Women in Remodeling

"There was a time that I wasn’t able to get a business loan or a credit card without having my husband or father co-sign for me,” recalls Karen Nakamura, CEO of the Building Industry Association of Hawaii, of the not-so-distant past, when women didn’t have nearly the opportunities in business that they now enjoy. Times have definitely changed for the better and women in business are making enormous contributions not only in the larger business world, but particuarly in remodeling where women have long forged new paths.

The U.S. Census Bureau reports that women owned 6.5 million (non-farm) businesses in 2002, employing 7.1 million persons and generating $940.8 billion in revenues — representing more than a quarter of all business activity in the country. Government statistics also show that women business owners, as a group, are expanding their enterprises at twice the national rate for all businesses, growing 20 percent between 1997 and 2002. But according to Nakamura the number of women business owners in residential construction lags behind many other industries. Today women owners comprise only 3 percent of the home building, remodeling and home improvement markets. “This is just the beginning of women-owned building companies,” says Nakamura. “We have much more to offer.”

The Owner
“Migrating into a nonconventional field was very intimidating at first,” says Nicole Goolsby, president of Rion Home, Inc. and chairperson of the National Association of Home Builders Women’s Council “But I found the industry to be very supportive and welcoming.” The Women’s Council represents more than 2,500 women members of the NAHB working in all aspects of the building industry — as owners, managers, marketers, interior designers and mortgage bankers. Many, like Ronda Pashia Fohey, see their womanhood as a strength — a business asset in male-centric industry. She even put it front-and-center in the name of her St. Louis company: A Woman’s Touch Remodeling.

“When I was deciding what to name my company,” says Pashia Fohey, “I kept going over the positives of why someone would want to hire me rather than all the other contractors. Two points kept coming to mind. First, I was a woman in a male-dominated field. Second, that women have an uncanny ability to see details as well as the big picture and pull it all together. I ‘get’ what women want because I am a woman!”

The Partner
Another important role for women in the remodeling industry is as part of a husband-wife team. Joan Stephens, CR and president of Stronghold Remodeling in Boise, Idaho, wanted to help her husband who was up late every night, working outrageous hours. “It all evolved from there, typing a few contracts, helping out with bids,” says Stephens. “I find that women homeowners typically are very comfortable and more receptive to a female remodeler.” Today, Stronghold Remodeling also employs three women in its sales and marketing department.

The Employee
Women have gained stature in the real estate market making many candidates for positions in remodeling. According to the National Association of Realtors women account for 21 percent of all purchases made by single homebuyers. That’s compared with only 9 percent of their male counterparts. As such, remodeling company’s are shifting their marketing efforts towards women. And many have hired female salespersons to close the deal. At Harrell Remodeling in Mountain View, Calif., 17 of the 22 employees are female. “Women offer something different. We are very detail-oriented and communicate entirely different,” says Harrell. “This often gives them advantage in this market. It’s refreshing.”

Another emerging trend is women DIY’ers. Heidi Baker, co-owner of BeJane.com, a Web site dedicated to women DIY’ers, says that women are becoming very involved in their own home improvement. She cites a survey conducted by BeJane.com, which found that 67 percent of women describe themselves at DIY’ers. The scope of this trend is large considering that 17 million single women own homes today.

Cindy Knutsen Lycholat, CR
Taking over the family business
Knutsen Bros. II, East Troy, Wis.

Early Years: As a second generation remodeler, Cindy Knutsen Lycholat spent almost her entire life in the industry helping her father with Knutsen Bros. Builders. Knutsen decided to further her education in the home building market by studying design and blue printing and eventually became a full-time designer at her father’s company. Over the years, she meddled in other aspects of the business — everything from estimating to sales. In 1994, Knutsen’s father asked her to run a branch of Knutsen Bros. Builders in Walworth County (an area the company rarely serviced because of geographic location). Cindy took on her father’s challenge and legally separated the business’ to establish Knutsen Bros. II. “I remember my very first client was this older Italian guy who was doing a $250,000 remodel, bigger than what my dad was doing,” she recalls. “The first thing he said was, ‘I’ll give you a shot, but I have to meet your daddy first.” Today, KB2 takes a different approach than its predecessor. “I decided to keep my company small,” says Knutsen. “I didn’t need that volume to support my lifestyle. KB2 averages 8 to 10 project a year and maintains a volume of around $800,000 to $900,000.

