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Women Expand Niche in Owning Construction Firms

July 3rd, 2021

By Susan Straight, Special to The Washington Post Saturday, February 21, 2004; Page F01

Though you may still hire construction, plumbing and electrical “guys” to build or work on your home, research shows those “guys” may increasingly be women, or at least businesses owned by women.

A recent study released by the Center for Women’s Business Research shows that among the 6.2 million majority-owned, privately held women-owned firms in the United States last year (28 percent of all businesses), nontraditional industries such as contracting and construction are the fastest-growing segment.

While the number of women-owned firms grew about 14 percent from 1997 to 2002 — twice the rate of all businesses — the number of construction firms owned by women grew by 35.5 percent, according to the center…

Suzanne Przybyla, owner and president of Ellicott City-based Capital Contracting Inc., has decided she does not qualify for the 8(a) program. After losing a relatively small amount its first year, Przybyla’s company achieved $1.8 million in revenue in 2002, working on commercial new construction and renovations and subcontracting concrete and masonry.

Some of the jobs that accounted for Przybyla’s results last year were Capital Contracting’s construction of the 30,000-square-foot Centre Pointe Gym in Manassas, ongoing renovations and new construction for the Bullis School in Potomac and numerous renovations of existing retail spaces, primarily in Manassas. Przybyla focuses on commercial construction, preferably new construction, but “if it’s work, we’ll take it,” she said, laughing.

Przybyla is in a relatively small group as a female construction firm owner hitting revenue of $1 million or more in 2002. Sharon Hadary, executive director of the District-based Center for Women’s Business Research, said the nearly 279,000 $1 million-plus women-owned businesses in 2002 were less likely than those with less than $1 million to be in services. About 13.4 percent of these women-owned million-dollar businesses were construction firms.

However, when lumped together, nontraditional industries — such as construction, wholesale trade, manufacturing and transportation — account for the majority of women-owned businesses above the $1 million mark. “It’s not just that there are more of these firms; they’re more successful,” explained Hadary.

“Previous center research show that women-owned businesses are just as financially strong and creditworthy as the average U.S. firm,” she said.

A major concern of the $1 million-plus firms is access to capital. Increasing numbers of banks such as Wachovia and Wells Fargo have made loans specific to women business owners over the past few years. This led to a drop in female owners’ reliance on personal credit to finance businesses, to 36 percent in 1998 from 52 percent in 1992, according to the Center for Women’s Business Research.

Gone are the days when women could not obtain a business loan without a responsible male signature. However, Dorothy “Dot” Wood, owner of commercial construction company JD&W Inc. in Virginia Beach, was surprised recently when she applied for a loan for a new project and a loan officer at a Virginia Beach branch of a national bank suggested it would be easier if she would just get her husband, a now-retired but formerly successful district sales manager for Exxon Corp., to apply for her. Wood, who declined to specify the bank by name, insisted on applying for her own loan and “had no trouble qualifying.”

It was a reminder of the past. Wood, president and chief executive of JD&W, has been in the construction business for more than 35 years and now has a full-time staff of 25, plus contract workers for various projects. She said she has never attributed success or failure to her gender; however, she noted that access to capital is much easier than it was in 1978 when she started her company.

Then, she said, “I needed my husband to sign for a loan.”

Despite the existence of loan funds such as that at Wells Fargo, Daytner said she has not experienced any special treatment in looking for loan money. “I don’t see access to capital being easy at all,” she observed.

After several “disappointing” attempts to secure small-business loans through banks that promoted their small-business focus, Przybyla finally established a line of credit with Baltimore-based K Bank, formerly Key Bank and Trust. “They were very small-business friendly,” she said.

Women who own construction-related businesses say they do not think of themselves in terms of gender in the business world. “I’ve never thought there was a difference between myself and any other business owner,” Wood said.

One reason female construction company owners may tend to play down their rarity is the possibility of repercussions among current and potential clients. “We’d probably lose some business if customers knew” the company was owned by a woman, Wood said.

When Wood was a child growing up in suburban Alexandria, she said, she never thought that she would own a construction company. In fact, she never thought she would hold a job. After graduating in the mid-1950s with a degree in home economics, she worked for one day as a substitute teacher before deciding she would never set foot in a classroom again.

A male friend in construction complained to her that he did not have time for a construction project in Kentucky. Wood had nothing but time. As the daughter of a White House police officer, she knew nothing about construction, but something about maintaining order. She told her friend she would take the project, moved to Kentucky and directed a crew building a shoe store.

Wood has taken the obstacles that have faced her in stride. Recently, a new foreign-born project manager called her home to ask her husband if he should follow a certain directive Wood had issued. “My husband isn’t even in construction,” and told the man he would have to talk to Wood.

Wood said that one prospective employee she interviewed said with all seriousness that he wasn’t sure about working for a woman because “women only have half a brain.”

She said, “He didn’t get the job.”

Wood’s staff now includes about 15 percent women, all in accounting, administration and marketing. Though the directors of accounting and marketing are both women, none of the project managers are. “I’d love to have more women on the staff, but there just aren’t any that apply,” she said.

Przybyla said she comes by her construction acumen in part because her father was in construction, as was her husband. As a mechanical engineer, she was busy owning and running a software development company and a medical staffing services business. However, she envied her husband’s work. “He always had something to show for what he did,” she said.

Though still a part-owner of the seven-year-old software development business, Przybyla decided to own a business for which she had both a background and passion.

“I come from a building background,” she said. “I’ve built trusses.”

She incorporated in January 2002 and hired her husband as her first and so far only full-time employee.

Despite her experience in mostly male mechanical engineering, Przybyla was unprepared for what it was like to become a female construction company owner. “A lot of guys don’t take me seriously . . . you have to go the extra mile to prove yourself,” she said.

On the other hand, once proven, “they remember you if only because you’re a woman.”

Nevertheless, except for being interviewed for articles such as this one, Przybyla said she rarely thinks of her business as “woman-owned.”

Business should come to her, she said, “because we’re better than anybody else — not because I’m a girl.”

Suzanne Przybyla focuses on commercial construction. John and Suzanne Przybyla, who owns her own construction company, Ellicott City, Md.-based Capital Contracting Inc., at Centre Pointe Gymnastics in Woodbridge.

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