Battling the Big Apple and Winning

Battling the Big Apple and Winning

New York, New York. I want to wake up in a city that never sleeps, to find I'm A-number-one, top of the listIf I can make it there, I'll make it anywhere from the song, New York, New York. Although they might not trace their inspiration to Frank Sinatra crooning those lyrics back in 1979, certain women owners of New York City-based electrical contractors surely can identify with the tune's message

New York, New York. I want to wake up in a city that never sleeps, to find I'm A-number-one, top of the list…If I can make it there, I'll make it anywhere — from the song, “New York, New York.” Although they might not trace their inspiration to Frank Sinatra crooning those lyrics back in 1979, certain women owners of New York City-based electrical contractors surely can identify with the tune's message of ambition and perseverance in the face of long odds.

That's just some of what was required of the women who today man the helm at 16 electrical contracting companies belonging to the 300-member New York City chapter of the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA). New York City was their home, but it wasn't the obstacle. It was the electrical contracting industry — that was their New York.

Whether they started the business from scratch or assumed the reins of a family business in a generational baton pass, these women were trailblazers. Entering a gritty market in a tough field long known as a man's domain — from the corner office down to the job site — they have had to contend with ongoing challenges along their paths to success.

From gender bias in varying forms and work-family balancing acts to conforming to a male-dominated culture and feeling constantly pressured to exceed (not just meet) expectations, the women have faced peculiar roadblocks. But succeed they have — both individually and as a group. The companies they run are not only successful; many are thriving. Some even rank among the city's top-grossing electrical contracting firms. Collectively, they form the single biggest block of women business owners in all of New York City's construction-related trades.

When they talk about their experiences, several of the women owners agree it's been about much more than overcoming gender obstacles. Yes, they are women. But more importantly, they're simply successful business operators — who just happen to be women.

“Over the years, I've been so buried in my work that I really haven't looked up and realized that I might be a trailblazer,” says Gina Addeo, co-owner of ADCO Electrical Corp., Staten Island, N.Y., who was the first female licensed electrician in New York City and the first female president of the New York NECA chapter. “I'm starting to realize the importance and significance of my being a woman in this industry in the sense of setting an example for other women. But one of my goals is that someday my business and others owned by women won't have to be referred to as a ‘woman-owned’ business.”

Set-asides have helped

That formal designation — minority- and women-owned business enterprise (M/WBE) — has helped many of the women-owned NECA-New York members get a leg up in competing for contracts, especially those with a taxpayer-funded link. In the name of equal opportunity, it has opened the door to invitations to bid and has even been the catalyst for some starting their business. But most say the individual advantages end when the bidding begins.

Addeo, 43, can trace some of her initial industry success to M/WBE certification. In 1993, she founded GMA Electrical Corp., New York, as a vehicle to take advantage of new city rules mandating the use of minority contractors. And she secured such certification for ADCO after assuming its reins in 2005 from her late father, who founded the company in 1977. But Addeo says that has been only one brick in the foundation of a company that now ranks as one of the city's largest electrical contractors.

“As another chip on the table, it's helped us in getting and negotiating for jobs, but I don't think we get the work just because we're an M/WBE company,” she says. “We get it because we're qualified.”

Kristine DeNapoli, president and co-owner of KND Licensed Electrical Contracting and Services Corp., Deer Park, N.Y., says M/WBE certification has been a help, but it comes with some baggage.

“Bottom line, you still have to be a good electrical contractor,” says DeNapoli. “We have to be constantly aware that any mistakes will really stand out, because in this case, perception is reality. One of the negatives of attaining that M/WBE designation is that you almost have to ‘double-prove’ yourself. The attitude is often one of, ‘just because you're an M/WBE what makes you think you can do the job.’”

In 1998, DeNapoli and her sister-in-law, Nanci-jean DeNapoli, believed they had the skills and the pluck to do the job. Buoyed by the emergence of laws creating more opportunities for M/WBE firms and familiar with the electrical business by way of three generations of exposure via their husbands' family, they pooled their resources, training, and experience to start KND.

Today, the full-service firm employs 40, including Kristine and Nanci-jean's husbands in the roles of superintendent and foreman. Handling work across the city, the company recently acquired its own building, another milestone in its steady climb to success.

“We had to learn a lot of the basics and start from scratch, but over the last 10 years, we've proven ourselves,” says Nanci-jean, vice president of the firm. “We have a substantial base of existing clients, but once new companies see what we can do they want us on their bidder list.”

At Nuñez Electric, Inc., M/WBE certification has helped expose the Long Island City, N.Y., company to more opportunities in recent years. But president Raquel Nuñez says it's the company's penchant for quality work that has played a bigger role in its long-term success.

“I've been given a chance to prove myself with other contractors and project owners, and with that door open I've strived to surpass the performance of my competitors,” she says. “Now I get the first call and the last call on many jobs, meaning I get both consideration up-front and the call after the bidding is done to negotiate the final work contract.”

In 1997, Nuñez, 40, joined the company her father started in 1987. Armed with degrees in finance and business administration and certificates in electrical design and construction management, Nuñez set out to run a business that had intrigued her since the age of nine. The company, struggling when she joined, due in part to her father's health problems, has since thrived under her direction. It is now a leading supplier of electrical contracting services to the city as well as private industry.