Making Her Mark: Knutsen is a huge believer in education. So much so that in 1998 she started the Building Trades Academy to educate the younger generation about the trades. “I realized that all of my subs were in their 50s and they weren’t too far from retirement,” says Knutsen. “I believe without this push in education, the next generation is going to struggle to find quality tradespeople.” After three years at a trade school, it was eventually put into the curriculum at a local high school. Knutsen continues her goal to educate by being approved to teach six courses with the NAHB.

Proudest Accomplishment: Being recognized by her peers is a huge accomplishment for Knutsen. In 1993, she was awarded with the Builder’s Edge award. This award is given to companies who demonstrate an ongoing commitment to the industry as seen by voluntary efforts of time and finances promoting the industry. “It’s amazing when other people are taking notice in what you do, that makes it extraordinary.”

Joan Stephens, CR
Past president of NARI
Stronghold Remodeling, Boise, Idaho

Early Years: “My husband and I literally got into remodeling by accident,” shares Joan Stephens. “Jim was doing some handyman work in Texas and then when we moved to Idaho, he continued to do smaller jobs and it just grew from there.” Like many wives, Stephens saw her husband working 80 to 90 hours a week and one day, she asked if he needed any help doing the paperwork. That’s where it all began. Stronghold Remodeling today is a $2 million company with nine full-time employees, three of which are women. “Women homeowners are typically more comfortable dealing with a woman remodeler,” says Stephens. “And as we know, women are making a lot of the decisions when it comes to remodeling the home.” In 1991, the Stephens’ were members of the group that charted the first local NARI association in Ohio. They also took part in Business Networks, which helped in every aspect of running a successful remodeling company.

Making Her Mark: “When I started as an officer with NARI, we were still in Washington D.C.,” says Stephens. “I was part of the team that moved the NARI headquarters, changed the staff and turned it around in terms of declining membership and financial success.” It was a “three prong approach to our transformation of NARI — 1. move to less expensive area; 2. focus on membership and 3. cut expenses. Today, NARI has roughly 8,000 members. In 2005, Stephens became the national president of NARI.

Proudest Accomplishment: On top of helping charter the first NARI chapter is Ohio, achieving professional and personal success, Stephens says she is very proud of some positive marks she left during her term as national president. “For quite some time, the NARI board members met three times a year, then two, to figure out what the association would be doing that following year,” says Stephens. “This was hard to do in such a short amount of time and negatively effected the association and its members.” Stephens made a point to change this by issuing monthly conference calls to keep up-to-date on everything going on, helping to keep NARI on the path of success.

Donna Shirey, CGR, CAPS
All Shades of Green
Shirey Contracting, Issaquah, Wash.

Early Years: While building her own house, Donna Shirey was a very involved homeowner. She was interested in every aspect of construction and found that it was all about processes and systems. “Building a house is like baking a cake or sewing a dress,” explains Shirey. “There’s a process to it and if followed correctly, the outcome will be success.” This began her journey into the construction field — starting off in the new construction market and later dabbling in commerical work. When Shirey met her husband, Riley Shirey, she found he was an amazing builder, but not keen to collecting money and doing the “behind the scenes” duties. Together they started Shirey Contracting and positioned themselves as King and Snohomish County’s premiere “green builder.” Shirey Contracting continues its commitment to environmental responsibility and uses energy efficient and sustainable methods whenever possible.

Making Her Mark: With the largest chapter of the Master Builders Association in the country, some of 4,100 members, as past president, Shirey says “Joining the MBA in the early ‘90s was the best thing to ever happen to the company.” She has made outstanding business relationships as well as deep personal relationships. “There’s a group of us ‘husband and wife teams’ that met through the Remodelors Council,” says Shirey. “We’ve been together for the past 15 years, networking, sharing business ideas, going to tradeshows together — really acting as a support group for each other.”

Proudest Accomplishment: Shirey says because she is a woman, she’s able to get things done. She tells a story of a dump truck driver who said he wasn’t able to drive down a hill where she needed him. Shirey proceeded to tell him to “get out of the truck, I’ll do it.” Not being outdone by a women, he proceeded. Not only can she things done, she also does it in a very professional way. “Being an educated businesswoman has also been a proud accomplishment for me,” says Shirey. “I truly believe that women bring that to the husband/wife team.” Recently, Shirey Contracting was asked to be the contractors for the new MBA building. “This was a great honor to be asked, especially being amongst some of the finest builders and remodelers in the Seattle.”

Iris Harrell, CBD, CKD, GC
DIY’er Turned Remodeler
Harrell Remodeling, Mountain View, Calif.

