Meet a Woman of Asphalt: Atlanta Paving’s Mandy Neese
BY Sandy Lender
After graduating from Georgia Tech in 2002 with a degree in Civil Engineering, Mandy Neese joined the asphalt industry as an estimator for APAC. When the rumors of a buyout started a few years later, she elected to go from the APAC corporate office to a position in Major Projects at APAC Inc. Neese joined Atlanta Paving in 2009 and now serves as the company’s vice president, where a big part of her job is securing work for the crews and leading her team of estimators and project managers. Even with a degree and plenty of experience under her belt, she’s working to complete an MBA at the University of Georgia. She took time from a busy 2022 construction season to share her story as a woman of asphalt.
AsphaltPro: What enticed you about a degree in Civil Engineering?
Mandy Neese: I grew up watching my older brother who was a grader and my grandfather who had a small concrete plant operation. I always loved being outside and loved playing with LEGO bricks. I guess when you hit high school you try to figure out what direction you want to follow, but I made my decision based simply on stability and long-term career opportunities,” Neese shared. “I graduated in 1998 from high school and certainly didn’t believe we would be operating like the Jetsons in my lifetime. I watched my mom who was in the telecommunications industry deal with major changes and buyouts, and I wanted to find a long-term career. Twenty years later we are still not operating like the Jetsons. Although Elon Musk and EV technology are beginning to make an impact on the future of road construction, we still have potholes to repair and roads to resurface.
AsphaltPro: What does your job as the vice president at Atlanta Paving require of you?
Mandy Neese: The largest part of my job is securing work for our crews by leading my team of estimators and project managers. We work to maintain solid backlogs and full understanding of our crew capacities and operating those efficiently. Being in Georgia, we get very little seasonal downtime, so our workload is based on operating almost year-round. This is a challenge because you want to secure that work in a timely manner for the best price possible. I work hard using data and analytics to keep up with direct competition and pricing in order to remain competitive. Outside of the estimating I spend most of the remaining time working through accounting issues and determining best practices and reviewing job cost reports to find out where we can make improvements on both the operations and estimating side.
AsphaltPro: What part of your education relates best to the role you’re in now?
Mandy Neese: I joke and tell my daughter in high school that most of what I do each day involves 9th grade geometry taught by Mrs. Dukes. Education is incredibly important, but I certainly don’t disregard people’s life experience in this industry. My ability to work with field employees to facilitate the best plan is something that isn’t taught in school, and I think it makes me a little different. Most people with an engineering background have a hard time listening to others and taking their experience into consideration. I believe that taking what I see in the field back to estimating makes my bids more accurate. I am currently finishing my MBA at University of Georgia and spending nearly two years studying all aspects of business from accounting to IT to operations has made a tremendous impact on me and hopefully has made me a better leader. Having a new broad view of business has helped me pull together my view of our company in a more wholistic manner.
AsphaltPro: What part of your education would you recommend or “highlight” to women wishing to become estimators in our industry?
Mandy Neese: If you have ever done a group project and had that gut feeling that it was going to be a disaster—learn from that project. Being able to work with people, people you like, people you don’t like, is an everyday function, but as an estimator you have to facilitate pulling information from field crews, accountants and customers to have the best understanding of your projects and how to bid projects. I would argue that just looking at reports at the end of a job or labor reports and so on is great insight, but I work every day to facilitate involvement from my team to be as accurate as possible. I have to send my crews in to a project to succeed and working with those people prior to a bid and getting their insight builds a great team, but creates buy-in from the crews.
AsphaltPro: What do you find most rewarding (or what do you look forward to most each day) about your role as vice president for Atlanta Paving?
Mandy Neese: The men and women I work with are my family. We have been through ups and downs, but each day I know they have my back. My goal is to see each person who works with us reach new potential. I have watched some of our employees grow up, get married, have children, and those moments are just as important as seeing them pave a new taxiway at Hartsfield Airport or a Chick-fil-A around the corner. My crews are some of the most versatile and that agility and ability to tackle projects makes me so proud. I know what they are capable of and I know they take pride in the work we do no matter how large or small.
