Road Builders & Maymead Inc. Empower Women of Asphalt
BY Sandy Lender
Whether it’s a venture in need of financial turn-around or a multi-generational family business, asphalt companies can benefit from women’s leadership and operational skills. We’ll take a look at two such businesses here, highlighting the tools women bring to the table through their successes at Road Builders Corporation (RBC), based in Honolulu, and at Maymead Inc., headquartered in Mountain City, Tennessee.
Hawaiian Road Building
In 2001, Jade Richardson and Rachel Widemann joined Road Builders Corp. in Hawaii. Richardson shared that she hadn’t planned to become a woman of asphalt, but now it’s a rewarding enterprise.
“I sort of fell into it,” Richardson said. “In 2001, we were brought into Road Builders to restore it financially. Rachel and I worked together for some years for a pile driving company and we had the construction background in accounting, job costing, estimating and HR.”
Their construction background prepared them to take on the financial and administrative responsibilities, but they still found the new atmosphere a challenge at times, Richardson said. All those years ago, they didn’t know anything about asphalt.
“When we felt overwhelmed, one or the other would say ‘failure’s not an option’ or ‘we’re not quitters.’ We had history together and drove one another to never give up. It took us a little over a year with many long days and weekends, but we got it [RBC] back to where it needed to be. Through those challenges we learned a lot about the industry and about ourselves. In 2005, when the owner wanted to retire and move closer to his family, he asked Rachel, Seve [Severino Agbayani] and me to buy him out. We did. Together we grew the company to where it is now. In 2017, Rachel retired from Road Builders but remains a partner in the asphalt manufacturing plant we started in 2013. We were fortunate that we were able to surround ourselves with people who were very knowledgeable and skilled in this industry and were willing to share their wisdom.” Today RBC generates a three-year average of $28.5 million in revenues, Richardson shared.
Richardson spoke of the differences between the construction industry and the asphalt industry for women seeking a career. “There are many women in the construction industry here in Hawaii. Twenty-five years ago that wasn’t the case. Then women held mostly traditional jobs. Today women are coming out of the universities in civil engineering, construction management and similar programs, and they are just as qualified and comfortable as their male counterparts. Hawaii has a strong presence of women in all aspects and levels of construction with more women-owned construction businesses today then there were just 15 years ago. For a while there was a perception that women in the construction industry were not very feminine and that’s just not true. In 2010, my daughter Jenna, fresh out of college, joined the company full-time. She started out in safety and now heads HR and marketing for the company.
“Although there are women in the management side of the asphalt industry, there are not many in the field. It’s labor-intensive work. We hired a woman as a laborer/operator but she quickly decided that this wasn’t the type of work for her and left to work for another construction company. For a business our size (45 in total) to thrive and survive you must be willing to do everything, which means everyone hits the ground at some point. You have to get off the equipment and do more than run the equipment you’re responsible for; sometimes you have to shovel asphalt. In some companies, the roller operator title means you won’t get off that roller, but with us, we do everything. And that carries over into the office.”
While Richardson is the current president and majority shareholder and works mainly from the office, she also takes a hands-on approach to managing the day-to-day operations. “I like to see things through,” she said. To effectively manage personnel, equipment decisions, and estimating and bidding, “we have to know what’s going on out in the field. My project managers and superintendents are my eyes, ears and legs in the field. Their contributions and dedication are vital to the success of our organization.
“I have an open-door policy for everyone. They can talk about concerns, issues in the field or just to chat. I listen—that’s important to them.”
She shared the example of a long-time key employee’s move to another company. When the employee gave his sudden notice, she and Rachel flew to the neighboring island early in the morning to speak with the crew, to offer them encouragement and support. She felt it was important that they heard about the change from them first and that each member of the team knew the company thrives on all members working together, and not on just one person. “I wanted to tell them in person, ‘it takes all of you working together; you are all important.’ It’s critical that we perpetuate the ‘we’ mentality and not the ‘I’ or ‘me.’ It is all about ‘us.’”
