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Women in Construction


Becoming a Presence

Minorities and women battle for a place in city's construction biz

WHEN SANDRA WILKIN began working as a general contractor 12 years ago, she discovered that the New York City construction business was a man's world. "I'd hear all sorts of derisive comments from men," said Wilkin, president of Bradford Construction in Manhattan. Those comments had nothing to do with her work and everything to do with her gender. "These old-timers would say women don't necessarily belong in this kind of business or they can't handle the kind of things that men can handle."

It is still a man's world. "This is one of the last bastions of male-dominated industry," said Olivia Fussell, president of Manhattan-based Fussell 'Construction. But women and minority contractors are becoming more visible. Many have benefited from membership in the Regional Alliances for Small Contractors, created to help women and minorities gain an edge in an industry that has traditionally been hostile to them.

Take Desmond Emanuel. In the 1970s, the West Indian-born Emanuel worked at an architectural firm that designed such high-profile projects as museums and university buildings. But he felt he had hit a dead end. "I realized the way the architectural profession is structured, it would be limiting for me," he said. "I talked to many African-American architects, and they were always struggling and barely paying the bills. Frankly, I didn't want to spend my professional life that way."

Emanuel went back to his roots and started his own business. "I came from a family of builders," he said. "My father had done historic restorations, and I had pleasant memories of working with him on dock sites." It didn't hurt that he also had a degree in civil engineering.

He opened Santa Fe Construction 11 years ago. In the last 36 months, the Manhattan-based company has seen growth in a SOur economy, expanding from 8 employees to 39. It recently started work on a $7.5- million drug rehabilitation facility in Queens.

Emanuel, Fussell, and Wilkin all have ties to the 3- year-old alliance, organized by major construction firms and public development agencies such as the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. The alliance is designed to help minority- and women-owned construction companies win public and private contracts, provide a boost to the sagging construction industry and help satisfy public-sector minority and female hiring goals.

The three contractors all believe that the number of women and minorities in the business is growing. Mark Quinn, executive director of the alliance, said he doesn't have statistics 'out believes that the number of women and minority contractors has increased in the last couple of years, and "the alliance is definitely helping minorities and women get business, without a doubt." He said downsizing by large contractors has created opportunities for specialty work by small firms.


Still, a recent report by the city's Human Rights Commission found that only 1 percent of the city's unionized construction work force were women, and 19 percent were blacks, Hispanics or Asians. The report charged that minorities and women still face widespread discrimination in trade unions.

The alliance, which has 3,000 members, offers regular seminars on such subjects as .construction contract law, cost control and computerized planning. It also provides financial assistance. Perhaps more importantly, the organization provides bridges between small firms and more established ones.

"Critical to setting up a business are the relationships you develop,” Emanuel said. One the critical things that is often missing in advocacy programs is the forging of long-lasting and honest relationships. A business succeeds or fails on those. In many instances, those are more important than money in the bank."

He pointed to a job he had when he was just starting out. Although the work was not in the city, he brought his regular crew with him - which prompted a shutdown by the local union. "There are always labor jurisdictional problems," he explained. "Every union local likes to have a certain percentage of local workers on the job. A contractor might want to use his own forces, but that presents a conflict. You have to negotiate. And as a newcomer at the time, with no relationships to speak of in the industry or the union, I had no flexibility. It cost me. So I learned the hard way."

Being part of the alliance - Emanuel is co-chairman of the opportunities committee - has given him more clout. So has hobnobbing with representatives at larger firms who speak at the alliance seminars. "The alliance helps to give you standing," he said. "It helps to build some of that relationship."

The alliance provides financial aid through its Financing Small Contractors Program. Under that program, Citibank provides nonrevolving lines of credit of up to $200,000. Twenty-four loans totaling $6.6 million have been approved for women and minority contractors since the program began. Santa Fe's first line of credit, with Citibank, was facilitated by the alliance.

