations for a while. I also worked in the waste management area for a long time—sales, business development, vice president. I’ve owned a landscaping company, a construction company, an electric company; I’m a jack of all trades.

I had strong attributes from my father growing up. He actually was in the facility industry. I didn’t know what he did every day when he left for work. He’d work on the Phillies’ stadium. I was on the field when they won the World Series. Arby’s was his first customer. He used to mop and clean. So he took the janitorial business and turned it into this phenomenon. He sold his business to a person in New York City. That’s when I went into selling signs.

Before that, I worked for a company out of Bensalem. They hired me based on my portfolio. I was in retail construction, electric, plumbing, HVAC, roofing—all those things were facility. That’s what it was labeled as. I’ve done every element from top to finish.

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