Early Years: “My first home was a 1920s duplex that needed a ton of work,” says Iris Harrell. “So, my partner started taking evening classes on renovating homes, but she didn’t like to get sweaty and that’s where it all began.” During that time, Harrell met J.C. “Chape” Harris, a 70-year old man who spent his spare time helping friends repair things around their homes. “Chape really became a father figure to me and taught me all the basics — from changing locks to building cabinets.” Many of Chape’s clientale were widowed friends of his who felt uncomfortable inviting “strange men” in their homes to fix things — this is were Harrell found her client-base. With her love for remodeling growing, Harrell began searching for a job. “I applied to a few newspaper ads, but no one would hire me,” explains Harrell. “One guy said, ‘You don’t want to work here, your hands will get rough and who will hold them at night.’ ” In 1984, she packed her bags and headed for California. Being a new remodeler in town, Harrell joined a women’s softball team and surprisingly met two union carpenters and a self-employed painter. Today, Harrell Remodeling stands as a premiere design/build remodeling company, with 44 employees and volume of $8 million with a record-setting year ahead of them.

Making Her Mark: A unique way Harrell is enouraging females to enter into the remodeling field is by supporting the Ms. Fix-It badge for the local Girl Scout troop. Here, girls learn about the various aspects of the remodeling industry — from what it takes to be a woman in the construction industry to the many skills needed for running a remodeling company. For the last five years, Harrell has been welcoming the troop into her offices where they are taught plumbing, how to use a hammer, electrical work and spackling to name a few. The girls are also given an hour lesson in design and are given the task of putting together a client presentation. “I really wanted to jump back to the younger crowd and teach everything the construction industry has to offer.

Proudest Accomplishment: “As a women business owner in this field, I have to be the best at what I do,” says Harrell. “I am very proud of our many design and business awards we receive each year.” This year alone, Harrell’s Remodeling took home seven design awards awards. They have also been awarded numerous business awards including the 2006 Silicon Valley/San Jose Business Journal Women of Distinction award and was ranked No. 117 on QR’s Top 500 Remodelers list.

Nicole Goolsby
The Entreprenuer
Rion Homes, Inc., Huntersville, N.C.

Early Years: As a young girl, Nicole Goolsby admits to always being intrigued by home building. “When I was a little girl, my neighborhood had many homes under construction,” explains Goolsby. “I was one of those girls climbing through the rafters when the workers went home.” After getting her feet wet in many aspects of the construction field — real estate to construction financing to project management — Goolsby decided to venture off on her own. In 2000, she started Rion Homes. “I loaned myself $15,000 on a credit card, bought a computer and desk and began building a spec home,” says Goolsby. While making her mark in the new construction sector, Goolsby entered the remodeling field as a service to her past customers. “I really enjoy the surprises I encounter with remodeling,” she says, “with remodeling, there’s whole emotional attachment that you don’t get with new construction.”

Making Her Mark: This past January, Goolsby became chairperson of the NAHB’s Women’s Council. Here, she takes an active role in encouraging and promoting the professionalism of women in this industry. One of the biggest advantages of being a member is the peer-to-peer mentoring. “It’s a support group for those of us facing the same issues on a day to day basis,” says Goolsby. “The association has really motivated me to step out and be on my own — that was a scary thing to do, especially being a woman business owner in a nonconventional field.” As the owner of her own company, Goolsby has faced almost no discrimination because of her gender. “When I was working for a male superintendent, I had more challenges than I do now,” explains Goolsby. “All of my employees and subs know who they are working for and they know who’s paying their check.” As far as her clients, she believes one asset women have in this field is “we communicate differently.” She goes on to say, “I say ‘thank you’ a lot and that gets appreciated.”

Proudest Accomplishment: “One of my very first big remodeling jobs was a whole-house renovation,” say Goolsby. “The clients requested that they needed to be back in the house three days before Christmas — this was in August.” By November 1, Rion Homes was busy working to meet its almost-impossible deadline. “This was one of my very first remodeling jobs and I didn’t know any better, so I literally lived there for 60 days with my crew and subs.” The biggest lesson she learned from this was that “it can be done and there is no reason a remodeling project should take 1 1/2 years to complete.”

Jan Williams
Behind-the-scenes Player
williams-BUILDERS, Robbinsville, N.J.

