Six-Pack of Fabricators
Six of Alabama’s leading women in construction
Photo by Caroline Baird Summers
Master Crafts Trainer
Robins & Morton
“My passion is to help develop the craft professional,” says Mittie Cannon. In her role as director of workforce development for Robins & Morton in Birmingham, she can do just that.
Now she holds a doctorate in education, but two decades ago, when she first graduated from college, she opted for a job rather than further education. “I was tired of being broke so I chose a job,” Cannon says. As a biology and chemistry major, she was delighted with the job doing contract drug testing. “I didn’t realize it would land me on a job construction site.”
But a month after taking the job, she was off to Georgia. Arriving in high heels and hose at the jobsite trailer for the project’s ironworkers, she was sure she had made a mistake. Fifty pairs of eyes from some of the roughest-looking guys she had ever seen evaluated her as she made her way from one end of the double wide to the other.
“But I wasn’t known as a quitter,” she says, so she started the next day by checking in with the human resources manager who gave her great advice about not making snap judgments. “These guys may look like whatever,” he told her, “but they have a heart of gold and they’re very talented and very smart.”
She stuck it out and discovered that the workers were indeed wonderful people. Moreover, as she sat in her office, looking out over the jobsite, she became curious about what it would be like to work in the field rather than the office. She even took a welding class to build some skills.
But it took a number of years, and a marriage to her electrical engineer husband, before she was able to find out. He would take a month as a journeyman electrician and she could be his helper, if she would find a job for them at a shut down. She scanned the hot sheet and, on her third try, found an HR person who was willing to take on the husband-wife team.
Though she was recognized instantly as green — new boots, new tools, new tool belt—she was grudgingly accepted. On the third day, she was assigned to a different journeyman, not her husband, who was frustrated by her inexperience and by his feeling that women didn’t belong in the field. “But when he realized I was there for the right reasons, I wasn’t afraid of getting dirty, I wanted to get the job done safely and right for the clients,” he came around.
Despite the long hours, she enjoyed it and developed a real respect for the craft workers, she says.
She kept in touch with the job superintendent and was invited back to work on another project, but this time she worked in the office, learning to read drawings and more. Not long after, while working with a women’s support group at a Florida site, one of the executives asked her to come to Birmingham for an interview. And within a week, she was on the way to her first corporate training job, with the old BE&K. She joined Robins & Morton in 2011.
She enjoys arranging training programs for all craft workers, “but everybody knows I’m all about women in construction,” she says. For a number of years she even led a special construction camp to help young women learn the basics.
Whether the training is offered to men or women, it’s a benefit to the company, she says.
“Without great craft people, you have nothing,” Cannon says. “It’s the human element that’s so important, that often gets lost in corporate America. It’s our greatest asset. Strategies and best practices are nothing compared to great people.”
65 Years, 67 Counties
GW Norrell Contracting
Event planning at a wedding garden isn’t ordinarily the last rung on the ladder to leadership in a bridge building firm, but that’s the background Pam Kearley brought to the job. That and growing up in the firm—G.W. Norrell Contracting Co. Inc. in Georgiana—that was founded by her granddaddy 65 years ago.
Kearley’s dad took over the company from his dad and when he was ready to retire, Kearley’s mom, Mary Norrell, now president, asked daughter Pam to join her in the business.
“She calls the shots,” says Kearley of her mother. “She’s 84 going on 30 and she’s lived it her whole life.”
What the company does now, and for its entire 65-year life, is to build bridges, says Kearley, both “the kind you’d build in a rural county going over a little stream and the kind you go over on the interstate.”
Early in the company’s life came Gov. Jim Folsom’s farm-to-market project, providing almost 10 good years for the firm. Next came the Eisenhower interstate system, with another 10 years of bridge building.
“G.W. Norrell hasn’t built a bridge across the Tennessee River or Mobile Bay, but we have at least one bridge in each of Alabama’s 67 counties and many more than one in lots of them.”
“If you come up I-65 to Montgomery, between Georgiana and Evergreen and Montgomery, we’ve built 14,” she says.
But usually, her teams are “out in the middle of nowhere.”
Kearley regards herself as the messenger, the go-between taking messages from the office to the field and back. “Where I’m not is in the office,” and that’s just fine, she says. “I like to be out.”
But when she started, she feared people wouldn’t recognize her and wouldn’t know she was from the office. So she bought herself a pink hard hat to help make her easy to identify. Now her mom often wears it.
When she first went out in the field, it was obvious that most of the crews had never seen a woman in the field, never had a woman checking their jobs or relaying their messages.