AsphaltPro: Why did you choose to join Atlanta Paving 13 years ago? What were the top two or three factors that “sealed the deal” for you?
Mady Neese: I was at APAC in the corporate office in Atlanta at the end of my tenure with APAC. I wanted more flexibility in my life and took some time off to determine what that would look like. Unfortunately, that frustration is something that destroys careers for many women. I wanted to be involved in something where I could be more involved from start to finish but not continue to reside in a corporate environment where I was just another badge number.
I sent a resume in to Atlanta Paving after seeing a job posting, not thinking much about it. I got a call from Ernie Lopez, and he gave me obscure directions to his office, and I honestly doubted showing up. When I arrived at the small blue house—which was a 1,000-square-foot residential home converted into an office—I met someone who immediately inspired me. He was driven but needed someone to start pushing forward to grow. His excitement alone was enough. I wanted to see him succeed simply because I had confidence that he would make things happen. He had the guts to take a chance and he started building a staff of experts to help him. I learned quickly that he figured out the success of his company was based on surrounding himself with people who were good at their job. He gave each of us the ability to run with his vision and what we have accomplished together has been impressive.
s tell me stories, techniques, and encourage me to keep pushing forward. He wanted to see me do well and that encouragement is something that has facilitated my confidence in my skills and place in the industry. “Engage with your co-workers and others in order to build your network. Get involved with industry groups and don’t be bashful to learn.”
AsphaltPro: What do you think is the most important skill you’ve brought to your position in upper management in the asphalt industry? (And how would you encourage other women entering the industry to hone a similar skill?)
Mandy Neese: I am passionate about what we do and seeing the company and its employees succeed. The pressure I put on myself to do my job well so that those who depend on me is something that is genuine. I go to sleep at night thinking about how to keep 175 employees working and what can be done to make their jobs rewarding to them.
AsphaltPro: What would you say was the most challenging “obstacle” you, as a female in the asphalt industry, had to overcome in the past 20 years, and how DID you overcome that obstacle? How do you think other women in the industry can incorporate that skill or habit into their workdays?
Mandy Neese: To be able to confidently speak in a room of 20-30 men knowing everyone is listening to your words—especially as a woman—can be terrifying, but I have been able to overcome that by building relationships with the people in the room. I have a network of men and women that support me. I have continued meeting my customers in person, having lunch, dropping off breakfast so that we have more than an email relationship. Knowing that I have focused on building relationships that are long term has been critical to growth in this industry as a woman.
AsphaltPro: Let’s talk about the workforce. Could you share with the readers what you told me about finding a flexible work environment for balancing workdays with family commitments there at Atlanta Paving?
Mandy Neese: Scheduling in construction is a challenge. It is the heartburn we face daily. I don’t know that we have anything perfected, but we are learning. When I came to work for Ernie, I had a daughter with a serious medical condition. He made it known from day 1 that my children and my role as a mother was the most important part of my life. We have employees cross-trained and have superintendents who fill in when someone has an obligation. It’s not easy because these projects are unforgiving, but having employees who have flexibility in their skills to be able to accommodate other employees’ needs is crucial to filling in voids and keeping projects going.
We currently have numerous women working for us in the field. Our newest plant employee is a young mother who started working in the field, but she needed a more predictable schedule because of her children. We moved her to the plant, and she has made a huge impact on that operation. Being able to have an organization that allows employees to balance their personal lives with work is the end goal. This industry is not conducive to it, but we are working on it. Covid has shown how much is possible when we are flexible.
AsphaltPro: Would you be willing to share the story of why you invited your son into the asphalt industry/Atlanta Paving?
Mandy Neese: Joseph is the perfect illustration of a smart kid who did not want to attend college. He wants to work with his hands, wants to work outside, likes to get dirty and is mechanically inclined. When he graduated, I encouraged him to go work for another contractor we do business with that would expose him to general site construction exposure and how another company does things.