“It was a $7.5-million contract for a motor control center at a city pollution plant project that really got us going in 2001,” says Nuñez. “That project had a minority contractor requirement, and we reached out to a very innovative and visionary contractor run by a man who gave us the opportunity to bid. We went up against other companies and won the job, so the fact that they gave us the work was a testament to their belief in our capabilities.”

Overcoming obstacles

Indeed, expanding capabilities and doing what it takes to prove them by going the extra mile is a hallmark of these women-owned companies.

Fully realizing they were entering a field where women were a distinct minority, many say they girded for the challenges by tapping their inner strengths and drive, getting the needed education and training, and simply deciding to commit the time required to succeed, making the sacrifices that each demanded. Building up a thick skin didn't hurt either.

“I think I've probably faced some things related to a double-standard that men wouldn't have had to face entering the business, and, at times, I've had to work 10 times harder,” says Carol Kleinberg, who, along with her husband, opened Kleinberg Electric, Inc., New York, in 1978. “In a way, I expected it to be a challenge, but it still came as kind of a surprise. I basically adopted an approach of ‘I'm going to make you like me.’ ”

With a background in sales, three young children, and a husband who was an electrician struggling to find work in a down economy, Kleinberg saw electrical contracting as a possible path to success. After her husband secured a contracting license, Kleinberg, as majority owner, emerged as the company's public face and worked to make the necessary contacts. Aided by eventual certification as a minority contractor, the company established itself as a leader in the transportation and public works arena, growing to employ 75.

“That's a market that's very complex and challenging, and one that's definitely dominated by men,” she says. “There was a ‘good ol' boy network’ in place, and even though we got a foot in the door with our minority status, we still had to get it on our merits.”

As she settled in as company president, Nuñez says she also felt the need to prove herself, despite her extensive formal and practical education and deep understanding of the industry. Even though her father overcame initial concerns about a woman's place in the industry, handing her the keys to the business he founded, Nuñez says she's gotten her share of sideways looks from men she's encountered in the course of doing business.

“You can sense it when you have to give input on matters like design errors or omissions by architects in the course of project meetings,” she says. “I could detect some stigma associated with professional criticism coming from a woman. Plus, I think there's just the simple question of credibility: Who has more when you walk into a meeting trying to sell yourself and your ability to perform? The woman or the guy with a little gray hair around the temples?”

Where it has occurred, Nuñez says she's dealt with gender bias, manifested as outright resistance or over-the-top chivalry, by summoning a professional attitude and simple perseverance. And it hasn't hurt that she's instinctively drawn to challenges. An attitude of “no one is going to take my piece of the pie” has served her well over the years, she says.

“I'm a thrill seeker, and I haven't let obstacles discourage me,” says Nuñez, noting a salient one has been finding the time to raise a daughter as a single mother even as she's logged the occasional 15-hour day building a business. “They've actually given me more energy to excel and improve.”

Grinning and bearing it

At times, however, gender-related challenges have sapped some owners' strength and tested their patience. The DeNapolis say comments that call into question whether they or their husbands really run the show can be exasperating.

“At social functions where the business may come up, it's assumed our husbands are in charge,” says Kristine DeNapoli. “We're asked all the time, ‘do you actually run the business?’ There's this suspicion we don't.”

Meanwhile, she and her partner keep pushing ahead. Nanci-jean, vice president, is working toward a bachelor's degree in labor studies to enhance her skills in labor relations. Kristine, a practicing CPA before going into business, has added a diploma in electrical technology and a master electrician's license to her resume since starting KND.

Sheer determination has helped Kleinberg face the inevitable challenges of being a woman business owner. Motivated by challenges and largely dismissive of the idea of traditional female roles or stereotypes, Kleinberg hasn't shied away from mixing it up and even taking a leadership role in the industry. She's the point person on a NECA-New York drive to secure group liability insurance for members under the union collective bargaining agreement. But the view that women owners face unusual barriers isn't unanimous.

Addeo, of ADCO and GMA, says she's been treated well and hasn't seen any overt attempts to discredit her qualifications. Instead of anticipating problems, Addeo, who has an electrical engineering degree, says she has consciously worked to stay “focused” on business and not the sideshow of male-female tensions.

“It probably hasn't hurt that since I was good in math and science in school that a lot of my buddies were boys, and that I always wanted to follow in my father's footsteps,” says Addeo, who, after a dozen years of focusing intently on business, found time for marriage in 2005. “I got comfortable in a man's world.”

From a statistical standpoint, there's no doubt that the New York electrical contracting world still is male domain. But if the ascendance of women like Addeo into the NECA chapter presidency, and the recent recognition of Nuñez as Subcontractor of the Year by New York City's influential Subcontractors Trade Association is any indication, the industry's women owners are, as the song says, “making it” in a business and a city where success can be elusive.

While that's important, other women in the business probably would second Nuñez's observation that the real satisfaction stems from something far greater that supersedes a lot of the challenges and obstacles.

“It's really a beautiful business,” she says. “The chance to be involved in a part of what amounts to history — building something and then being present at the opening for something that's probably going to outlive you — that's very rewarding.”

Language only a woman could summon? Better not go there.

Zind is a freelance writer based in Lee's Summit, Mo.

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