“But they respected my daddy and my granddaddy,” she says. Long-time employees gave her a chance and then helped her to succeed. “People in the company made me able to come in and do what I’ve done,” she says.
• Bridge on the Flomaton hurricane evacuation route.
• Precast bridge in Washington County that was, when completed in December 2010, the longest precast bridge in the state with 13 spans of 40 feet each, for more than 500 feet total.
Pulling it Together, Inside Out
Goodwyn Mills & Cawood
When you walk into a building and it just feels right, even though you can’t explain why, that’s the work of an interior architect, says Jacqui Hart, who fills that role at Goodwyn Mills & Cawood.
The sense that it’s just right is a mix of size, proportions and textures working together to create a space that’s pleasant to inhabit, says Hart, who works in the firm’s Birmingham office.
Hart joined the firm in 1999, but she’s been aiming toward this career since seventh grade, when an assignment required her to design an environmentally-friendly dwelling. The underground home, complete with underground swimming pool, prompted her to take drafting and art classes in high school and then pursue a degree in interior design. She practiced interior design with several firms before going back to school for a degree in architecture.
“It’s all been one interest, that’s best described as interior architecture,” she says. It’s more than interior design, she says. An interior architect manages all the components from electrical and mechanical to shapes of the ceiling to create a cohesive project. And an interior architect has to be able to work with the contractors and subs, she says. “If you want a vaulted ceiling and the mechanical engineer wants to push through a duct, you have to be able to work together.”
The designers play a critical role in construction, Hart says. Imagine buying a new game and pulling out the instruction sheet first. “We’re the instructions people, and hopefully the creative instructions people.”
Visiting construction sites is part and parcel of the designer’s job, Hart says.
It’s not just to check up that instructions are being followed, but also to take advantage of give and take with the contractors, who often have ideas about ways to meet the designer’s goal while saving the client money.
She’s always been comfortable on the job site. While studying at Auburn, she participated in the Rural Studio, doing hands-on work with masonry structures, woodframe, and more. The project lets fledgling designers see “what you can do with a 2x4 stud and a piece of sheetrock that is creative and thoughtful, rather than just building a wall.”
She continues to applaud the Rural Studio, which designs homes and shops in the poorest Alabama counties, and especially “the premise that even the poor deserve good design, not just the wealthy.”
And while she loves the camaraderie of owners, designers and contractors working together, the real thrill is the most basic: “creating something on a piece of paper and magically watching it come out of the ground can be pretty amazing.”
• Ross Bridge Renaissance Hotel, where she did interior architecture as part of her firm’s team. “That’s my pride and joy.”
• Grand Hotel, renovation after Hurricane Ivan. She loved the working relationship of designers, owners and contractors trying to restore “something that has such history and relevance.”
Critical Calculus in a Cyclical Crunch
Brasfield & Gorrie
With the construction world rocked by a recession, where available work is down and the number of competitively bid projects is up, the life of an estimator has become very busy. That’s the role Rachel Harvey plays at Brasfield & Gorrie.
“Some people hate what I do—think it’s too much like being an accountant,” says Harvey, who is now a senior estimator. “But it works for me.”
When Harvey was 12, her family built a new barn on their farm in upstate New York. “I was fascinated by that.”
She talked with her teachers, who tried to help her pick classes that could lead to a construction career, but they didn’t know what to do with a smart girl interested in a guy’s field, so they steered her toward engineering. Luckily, since she was on the way to becoming valedictorian of her high school class, they took her seriously, allowing her to enroll in drafting and architectural drawing classes that kept her motivated. After graduation, she started at a local junior college but then moved to Auburn’s building science program.
She worked as a co-op employee during her school years, even worked in the field for several months, first doing layout and surveying and culminating in some time leading a crew putting in foundations and finishing slabs. But, says Harvey, “I’m not very good—not as productive as someone else.”
Out of school, she did some project management work, still looking for just the right fit. She found it in estimating.
“We quantify how much labor, materials and equipment are required to build a construction project,” she says.
Estimating couldn’t be more important — “especially in this market, where it’s all based on competitive prices. We used to do much more negotiated work, but now more than half is bid,” Harvey says.
Before the recession hit, while government jobs were routinely bid, private sector work was not. But now even the private sector is more likely to ask for bids. “It makes me very, very busy,” Harvey says. “Now we want a hard dollar number.”
“It’s really important for us to have a good relationship with vendors and subcontractors,” Harvey says. “We work very hard at that. We don’t shop prices, so they know they can give us their best prices. And we work to build these relationships. It’s a relationship-driven business.”
