It was a pleasure speaking with Geraldine Smith, a woman with experience in both large and small businesses across a breath of industries. She has learned the true value of people to the state of the business, regardless of what industry that is and has made a profound impact wherever she has worked. Her influence on the construction industry is impressive and we’re excited to share her story in this edition of “There is a Difference.”
Tell us about your business and how you chose construction as your career.
Geraldine: I have to say, I actually didn’t really choose construction. I feel like it kind of chose me. I spent about 15 years in a corporate environment in human resources before I decided to take a little bit of a break from that lifestyle. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, and I met someone who had a small handyman business. I thought with my background and experience, I could help grow that business. And I did. He was making $300 a day doing small jobs, and I helped with the marketing and paperwork to really grow the business. We went from $300 a day to $300,000 plus projects, within about a year. He got to the point where he didn’t want to be in the business anymore, and I thought, okay, I’ve been doing this for three years. I don’t really want to go back to the corporate world, so I’ll take it on, on my own.
It’s been an interesting year and a half on my own. I did a lot of the paperwork, licensing, payroll, insurance, banking and things like that. I found myself having to get a lot more involved and learn about the day-to-day hands-on side of the business. Now, I go out and I meet with the customers. I try to go on most of the estimates with my project manager, check on the job sites, and just really immerse myself, however I can, so I can learn as much as possible.
How does your experience in corporate HR with Verizon and Bear Stearns help you with your construction business?
Geraldine: Human resources really is just about the people. It’s a field that translates to any industry because you’re learning how to work with people. Everything I did with my previous companies was all over the map; I handled hiring, firing, legal issues, benefits, payroll, employee relations, and all different sorts of issues and topics. It really gave me a well-rounded background that I could bring to this industry. I have also gotten highly involved with the Builders Association, so I’m still doing that sort of corporate feel thing, but I’m also more involved in the day-to-day work. It really helps me interact with the customers, just knowing how to work with people and my team. In my previous jobs, especially at Verizon, I was hiring everyone from $10 an hour, basic laborers, to high-level executives. I learned how to work with all different types of people and relate to any type of person.
How do you promote your business for new clients?
Geraldine: At the moment, a lot of our business is just through word of mouth. Social media has been a great help, specifically Facebook. I joined all of the local community groups and I can keep an eye out if somebody is looking for a contractor for some reason or another. I’ll try to comment and let them know that we’re out there. I’ve found that a lot of people definitely like the woman owned aspect of the company as well.
We do a lot of our advertising through Houzz which has been a big help in getting us customers. With Houzz, potential customers will go on and look for ideas for decks, or lighting, or kitchens. When they do this, Houzz will ask, “do you want to see contractors in your area that do this type of work?” And if they respond, “yes”, our name will come up and they’ll contact us. But, like I said, a lot of it really is through the good old-fashioned word of mouth.
I was in physical therapy for a hand issue last summer. and there was a guy next to me listening to what I was talking about with work. He said, “Oh, I need my porch roof fixed. Can you do that?” When I went over, I saw that he had already bought some of the materials. The owner of the company where he bought the materials from was there. He owns a decking company and he said, “Oh, I’m always looking for a contractor” so we ended up meeting with him and we’ve done several projects with him already. It’s really all about the networking.
Is a woman owned business in construction a benefit to you and your clients?
Geraldine: I absolutely think that being a woman owned business helps. There are definitely some people who want to do what they can to support a woman owned business, which is great. But I feel like a lot of our customers like it because I bring a different touch to the experience. I definitely have a little bit of a different eye for design than all of the guys that work for me. But it’s also that communication, that contact, I feel as a woman, I hate to be stereotypical, but we’re usually a little bit better at communication and understanding and just having that personal touch with things. I think that a lot of our customers really appreciate that. A lot of times when I go on estimates, I don’t go in there and announce, “Oh, I’m the owner.” And when they find out they’re like, “Wait, you?” It’s been interesting.
One of the challenges is that there are some people who look at it, like I don’t know everything — and I don’t know everything — but I have a great team behind me that has helped teach me. A team that I can rely on it and that I can turn to. That’s really what matters; that we all bring our collective experiences together to make it one cohesive experience for the customer.
What are some of the biggest changes you’ve noticed in the building industry with the pandemic?
Geraldine: It’s definitely been a very challenging year with the pandemic. A year ago, today, the phone was not ringing. Nobody wanted to have anyone in their house. There was so much uncertainty and it was a really frightening time, especially since I had just taken this over on my own. At that time, we were mostly shut down. We were allowed to continue with projects that were in progress in New Jersey. I was very lucky that I had a few projects that we had already started, so I was able to continue working during that time.
There were a lot of challenges in those jobs though. Usually we would have multiple subs on a job site at one time; somebody working on the electric while the plumber was doing his side, for example, but now all of them wanted to be in the house alone. Because of that, timelines were greatly extended, and some townships weren’t doing inspections. Luckily, we had one addition that we were working on, so it was all not in the main living space of the house. They were able to come in and do the inspections, but the hold ups were pretty crazy. A lot of townships were closed down. It was hard to get permits. Some towns didn’t want to issue new permits due to the governor’s mandate and materials were extremely hard to come by. There were so many delays with shipping. So many of the products come from China and the delays were insane.
And then all of a sudden, something happened, and people realized they weren’t spending money on vacations, going out to dinner, getting their nails done, golfing or any of their normal activities. And they were more comfortable with having people in their homes. And it just blew up. I don’t remember ever being this busy in my entire life.
It is just so hard to try to keep up with everything. And it’s great. It’s a good problem to have, but some days it’s a little overwhelming. We are still having delays with materials — not as bad as it was a year ago– but it is definitely bad. And sometimes, I’m not sure if it’s just an excuse. People tend to try to blame things on COVID now, but a lot of it is still due to delays. A lot of it is just the demand, so the prices are still very high. Partially because of material shortages or difficulties in getting things shipped in.
The demand is so high right now, that everyone is trying to build a deck or trying to build a fence. They are expanding their outdoor spaces because they’re spending so much more time at home. We’ve seen an influx of people looking to build home office spaces because the entire world is changing. Many companies may never go back to being in the office or looking at more hybrid models, so people are really looking at that.
I’m based in Somerset County, New Jersey, and a lot more people are moving out this way because they don’t need to be in the city or in the big towns for work. They can work from home. It’s definitely been a wild ride the past year.
Thank you, Geraldine, for sharing your thoughts and insights into how there is a difference.
Please click HERE to view the full interview with Ms. Smith.
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