An Interview With: Linda Rabbitt
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Linda Rabbitt might well be the only woman in history who has started not one but two construction firms. The Michigan native jumped into the construction industry with a friend in the mid 1980s after teaching English and American History, and working in marketing at KPMG. Not only did she get into construction at the height of a local building boom but she was one of only a few women in the industry at that time. Rabbitt is hard pressed to think of another construction firm in the region run by a woman; please let her know if you’re out there. Her company, Rand Construction, was started in 1989, and is expected to bring in $150 million in revenue this year, up from $130 million last year. The Arlington-based firm, which employs 120, specializes in commercial interior construction. Tania Anderson talked with Linda Rabbitt recently for Bisnow on Business.
Tania Anderson, for Bisnow on Business: How has the business changed since when you started?
Certainly in 1985, it was a 98 percent negative to be a woman. There were very few women who were getting engineering degrees or who had gone into the business trades. In our community 20 years later, our construction community is very sophisticated. Now we have lots of women project managers and women architects and women in our world. 20 years ago, the way work was procured was very different. You’d have two or three weeks to bid a project. The company that had the best bid or the lowest bid or the most responsible bid would win. Today, we interview for projects sometimes as much as a year or more before the project is even going to be built. Teams are forming very early, and it is now a more collaborative process as a result. You pick your team and you spend a lot of time with this team, thinking through the constructability issues of the design and helping the designers with the financial implications of their design.
How many women-owned construction firms exist today?
I don’t know of any other woman-owned commercial construction company in our area. As far as we can tell, in our search, I think Rand is the second largest woman-owned and woman-founded commercial construction company in the country. The one larger than us is in California.
Being one of the few woman-owned construction firms, how does that affect your role in the industry?
Because society has changed and women are going into fields that they weren’t encouraged to go into in my era, there are more women in construction. It’s interesting. I was talking to one of my competitors and he said, “More and more we’re being asked, ‘Why do you have no women on your team?’” They are asked this because there are now more women decision makers and in operating positions. They want to look across the table and feel comforted by the team they’re putting together, and they want their team to be reflective of all of the talent that’s available.
Have you had to make any trade-offs to have a career like this?
Life is full of trade-offs. Every decision has consequences, of course. I always say I don’t get to read novels, take long vacations, play golf. But I am proud that I have been a wonderful mom to two wonderful young women. I’ve been very active in our community, and I love my professional life. I have thoroughly enjoyed growing this company and all that went with it but I did not do it at the expense of my family. There are only 24 hours in every day. Each of us gets to decide how we’re going to spend those 24 hours.
What is your role at Rand now?
I’m CEO. I promoted myself last summer when I named a new president. Basically I have owned two construction companies in the last 20 years. Rand was clearly the more substantial one. I felt after 20 years it was symmetry. I had done construction for 20 years and I was a five-year breast cancer survivor. I thought it’s just time for me to be CEO and do the things that I want to do, and make the contributions to the company that I’m able to make, and let someone else do the day to day operations. What I do mostly is a lot of organizational strategic thinking. I do our strategic planning and big client relationships.
What are some the biggest challenges in your job?
Right now it is a race for talent. It’s very difficult finding those extremely talented people who bring much to the table and who also fit into your culture. Each company has its own culture.
What is Rand’s culture?
We’re very entrepreneurial. We look very corporate because we’re very sophisticated people. But we act very much like entrepreneurs. We don’t have layers and layers of management. We think of ourselves as a swat team. We’re able to pull resources quickly, to go in and take care of things and solve problems. That requires people who can really think on their feet, have high energy, can multi-task. Those are skills that are required in an organization like this.
What are some interesting or important trends in construction these days, particularly in the local industry?
Construction is an old industry. There are some new products but there are more new and innovative ways of putting teams together and constructing space than there are on the product side. I talked about how teams are forming earlier and how sophisticated we have to be in our financial analysis. The second trend is that designers are producing three dimensional design that we need to react to with three dimensional scheduling. The world of technology has helped us pull a project apart and put it back together again in ways that we couldn’t do just on pieces of paper. The third thing is something that is quite new - sustainable design, using products that are environmentally responsible and constructing space that is environmentally friendly.
Can you describe one of your most memorable projects?
General Dynamics. We have been working with them since late 1996. At the time they had downsized. They were a $6 billion company and now they’re over $20 billion. The chairman of General Dynamics loves design. Their new headquarters in Falls Church is magnificently beautiful.
How did you get interested in construction in the first place?
In 1985, I was having lunch with a woman I knew through the Greater Washington Board of Trade and she said she was going to start the first woman-owned construction company and she was looking for a partner. If you were in Washington in 1985, you know it was for its era the largest building boom in the history of our community. It was an enormous opportunity. But of course the less you know about an opportunity, the more attractive it is. We didn’t know very much. But we started this little company. I didn’t know if I’d like it. I just knew that it was an opportunity. I ended up loving it.
You must have had to do some quick learning about the industry.
When you do commercial interiors, it is not like taking buildings out of the ground. In its most simplistic form, it is paint, carpet, lights and air. While they have some technical application depending on how they’re put together, things are understandable. I just looked at blueprints and pretended they were cookbooks. I figured if I could read, I could learn this. What I found so interesting is that there was this perception that there is somehow a gene you have to have to read the blueprints. It’s not true.
Had your business partner worked in construction?
She was the director of marketing for a design firm. So she knew the industry. All the well established companies were taking these huge projects. There was no one to do the little renovation projects. They were so appreciative when we would answer their calls. The big established companies couldn’t be bothered in 1985 with $50,000 or $100,000 or $200,000 worth of renovation. That was a headache for them.
Were your parents in business?
My father’s training was as an automotive engineer, and he was an executive with Chrysler Corporation. He had 19 U.S. patents for automotive design. He was a brilliant engineer. He didn’t tell me to go to engineering school. He just told me to be a school teacher. My mother was, as were most women of her era, a mom and a volunteer.
How did you end up in Washington?
I was thinking that I wanted to do something in government. I learned very quickly that if you didn’t have connections on Capitol Hill, you just didn’t get one of those jobs.
What kind of advice do you give a young woman starting her career today?
When young women come to my office and say they’re thinking about some crazy idea, I tell them if they can dream it, they can do it. And that they should never give up on that dream. But they have to learn to think very strategically. War, sports and business are all games of strategy. The difference between the winners and the losers is just: someone had a better strategy. The earlier they can learn to think strategically and make friends for life, learn the concept that they need to give to someone else before they’re ever going to get anything in return — those very fundamental, universal truths are what make winners winners.
[This interview conducted by Tania Anderson for Bisnow on Business.]