Early Years: With over 50 years in the business, Jan Williams has been through it all. She and her husband, Harry Williams, started williams-BUILDERS primarily serving the new construction market. Influenced by an architect who studied under Frank Lloyd Wright, they built “The House of Tomorrow” in yesterday’s village of Allentown, N.J. Many visited, none bought. Fortunately, a couple of RCA physicists were intrigued by the concept embodied in the structure and they built two more homes in Princeton. This led to williams-BUILDER’s phase of building custom, architect-designed homes. Like many, a past client asked if they would do a remodel and they accepted. “I remember going to the builders show and remodeling was a sub committee of a sub committee,” laughs Williams. “No one remodeled back then, it was all new construction, but things have definitely changed.” The Williams’ both enjoy the remodeling business, Jan says “we can take a dream and make it a reality.”

Making Her Mark: After venturing into her husband’s business, Williams took every class she could possibly take — CGR courses, accounting and business management to name a few. “Being a woman, I really had to prove myself,” says Williams. “For those women in the field, now, they really have to prove themselves. At williams-BUILDERS today, Harry and Jan invite experts to speak on topics such as safety, how to lay a foundation, etc. to keep their staff ahead of the game. In 1997, Williams was honored with the NAHB’s Remodelor of the Year award.

Proudest Accomplishment: Williams says that women are finally being recognized in this industry and that is something she is very proud of. “When I first started 45 or so years ago, I didn’t even tell my bridge friends what I was doing.” she says. “Women were homemakers, teachers or nurses in those days, they most definitely were not in the construction field.” In the 1980s, Williams hired her first female salesperson and she soared. “There’s a feeling of a trust when you are dealing with a woman salesperson,” says Williams. “We communicate completely different than men.”

Anna Marie Mavrakis, IDS
The Designer
Mavrakis Construction, Columbus, Ohio

Early Years: After graduating with a degree in interior design, Anna Marie Mavrakis went straight into the construction business with her now husband, Bill. While Bill had the general contractor know-how, Anna Marie brought the design element to the business. “We really offer a complete package here,” says Mavrakis. “Everything from the build to interior decorating.” When they started up Mavrakis Construction, no project was too small — “I believe our first project was a deck,” Mavrakis recalls. In 1984, a year after establishing the company, the Marvakis’ joined NARI. “We were highly involved with every home show and event that our chapter put on,” says Mavrakis. “It was our way of getting our name out into the community.” Today, the company does 75 percent remodeling and is well-known for primarily larger projects. “We get a lot of referrals from other builders who don’t want to mess with the bigger jobs.”

Making Her Mark: In addition to Mavrakis Construction, Mavrakis also owns a professional interior design company, Cottage Draperies & Interiors. Here, she specializes in fine furnishings, lamps, artwork, elegant accessories, custom window treatments, bedding, floor coverings, wall coverings, and special finish painting and murals. “I think many women get into this business from the interior side, and overall everyone has been very accepting.”

Proudest Accomplishment: Sharing her talents with clients over the years has been a joy for Mavrakis, but what has been an even bigger accomplishment is the start of the Pink Playhouse. This actual 8 by 8 ft. playhouse is sponsored by her local NARI chapter along with many other large corporate sponsors throughout the community. “Our chapter is donating all the building materials for the Pink Playhouse that will be constructed at a local lumber yard,” explains Mavrakis. “Raffle tickets will be sold and all proceeds will go to the American Cancer Society.” The value of the Pink Playhouse is between $4,000 and $5,000. “There are two other chapters in the state that have adopted the program and I’m hoping many others will do the same.” Mavrakis is the current regional vice president of NARI and is past president of her local chapter.

Victoria Downing
Business Consultant
Remodelers Advantage, Laurel, Md.

Early Years: Since 1990, Victoria Downing has been helping remodelers make more money and reach higher levels of success. With her partner, Linda Case, the two have successfully run Remodelers Advantage, a consulting company specializing in providing strategic business management information to the remodeling contractor. Incorporating such programs as the peer-review program and Remodelers University. RU courses capture the expertise and experience of top industry consultants as well as a number of successful business owners. These courses are available for purchase on the Web site.

Making Her Mark: Downing has been awarded the Harold Hammerman Spirit of Education Award for excellence in training and education from the National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI). She is a co-author of The Remodelers Marketing PowerPak, and Mastering the Business of Remodeling: An Action Plan for Profit, Progress and Peace of Mind, and Mastering the Business of Design/Build Remodeling. She is a facilitator for the renowned peer-review program, Remodelers Advantage Roundtables, an exclusive membership program for remodelers striving to be at the top levels of success. Remodelers Advantage Roundtables provides a safe, encouraging, yet exacting environment where members are helped to grow toward their dreams and aspirations. “We believe those goals should include above-average owner compensation, a healthy net profit year after year, and working hours that allow for a balanced life. Our over 170 members work together to help one another maximize opportunity, minimize challenges and move to higher levels of success.”