Sharing learning opportunities with employees is important to Richardson as well. She explained that RBC sends all levels of workers to annual trade shows, to the Hawaii Asphalt Paving Industry (HAPI) educational workshops, to the Roadtec Paving Professionals Workshop in Chattanooga, to the Wirtgen school (Center for Training and Technology) in Antioch, Tennessee, and find that it empowers them to be better at what they do.
“The return in our investment is ten-fold and that is reflected in the work they produce, which in turn means repeat work for us. They benefit, we benefit. It’s a win-win situation.”
In 2020, RBC will once again have employees in attendance at CONEXPO-CON/AGG. “It helps the company morale,” Richardson said. She described the travel to schools and trade shows as a “reward” for workers from equipment operators and mechanics to managers and foremen, but said it’s also “an opportunity to learn.”
“For nearly a decade, we have brought in an outside consultant who comes to Hawaii twice a year to work with the crews. The knowledge and experience that John Ball from TQP brings is invaluable and I have seen so much improvement in the crews and management as well as myself. We have learned to work as a team with vision and focus in providing quality service. The learning never stops; there is always room for improvement. I believe that our employees are our greatest assets and are worth the investment.”
More than giving members of the industry room to learn and grow, Richardson is glad she can give them a steady job. “I’m impacting their lives in so many ways and they are impacting mine.”
The learning opportunities she has shared with employees also help Richardson network. “What I enjoy most about the industry is the relationships I’ve built over the years both in the company and outside of it. From the employees who have been with us 10, 15, 20 years to the consultants, trucking vendors, safety contractors, subcontractors, suppliers, FOB customers, lawyers, bankers, CPAs, bond & insurance agents, the list goes on. Some will be lifelong relationships. I have been in the construction industry for 30 years with 18 ½ of those years in the asphalt industry. I can truly say that no matter what the challenges and obstacles are or will be, I love what I do.”
Since before The Revolutionary War, Mary Katherine Harbin’s family has owned its land in the Southeast United States. The team at Caterpillar® explained: “A vertically integrated company that provides aggregate, asphalt production and asphalt paving services to the construction industry, Maymead’s history dates to 1747, when Mathias Wagner was granted farmland by King George II in present-day Tennessee and North Carolina. The Maymead Farm is one of few farms with continuous family ownership since the days preceding the country’s independence from England.”
Harbin shared, “We are a very tight-knit family and I think that is evident as we talk about what we do and how we work together. I’m the fourth generation in the business and the ninth generation on the family farm. There are now four grandkids running around on the farm, too. My dad calls them Gen-10.”
Interestingly, the family name isn’t Maymead. That’s the name of the train depot, and Harbin explained how that came about.
“My great-great grandmother was May. They named the farm and the train station May’s Meadows, but the sign could only fit seven letters, so they cut it down to MayMead. That’s how the farm was named and how they named the station. Everyone asks who the Maymeads are and there are no Maymeads. Maymead is our heritage, a way of life. It’s the platform from which we try to do business and the way we uphold our family’s character and reputation and everything we do. It’s the way we try to take care of our company, our employees. We try to be good stewards of everything that we do whether that’s in our quarries or in the family farm. We appreciate the natural beauty that we have. We’re sportsmen and women. We hunt and fish, but we do that respectfully. We really feel a sense of duty and responsibility to take care of that and make sure it’s maintained for our families and for our communities.”
She’s detailed her commitment to the company in this video, but she’s also committed to providing a workplace for women of asphalt. When asked to highlight one of the women recently picked for the all-woman paving crew at Maymead, Harbin couldn’t select just one. Too many are considered vital to the operation.
“I would start with our forewoman, Bianca Witherspoon. She came to Day 1 training and really knocked it out of the park, grabbed onto everything we were doing, and operated the equipment really well.
“All of our crews have had women on them,” Harbin continued. “One of my superintendents said, ‘I want her,’ so she went to one of the traditional crews to work on the interstate. She worked with them as a screed operator, and then came back [to the all-woman crew] as a forewoman. The knowledge she gained has really let her lead this group well.”