After a year at RDJE we had a few openings in our milling operations and I wanted to fill those positions with young employees that we could grow; so, what better way to tap into a young man you know? We have plenty of nepotism at Atlanta Paving and know the benefits of having family working within the organization. I laugh when I see him on jobsites because he is usually filthy and has this huge smile. He loves it and I expect to watch him grow beyond being an operator and make that progression into being a foreman and so on. Tapping the high school graduates that can get lost once they cross that stage in the Spring is going to be imperative for the construction industry to fill workforce gaps.
AsphaltPro: Let’s talk about teamwork. What is the most challenging project you’ve been a part of and how did you and the office team overcome the challenge?
Mandy Neese: We had a project this past year at Hartsfield that had extremely tight deadlines and restrictions. Our work is always dependent on everyone else doing their jobs well prior to our arrival. We are just another subcontractor in the mix in order to complete the job, but it’s hard to communicate to the office when delays impact other projects and when delays cause increased pressure in the field. Asphalt is usually one of the last trades to finish up so that pressure is compounded when there are delays. I try to always prepare our crews for these circumstances. This project in particular seemed plagued from the start with poor communication from the prime contractor as it was a young team of management who didn’t have the experience at the airport we were accustomed to.
Early on I tried to make sure that the prime contractor knew that we were there to get the job done, but involved myself in their planning sessions and meetings to try to reduce field issues. Some people would probably just let them fall on their face, but I don’t want my reputation tarnished. By working directly with the contractor from the start, we helped them have more accurate plans on production and what our abilities were. It may have taken more effort on my part but using the phrase “it’s not my job” really isn’t an option. If we can offer input or involve ourselves early on, it only helps finish a project successfully. This one was no cake walk, but our efforts didn’t go unnoticed.
AsphaltPro: Let’s talk about perceptions. What do you think is an incorrect perception that we, as an industry, can re-educate young people about to encourage more women to consider a career in the asphalt business? What is something you would tell a young lady to encourage her in this industry?
Mandy Neese: The most obvious is that women don’t belong in science or math-driven fields because they are “masculine.” We know that there are social belief systems that encourage or discourage girls to follow certain paths, especially after middle school. I would love for more companies or state agencies to become involved in STEM programs and technical school programs in their localities. The most impressive effort is being made in Georgia by GHCA and our governor to facilitate technical training and open doors for youth.
While these efforts are huge, I think it’s important for organizations to make sure they are mindful of being inclusive in advertising these programs to young girls. My dad always told us we could do anything; honestly, he encouraged us to avoid stereotypical career choices because he wanted us to think beyond normal careers. We can’t influence families at home, but the opportunity for outreach in high schools is imperative for girls to feel they are welcome and included in STEM programs. I am an avid hunter and outdoorswomen and I constantly see companies snub female hunters. I don’t know that it’s intentional to leave women out, but those companies that do embrace women will reap the benefits and I think the asphalt industry is no different. Having a trade show and not having women present in the photographs or having recruiters that don’t engage young women is a loss.
AsphaltPro: What is the most challenging aspect for you of being in the asphalt business overall?
Mandy Neese: Certainly, the demands of the schedule; we have crews that work all the time. My phone rings early in the morning and late at night. There are days when it is chaos and the idea of taking a vacation seems like a pipe dream, but those days are not the norm, but unfortunately those are the ones that so many people see.
AsphaltPro: What is the most rewarding aspect for you of being in the asphalt business overall?
Mandy Neese: Seeing the final product is the icing on the cake for me. Annoying my younger kids and saying, “We built that,” or getting on a plane and seeing our pavement at the airport is always exciting. It seems to never get old.
AsphaltPro: Will you tell us about a person who served as a mentor for you? What advice would you share from this person?
Mandy Neese: Buddy Jump at CW Matthews Contracting.
Buddy has built everything at Hartsfield Airport; he is a living history book of the construction of the airport. From the first time we worked together he was willing to always tell me stories, techniques, and encourage me to keep pushing forward. He wanted to see me do well and that encouragement is something that has facilitated my confidence in my skills and place in the industry. “Engage with your co-workers and others in order to build your network. Get involved with industry groups and don’t be bashful to learn.”