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An Interview With: Deborah Murphy

Washington, D.C.

By: Nina James for Bisnow on Business

Deborah Murphy is trying really hard to take a step back from the day-to-day operations of her family business, Standard Supplies, Inc. Under Murphy’s leadership, the company has provided the steel bones for many of the retail structures around D.C. – from the familiar: your Safeways, your Marriotts, your Red Lobsters – to the more original: the Luxemburg and Chinese embassies and recently, Clyde’s Tower Oak Lodge in Rockville. The Gaithersburg-based company processes more than 400,000 tons of steel per year.

After 11 years as chairman and CEO of Standard Supplies, stepping back is a move that does not come easily for Murphy. The company has been in her family for four generations (through the women in the family, thank you) and has not only weathered the ups and downs of residential and commercial construction, but managed to thrive as well. As a teenager, Murphy remembers watching her grandmother sign the company checks and has since become intimately involved with the construction supply business.

"I’m going to have to learn NOT to keep my fingers in all the pots,” she says. Accordingly, she has delegated her daily checklists — how many trucks are going out, how many projects are on time, how many deliveries are scheduled, how happy are our employees — to Greg Surette, former vice president and chief operating officer.

Murphy is stepping aside, not as one might imagine, to spend more time with her two Portuguese water dogs, but to take on an even higher profile role. She was recently voted in as Chairman of the Metro Washington chapter of the Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC). It’s one of 79 chapters in a nationwide federation and 550 members strong.

"This was an extreme compliment,” she says. “The ABC has a huge budget and 12 standing committees. Basically I’m taking a year out of my life to run a nonprofit organization.”

Taking the helm at ABC means that Murphy will be trying to influence politicians in the interest of free enterprise and open competition. This is not a problem for her. “I’m Irish. I grew up in a household where politics and religion were big topics of discussion. I’m very passionate about my views. When your job is to lobby and talk to politicians, you have to bring that with you.”

And bring it she does. At a recent meeting in D.C., she accidentally stumbled into Adrian Fenty and did not hesitate to introduce herself and tell him about how she was starting at ABC. “We joked about how we were both about to take on a new office,” she recalls.

Some of the hot topics before the ABC this year involve D.C.’s new stadium. As it stands, there is an agreement that prohibits any non-union-affiliated company to bid on work associated with the stadium. “We have been working on this for two to three years,” says Murphy. “We believe there should be fair and open competition.”

“D.C. is perceived to be a union town, but it is basically a myth,” she says. “85 percent of the workers here are non-union.” She says the numbers of construction workers and union members are on the decline, so that workers actually have enough leverage on their own, without the unions. “The unions are hoping that this high-profile stadium project will revive their membership.”

Murphy cites another challenge for the construction industry that is symptomatic of D.C.’s maturing real estate market: contract documentation contains less and less information. Previously, she says, the plans for a building would specify the amount and type of material that a new structure required. Increasingly, that information is left out, to put the burden of decision-making (read: liability) on someone else. “Now the question is, who’s responsible if it doesn’t work,” says Murphy. “The design responsibility is pushed to the trade contractor. So I have to go back to the architect/engineer to get the dimensions and fill in the blanks.” The result is a lot of delays and frustration for the developers who want to see their buildings go up.

Leaving the daily operations of Standard Supplies to Greg Surette is less difficult because Murphy considers her employees like family. “I’m the end of the line,” she says. “Plus I was never intended to be in the family business. I went to private school and I think my parents thought I would get married and not work outside of the home.” Only a slight miscalculation – the state of Maryland awarded her the 2002 Entrepreneur of the Year in the category of Business Turnaround.

As she takes on the unions and the politicians in Washington D.C., Murphy is careful not to get too sure of herself. To this end, she has taken up golf. “Golf is such a lesson in humility,” she says. “I think I would choose golf over politics but I do enjoy both very much."