The second woman that Harbin selected to highlight isn’t a foreperson, but an equipment operator.
“Not everyone is going to be a manager, but that doesn’t make them less critical,” Harbin said. “Dawn McGee also started on Day 1.”
Witherspoon and McGee are both women in this industry who support Richardson’s point that we don’t leave our femininity behind when we climb into the equipment cab.
“It’s not just a bunch of butch women,” Harbin agreed. “They get their hair done. They get their nails done. During the first week of training when they were showing everyone how to light the distributor truck—and of course some people are more comfortable than others—when Bianca went to light it, it puffed at her and she said, ‘Oh, my nails!’ Bianca was one of the ladies who earned her CDL and she has learned how to run the distributor, which is crazy impressive. Including the pressure of lighting propane; she’s operating it, lighting it, running the computer. She’s just really doing a bang-up job.”
When hiring women into the industry, Harbin is straightforward with them.
“The biggest stumbling block that I should have thought of, because I’m a single mom, during the hiring process is our typical employee base is not responsible for child care,” Harbin said. “But the women are. They’re the ones who get the kids ready for school, they pick up the kids after school, they arrange for babysitters. One of the very first things that I say is, ‘Hey, I’m a single mom, I have no idea what your life situation is and I don’t need to know, but I have to tell you up front it’s an early start and it’s an undetermined end to the day. There are things that are 100 percent out of our control that will impact the end of the day.’ I’m really that candid when interviewing because we’ve had people come in really excited about the job, but the hours won’t work. And frankly in this stage of our evolution, this might not be the place for her. It’s fair to be honest about that.”
Harbin handles the hiring conversation by saying “let me tell you my story.”
The dynamic of bringing caregivers on board “has given me something to think about to see how we can make it more family friendly,” Harbin said. “I don’t have an answer yet. Our industry has the demands that it has, but it seems to be the biggest challenge to overcome and something I’m constantly thinking about how to improve.”
Our industry also has a learning curve, but Harbin has already seen willingness in the women at Maymead to ask questions and learn as much as they can. She’s fortunate to have seen that in the younger workers of both genders, though.
“I would say the women are willing and eager to ask questions. They are also very quick to stop what they’re doing as opposed to pushing what could become a bad situation. There is something to be said for women not having the tough-guy stereotype or an ego that comes with the male territory sometimes.”
The acceptance of training doesn’t run along party lines, though. “I do wonder sometimes if it’s generational or if it’s gender,” Harbin continued. “There are a lot of younger people who are eager to learn and ask questions. The 20-year veteran may not be eager to be trained, whether they need to be or not. There’s a good pride in what they do. But male or female, younger people who don’t have any exposure to the industry are open to training.
“If you’re 40 and a woman, you may not have been exposed to the asphalt industry. It’s an exposure issue as much as it is a gender issue. If you’re over 40 and a man, you’re already in the industry because it’s a more natural course. Men enter the industry at a younger age, whereas women are finding it later in life because now the doors are opening.”
As more companies in the asphalt industry open their doors to women, AsphaltPro magazine will share more success stories like these. From training to detail work, women of asphalt are building roads with an eye to quality all across our nation.
Solve a Personnel Problem
After the necessary winter layoffs, construction companies across North America may or may not see the same crewmembers return for spring start-up. Time and energy spent training workers in the 2019 season could be lost if those same workers don’t come back for the 2020 season.
To guard against losing talented women from her paving crew, Mary Katherine Harbin at Maymead Inc. looked to cross-training. She explained that some members of the all-woman paving crew didn’t have the mechanical experience or more physical attributes of the typical year-round workers. That meant giving them the opportunity to gain the experience and skill set necessary to become a year-round worker.
“One of my biggest pushes last year, was to make sure they had a place. A number of them did cross-training. We did CDL training with them so they could drive trucks through the winter. Like some crews that we have, some members are laid off during the winter, but the key, more skilled people stay on.”