In addition, the alliance provides free consulting through the Loaned Executive Asaistance Program. Fifty-eight construction professionals address management and operational problems, helping small companies improve their abilities to obtain and manage construction contracts effectively. (For information on the alliance, call 212-435-6185.)

Despite the alliance's help, finding work is stil1 an uphill struggle for most small construction firms. Fussell noted that sexism is pervasive. On a recent job, Fussell's female site manager complained that the client's engineer would not talk to. her as an equal. "The guy was in his late 50s or early 60s and would hardly recognize the fact that she was in charge," Fussell said. If it had been a movie, it would have been a farce: Instead of speaking to the woman, the client engineer addressed all of his remarks to Fussell's engineer, a fiftyish man who had been in the business for decades.

"That's very common," Fussell said. "These oldtimers make it perfectly clear that they don't want to do business with you. So instead of fighting it, I slot in an on-site old-timer who's been around for years. I don't think it's necessary to be confrontational about it. We try to clear our way around any kind of small-minded, petty-minded, chauvinist behavior. It's there. But we always try to keep it quiet and work around it."

If women are a minority in the field, as a foreign-born woman, Fussell is a minority's minority: born in England, with a bachelor's degree in architecture and a master's degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Her small company started with a $75,000 renovation job and is now bidding on projects valued at more than $5 million.

"I enjoy the business," she said. "I think I have the personality to be able to take risks, and this is a risky business. You have to really know what you're doing. But it's a lot easier here than in England. It's such a very strong old boys' network in Britain."


Chauvinism affects jobs in other ways. Wilkin said that as a woman and small-business owner, she is held to a higher standard than men or larger businesses and also allowed less room for mistakes. "Many times, I am so frustrated, " she said. "I get a headache. my palms sweat. and J say. 'I'll just go into another  business.' You just have to do the best that you can with the job to prove that your company's capable and you're capable of doing the work."

Fussell agreed that the pressures and impec:tations were greater: "They (men] are on ·the lookout. They're ready and waiting for US to make a mistake; you're under a microscope. I get the feeling that the old-boy network, very broadly.speaking, is waiting for you to fail."                          

Fussell contended that the old-boy network.Qften un-, dercuts public-sector hiring goals for Minorities and women. "We recently came across a situation where we had submitted a price of $5 million (for J quite a big , job" that had hiring quotas regarding women, she said, It turned out that the prime .contractor who won the bid wasn't really a woman-owned business, "When you unpeeled the onion, you found that they were a front" for a larger, male-owned company,

Emanuel noted that as a less-established, minority-owned business, Santa Fe Construction'is often not considered for some jobs despite his firm's track record - construction manager for the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, and partner on the construction of Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn. "We are still not being invited to the table on the private side to compete against firms which have been around for 30 or 40 years, Today, they don't have the talent we have, but they have the name."

All three contractors said that to succeed in a sometimes hostile environment means working long hours - Wilkin drives to Manhattan from New Jersey and works 16-hour days - and offering a variety of services. For example, Fussell provides general contracting and architectural consulting and is seeking construction management work. "The companies most devastated by the real estate downturn have been those that have been highly dependent on one building type. You have to be flexible," she said.

Conversely, having a specialty can also help. Wilkin began contracting a dozen years ago after training as a nurse and working in health care administration and medical leasing. "Since I had leased space to doctors, I realized there was a need within the healthcare industry for knowing how to build the kind of construction needed by doctors and hospitals," she said. "You need to know about patient flow, corridor areas, about the different requirements for heating and ventilation. It's different from a typical commercial tenant, So I developed an expertise in health-care construction. "

"Today the most challenging thing is to find the right people to work for me," Emanuel observed, "I feel that many individuals today, minority or otherwise, do not have the work ethic, Our success is not because we are a minority-owned company but because we have talent, we work hard, and, above all, we know how to create opportunity rather than just wait for it, I think that is crucial to any sort of success."