• Raytheon missile factory in Huntsville.
• Interstate 65 emergency bridge jobs
• Nuclear power plants
As a project manager for Doster Construction in Birmingham, Jennifer Fisher does “the paper side of bringing a building to life. We write the contract, manage the costs, follow the drawings. The superintendent has the hands-on with the construction. We support them with the paper.”
Doster works in four major categories—industrial, health care, educational and institutional and wood-frame multifamily—throughout the Southeast and now farther West. Having four distinct facets of the business has helped the company as a whole weather the recession, says Fisher, who has been with Doster six years.
Growing up around heavy equipment—her dad sold dozers and loaders and such—road building seemed like a suitable pursuit for her, so she enrolled in the building science program at Florida. And from the day she first visited a jobsite for her classes, she was hooked. “It’s never the same day twice,” she says.
Could she hammer a nail? Of course; she and her husband are working on a fixer-upper house. But she doesn’t on the job because the craftsmen at the jobsite have skills far beyond hers. Their work, she says, “is an art.”
It’s like cooking, she says. “I like cooking, yes. And I can cook. But does that make me a chef? No.”
Instead she handles the paperwork and computer calculations to enable the team in the field. “They don’t play with my computers, and I don’t play with their power saws.”
Neither side can work in ignorance of the other, she says. On the job site, “They’ll show me the basics of how a new power saw works. That fulfills my need for knowledge. They want to know the basics of what a PM does, but not to follow the paperwork to the depth I do.”
She lauds the building science program, which taught her to work with the technical data—how to design concrete and steel structures, for example—and then about how to prepare contracts, how to keep the workers safe, how to schedule a project. When she graduated, she began her career as an assistant project manager, then later moved to Doster as a PM.
Health care. “I really enjoy healthcare, when you build something that can positively effect somebody’s life.” A new dialysis clinic in a rural area, for example, may save a patient hours of driving time. The longer a patient has to spend in a building, the more the building itself can help create a positive experience, Fisher says. “After four hours in dialysis, the neater the building, the more appealing its design and the better its craftsmanship—it’s definitely noticed.”
Design/Build as Competitive Sport
Principal in charge
KPS Huntsville Studio
Getting started in architecture was the hard part for Kristine Harding. She fell in love with the career while doodling over ideas for a house on some land her folks owned in Texas. But when she went to Rice University on a volleyball scholarship, the architecture school didn’t take her application seriously.
But her mom encouraged her, noting that her athletics made her a naturally competitive person. So she applied again after her first year and was accepted. It took seven years instead of the ordinary six, but she graduated ready to work with her passion and with more besides.
“Extracurricular activities really helped me be the organized person I am today,” Harding says. “I learned early on how to balance all my deadlines and life and do everything to keep myself focused.” She’s a list maker, a stickler for being on time and completing what she’s promised.
Early in her career, she joined JH Partners in Huntsville, working her way up to president of the firm. But since the recession struck, “competition has been fierce,” she says. “Huntsville was the island in this terrible economy because of federal dollars.”
She and Gray Plosser, president of KPS, with offices in Birmingham and Atlanta, decided to join forces and she took over as head of the firm’s Huntsville studio. Working together, the firm has three current projects at Redstone Arsenal, and Harding says that design/bid/build collaborations are working very well for them.
Working in management means less time for design and drawings, but without sacrificing the chance to help clients move from need to dream to reality.
“If you market on the front end of a project, you build a relationship with the client, and they expect you to be there on the backend, too,” she says.
“If I interview and work with somebody and get a sense of where they’re going, I’m good at listening, narrowing in on their goal,” she says. “Then I kick the team off. We talk about what the project will look like and continually review and steer the team toward what I think the client’s goal is. I become the client’s advocate. Architects can go off on a tangent, but you always have to bring them back to the client’s goals—budget, maintenance free materials, attention to the site.”
Construction is still a guy’s field, says Harding, but women can do well if they “respect the people out there on the jobsite; they’re the experts there,” she says.
“Speak to everyone. Show that you’re ready to be part of the process. I don’t profess to know everything. I know what I want it to look like, and I’ll ask the bricklayers for their insights on how to achieve them. Respect their input.”
• The new concourse at Huntsville International Airport.
• The National Children’s Advocacy Center, which she loved both for the project itself and for the relationships among owner, designer and contractor.
• A prototype project for health departments around the state, requiring Harding to visit all 67 counties. “I should have kept a journal,” she says. “It was such a great introduction to the state.”
Nedra Bloom is the copy editor for Business Alabama.