This article was featured in RBJ’s Path to Excellence magazine published June 22, 2018.
The road to employment independence is rarely straight and almost always includes plenty of forks and roundabouts. Especially in a male-dominated industry.
You can’t ask your GPS or Google Maps to plot your course to the CEO’s chair of your own company.
Thus, you sometimes need to trust your instincts. So what if the route isn’t paved? Take a chance.
It certainly worked for Laurie Broccolo, owner and CEO of Broccolo Tree & Lawn Care of Fairport, and Melissa Geska, president and founder of US Ceiling Corp of Webster.
The same self-confidence and drive also enabled Stephanie Benson, Kathy Metcalfe and Heidi Zimmer-Meyer to soar. Benson is partner and chief operating officer at Edgemere Development Inc. Metcalfe is chief culture officer and principal associate at the architecture and engineering firm Clark Patterson Lee. And Zimmer-Meyer is president of the Rochester Downtown Development Corp.
“I’m still that curious person, willing to grow, to take chances,” said Metcalfe, whose career at CPL began in 1989 as a project planner within the civil engineering department.
Broccolo had been working for Ted Collins Tree and Landscape, a job she landed right after completing her associate’s degree in environmental conservation and horticulture from Finger Lakes Community College.
That in itself was a minor coup, considering few landscapers in the 1980s were women. It’s still true today. The most recent U.S. Department of Labor statistics show that women comprise just 9.9 percent of the workforce nationally in landscaping.
“Ted hired me and an African-American classmate of mine, Marvin White, at the same time,” she said. “He was way ahead of his time when it came to hiring, and he was really a great mentor.”
But when Collins sold the business, her role changed. She went from working on lawns to doing paperwork in an office. And she hated it.
While on maternity leave in the winter of 1990-91, she told her husband (Albert) the job just wasn’t fun anymore. “He said, ‘Don’t go back, start your own business.’
“And this was at a time when he was going to be laid off from his job (at Taylor Instruments), but he said, ‘Just do it.’ ”
So she launched Broccolo Tree & Lawn Care that spring. Nearly three decades later, she owns one of the area’s most prominent lawn care firms.
Ten years after Broccolo took her leap of faith, Geska and her husband, Ed, realized the incentives that existed for a woman-owned business, especially in construction. US Ceiling Corp was born.
The firm began as a smaller commercial home-based business, focusing primarily on framing and ceilings.
As they sought work, and as the name spread, not everyone believed she was really the person in charge.
The common refrain: “It must be your husband’s business,” she said. “The natural assumption that it’s my husband’s business tried to invalidate me.”
Geska wasn’t going to be intimidated, however, even in an industry where nationally just 9.1 percent of workers are women.
“When I’m challenged, I tend to hyper-focus on excelling at that,” she said. “My parents tell me stories of when I was a kid and I was told I couldn’t do some of the things the boys in the neighborhood were doing.
“‘You can’t play football with the boys.’ ‘Oh, really? Watch me.’”
You can’t be the owner of this construction firm. Oh really? Watch her.
US Ceiling has a staff of around 100 and has worked on some of the most prominent projects in downtown Rochester, including Tower280 and Spectra and Sibley Square.
“Integrity had to mean everything,” she said. “I wasn’t going to fake it, I was going to be all in and dedicate myself to that.”
Integrity is an essential trait, all five women say. Edgemere Development is focused on preservation, rehabilitation and creation of affordable housing. The firm deals with multi-million-dollar projects across New York and Pennsylvania, including the completed $25.5 million Gardens at Town Center in Greece and the underway $15.4 million Heritage Gardens in Henrietta.
“We feel very strongly about doing the right thing,” Benson said. “We’re competent, we’re ethical, we’re direct. And we don’t over-promise.”
John Oster founded Edgemere in 2001. Benson came on board in 2003.
“The reason we’re good partners is we don’t always think alike,” she said. “Part of the value is we bring a different perspective.”