Proudest Accomplishment: In all their work, Linda and Victoria stick to one key principle: Remodelers can build highly profitable companies that also allow them to have full, balanced lives without working 60 or 70 or 80 hours a week. “Our goal is to show you how you can do what thousands of other remodelers have already done (without spending a fortune). Since 1998, we’ve spent time researching other services and products that can also help you.”

Karen Nakamura
The “First” Woman
CEO, Building Industry Association of Hawaii, Honolulu Hawaii

Early Years: Karen Nakamura can tell personal stories that most can only read in books. As a third generation remodeler, Nakamura’s family played an important role in building what Hawaii is today. “When I was younger, women became teachers or nurses and nothing else,” says Nakamura. After dropping out of college (pursuing a teaching career), Nakamura went into cosmotology and later went to work for her father’s construction company. Soon enough Nakamura took over the family business. Although being a woman contractor was still a struggle, Nakamura found a twist in her favor. “I remember a time when I was going to be late for an appointment, so I had to go straight from the jobsite in my overalls, hard hat and steel-toe boots,” says Nakamura. “The client wouldn’t even let me in the door.” Since that moment, Nakamura knew she was going to have to market herself differently if she wanted to survive. “That’s when I started presenting myself as a designer — a general contractor that speaks interior design.” Another idea Nakamura found helpful was always showcasing her past work. “I really had to prove myself during that initial call.”

Making Her Mark: As CEO of BIA-Hawaii, Nakamura started the Remodel It Right Expo, with its main purpose being to educate homeowners on the process of remodeling — from idea to finish. The BIA Remodel It Right Expo originally started as a quarterly seminar series over 19 years ago and this years show is expecting to bring in 10,000 people. One thing she is truly proud of is the addition of “roundtables” at the event. “I have six different topics, and these are on-going roundtable discussions with experts from the entire spectrum of the building industry,” says Nakamura, a past chairperson for the Remodelors Council.

Proudest Accomplishment: Nakamura says that women are finally being recognized in this industry and that is something she is very proud of. “When I first started, I remember when I couldn’t get a loan or even a credit card with having my father or husband co-sign for me.” she says. “Women were homemakers, teachers or nurses in those days, they most definitely were not in the construction field.” In 1998, Nakamura was awarded the business hall of fame award from Junior Achievement of Hawaii. This award recognizes business leaders who, through their entrepreneurial and civic activities, have made enduring contributions to the products, the processes, the efficiencies, or the human relations of business and the community.

Linda Case
Business Guru
Remodelers Advantage, Laurel, Md.

Early Years: Linda Case received a heaping pile of “business know-how” starting and running Case Remodeling with her ex-husband Fred Case. She admits to always being intrigued by the business side of things. “When I left Case Remodeling, I was afraid to even look for another job. The thought was scary,” says Case. “Because of my interest in business and my background in home building, I started Remodelers Advantage.” Her goal was to build a business around the consulting model. “In 1982, there weren’t very many remodeling companies over $1 million,” says Case as she speaks of her experience with Case Remodeling. “Many companies were working as ‘practices’ in an industry where the company solely relies on the owner.” Case says she enjoys helping educate these owners who mostly have a construction background into professional business owners.

Making Her Mark: Case decided to take her savvy business knowledge to the next level and share it with the world. She took the concept of “roundtables” to Remodelers Advantage and has established a national peer-to-peer program. “We currently have a total of 18 groups that meet twice yearly,” explains Case. “These groups are in non-competitive markets and remain the same groups throughout the years.” The primary advantage of joining a roundtable program is to save time by using the ideas and systems that are shared between members. “We are not about to recreate the wheel,” adds Case.

Proudest Accomplishment: Throughout her career, Case says that women were few and far between. “I would sit in on seminars and the speaker would start with, ‘Gentlemen, I want you to hear this ...,’ I felt alone,” says Case. “It’s wonderful to see women at tradeshows, we have a presence now.” Case says her mission is to welcome women into this industry. “I started out wanting to be as good as the men, but I realized that I want to be true to my self, true to the woman that I am.”