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Origin Stories: GI Stone Owner Sandya Dandamudi Carved Out A Niche In CRE Development

This series delves into the myriad ways people enter the commercial real estate industry and what contributes to their success.

Sandya Dandamudi is the second-generation owner of GI Stone, a Chicago-based firm that sources, fabricates and installs custom stone for clients nationwide. Her experience with stone started at a young age when she accompanied her mother, Rani, on interior design projects. In 1995, her mother founded GI Stone, and Dandamudi joined the company — eventually taking the helm when her mother retired. No matter the challenges of running a business, Dandamudi said her motto remains constant: “Stone is the boss.”

Based in Chicago’s Hubbard Street industrial district, GI Stone recently completed the stonework on several high-profile projects including One Bennett Park, Optima Signature, NEXT Apartments, No. 9 Walton, Fulton East and the Four Seasons Hotel Chicago.

Dandamudi isn’t content to simply run a successful company. As a member of the River North Residents Association, a nonprofit advocacy organization for the River North neighborhood, she encourages local developers to support the pre-apprenticeship training program run by Saint Paul Church of God in Christ Community Development Ministries Inc. at 4550 South Wabash Ave. on Chicago’s South Side. Her goals are to help create a steady pipeline of new stoneworkers, to provide opportunities for those from underprivileged backgrounds and to help improve minority representation within the stone trade.

Sandya Dandamudi with a slab of Blue de Savoie marble

Bisnow: How did you get introduced to CRE?

Dandamudi: Construction and design have always been in my blood. My mother was an interior designer, and my father was a structural engineer, so I grew up hearing about form versus function my whole life. After high school, I got a degree in biochemistry and went to work in health care, but it did not feel like my calling. I was drawn to real estate, so I got my real estate license. Around this time, my mother was just starting GI Stone. Granite countertops and marble bathrooms were becoming popular, and the growth opportunities she saw in stonework fascinated me. I joined the company, and 28 years later, my passion for the industry remains as strong as ever. I love seeing how stone helps differentiate one commercial property from another.

Bisnow: What was your first job in CRE?

Dandamudi: Our company began in the residential sector, but we quickly entered the CRE arena when Magellan Development contacted us for a consultation on natural stone countertops and marble tile at one of their high-rise multifamily projects. Ever since then, GI Stone has been Magellan’s first-choice stone contractor. From there, we expanded the business into high-end hospitality, retail and office.

Sandya Dandamudi in Verona, Italy

Bisnow: What kind of education, certification or official training do you have in CRE? How critical was it to landing your first job?

Dandamudi: Formally, my graduate study was in communications. We also became active members in the Natural Stone Institute and the Stone Fabricators Alliance. However, my deep knowledge of natural stone is what led to landing my first CRE job. Through it all, curiosity has been my driving force. I am always willing to admit the things I do not know, then research, ask advice and continue to read and learn until I do know them.

Bisnow: What is one skill that you wish you had coming into CRE?

Dandamudi: When I first began at GI Stone, I did not have experience with money discussions. As a result, I initially shied away from these conversations, which was a mistake. But I learned very quickly that clients really want answers to two questions: “How does this affect the schedule?” and “How much?”

Bisnow: What were you doing before you got into CRE?

Dandamudi: With my education in biochemistry and communications, I was a marketing manager of lab services for a hospital.

Michele Caneva, vice president of sales for Santa Margherita, Frank Kaufhold, former project manager at Lendlease, and Sandya Dandamudi at the Santa Margherita factory in Volargne, Italy

Bisnow: If you changed careers, did you bring anything with you from your past career that has helped you thrive in CRE, or, on the flip side, anything you had to unlearn in order to succeed here?

Dandamudi: In health care, you need to convey information about complex subjects in simple terms, and you need to relate to people with varying levels of expertise. These communications skills have been my most useful asset. In addition, my analytical curiosity really helps to deconstruct designs so that I can meet client expectations, clearly explain any potential challenges, and propose solutions.

Bisnow: Can you remember a moment where you felt in over your head or you worried this industry was not for you? Did you ever think about quitting? What changed?

Dandamudi: For our first two major jobs, we had six months to fabricate and install 500-plus kitchen and bath countertops. While I was confident of the stone part, I did not fully understand the commercial world. There was a terminology gap. When the general contractor started talking about “AIA Pay App,” “OAC Meetings,” “Performance Bond” and what felt like a thousand other terms, I felt inadequate and overwhelmed. I was terrified that the clients would bring someone else in to replace us. Through it all, my mother/business partner was a constant source of encouragement and support. And James McHugh Construction Co., the general contractor on both projects, supported our company and made sure we exceeded all expectations. One of the things I love about CRE is that we all work together to get the job done and push each other to greater heights.

Sandya Dandamudi is the second-generation owner of GI Stone, a company founded by her mother in 1995.

Bisnow: What were your early impressions of the industry, good and bad? How has your impression changed?

Dandamudi: I am a woman of color — from a different country [India], with different traditions and ways of life. In a predominantly male environment, I was nervous that I would not be accepted. I worried that I would get laughed out of the room for asking questions. But these fears quickly melted away as I became more comfortable with my skills and my work environment, and I realized that I had actually been part of the “gang” for some time.

Mentoring others — women, people of color or those from disadvantaged backgrounds — is something that has become increasingly important to me.

Bisnow: Have you had a mentor or sponsor? How did that person shape your future in CRE?

Dandamudi: I have been fortunate to have had several mentors along the way. My first mentor was Mike Fitzpatrick, a senior project manager at McHugh Construction on one of our first projects. He was known to be very tough, but he took me under his wing and demonstrated more patience than I thought possible. He guided me and taught me so much. I cannot imagine where my company or I would be without his help. Although he is retired now, we have remained good friends.

Bisnow: What is a key lesson someone taught you, either kindly or the hard way?

Dandamudi: While your start date may move, the end date never changes!

Bisnow: What do you warn people about when they join the industry?

Dandamudi: The clichés are accurate. The devil is in the details. Do not take anything for granted. Do your homework. Plan for what could go wrong, not what could go right.

Bisnow: If you could do your career all over again, what would you change?

Dandamudi: Nothing! Even though I have made mistakes along the way, some of them expensive ones, they are also what made me who I am. I still love what I do, so I do not think I would change anything. Well, maybe I would have avoided some of the expensive lessons!