And women, she said, always have a different viewpoint.
“I think we see things very differently from the male perspective,” she said. “I just think women observe differently and take it from a different perspective.”
Zimmer-Meyer agrees. She has been with RDDC since 1984 and while she doesn’t develop, invest or build properties, she’s involved with all aspects of the industry.
She has seen accelerated growth and a rebirth in downtown Rochester, and her organization in many ways has been the catalyst.
Zimmer-Meyer believes it’s important to get to know the person she’s speaking with; to talk about life, to know where they’re from or where their kids go to school or about a recent family vacation.
“There’s a personal connection and I believe women are more adept at doing that,” she said. “It humanizes conversations. Not every woman does that and not every man doesn’t, but in general I believe it’s true.”
But being cordial isn’t by itself going to be the deal-maker.
“You have to be able to assert yourself,” Zimmer-Meyer said. “If you’re not sure of yourself, it’s like the mad dogs are out there, they sense that you’re not comfortable being a strong person. You have to be fearless, you can’t be afraid.”
She learned that early, too, because 34 years ago, men weren’t all that comfortable hearing about the vision of a city from a woman.
“We’d walk into a room and the men we were meeting would talk directly to my male subordinate,” Zimmer-Meyer said. “I learned at a young age that I had to be smarter, faster and brighter than the guys on the other side of the table.”
She said she did so by projecting her personality. “You do it through humor in a way that builds relationships,” she said.
As society has changed and board rooms and meeting rooms have been more inclusive of women, Zimmer-Meyer said she doesn’t find gender “to be a barrier anymore.”
But when building a business relationship, a huge mistake is acting like a know-it-all.
“Don’t pretend to know something you don’t, and don’t be afraid to learn from a mistake,” Geska said.
Said Benson: “If you’re not out of your comfort zone, you’re not doing your job. Regulations are constantly changing. You don’t know everything; you can’t know everything. You have to be comfortable being uncomfortable.”
The don’t-be-a-know-it-all edict applies internally as well. Broccolo realized that was true when she started to build her business.
“I hired people with way different expertise than mine,” Broccolo said.
Her first hire was a one-day-a-week bookkeeper. However, it wasn’t long before Pat Rolland moved into a full-time role, one that lasted 25 years.
Broccolo had connected with Rolland at a National Association of Women Business Owners networking event.
“She told me, ‘I charge $30 an hour,’ and I said, ‘Yes, but it takes me three hours to do what you do in an hour, and I can make more doing what I do.’
Thus, her No. 1 rule: “Don’t struggle with what you don’t know.”
As the business grew, Broccolo learned at another networking event that she should take a leadership training course. The knowledge gained allowed her to step back, assess the business and determine what other hires were necessary in order to build the proper company infrastructure.
While business success is almost by definition reliant on a competitive spirit, not everything is about winning. Work on million-dollar projects can’t be all about your side of the spectrum.
“You have to work in partnership, it has to be a win-win,” Benson advised. “It can’t be a win-lose because you need them.”
For Metcalfe, many of her victories are internal. As chief culture officer, she devotes most of her time to what Clark Patterson Lee is about as a firm. Ensuring a happy, productive work environment is Job 1, because employee retention is important.
“When you have happy people that like to come to work, everyone benefits,” Metcalfe said. “Our culture is a differentiator for us.”
Architecture and engineering tends to be a very male-dominated industry. The Department of Labor said 75.6 percent of all jobs in the field were held by men.
But at CPL, women comprise over one-third of the staff.
“And I think we’re making sure (as an industry) that there’s room at the top for women,” Metcalfe said.
Broccolo is doing the same. She has been proactive in hiring women, minorities and members of the LGBTQ community.
“Diversity is so important for me,” she said. “Everyone contributes something different. By not hiring someone like me, we’re able to learn.
“I want us building sustainability in the environment and the community together.”