NORTHFIELD — Mandie Hagan grew up in the family business, and it was only natural that she would someday run Rowell’s Sewer & Drain, the company her parents started in 1983. But she never thought that day would come as soon as it did.
She started answering the office phones during her summer vacations when she was seven or eight years old. During the rest of the year, her dad took her to school each day in the pumper truck.
Hagan studied business and finance in college, then married and was working in banking and living in Colorado when the phone call came from her mom: her father had died suddenly of a heart attack at age 46, leaving her mother, Debbie Rowell, to run the business solo.
A year later Hagan and her husband moved back to help – a decision neither one regrets.
“I still jump in the truck and ride around with my guys. I don’t want to lose track of what they see and do every day. I don’t feel it’s any different from being a man in the trade,” said Hagan, who started running the business in 2003. “I think I do well on customer service, having empathy” – especially for people who need assistance urgently.
In 17 years under Hagan’s management the septic pumping and drain cleaning business grew to become Rowell’s Services. It now includes plumbing, heating and electrical, septic tank service and draining and cleaning, excavation, septic tank and leach field installation and a trenchless system for replacing broken underground sewer lines without digging them up – a system often used on municipal roads. In 17 years, the company payroll grew from three to 70 employees, six pumper trucks and five drain cleaning units. It also adopted a catchy jingle and a nickname: “The Happy Company.”
“I love what our days are. Every day is different for us," Hagan said. “I think I’ve had an entrepreneurial spirit. I love seeing people be successful.”
It’s a spirit that propels most successful business owners – including a small but remarkable group: women who own and manage construction companies in the Lakes Region, where the demand for tradespeople and construction work exceeds the available workforce, and women in the corner office fill an expanding and rewarding niche.
According to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data from 2018, the most current numbers, women comprise 10.3 percent of the construction industry workforce, which includes women in offices and in management positions. Although women in the U.S. on average earn 81.1 percent of what men make for comparable work, the gender pay gap is smaller in construction occupations, where women earn 99 percent of what their male counterparts are paid, according to labor bureau reports.
"Because construction is based on merit, our industry leads the economy in terms of pay parity and opportunity," said Joshua Reap, president of Associated Builders and Contractors of VT/NH, a trade association representing approximately 200 businesses, 4 percent of which are owned by women. "The number of women continues to grow in the executive suite as well as the job site,"he said.
“Regardless of whether you’re a man or a woman, you can be extremely successful in the trades, and earn just as much as someone who went to college," said Hagan. "You need the drive and motivation and willingness to learn.” The need for more plumbers and HVAC workers is especially critical – trades that have seldom attracted females, except those who manage billing and scheduling for their husbands in the field.
“I wish there were more women out there,” said Hagan. But Hagan and other Lakes Region contractors say few apply. “Women are great listeners,” especially when it comes to interacting with customers, on job sites or over the phone, she said. “Sometimes it takes a woman to calm a man down, or another woman down.”
Leslie Bryant, owner of Bryant Paving in Meredith, started her company in 2008, with no prior construction experience or exposure, other than pushing a wheelbarrow or a rake. She bought a dump truck, a trailer, and a roller at auction, then purchased a paver – with what amounted to her life savings from managing manufacturing plants in Florida and Chicago. “When I started the business, my only skill set was laboring with the crew. This opportunity came up and I thought it was interesting and time to change and go for something new,” Bryant said.
Managing employees and encouraging their professional growth and making lasting connections in the community came naturally, and Bryant made both a priority – even early on when her industry peers doubted a woman would last in the business. Now Bryant Paving lays down surfaces for driveways, parking lots, municipal roads and streets in private developments, as well as walkways and sidewalks for private customers and landscapers, and the company employs 20 people.
“If you’re a good manager and take care of your people you can do that in any business,” said Bryant. “It was a lot of cash outlay – tens of thousands of dollars, and very scary times. I took my life savings, and took a leap of faith. It’s been a process to get where I’m at.” But, she said, the business has grown every year.
“It’s like anything. People can work their way up through the industry and make a good living, and have good money and good benefits if they choose to stick with it and have a career rather than just a job. I’m not just in it to make money,” she said. “I help people grow their careers," including women who drive Bryant's trucks and get commercial driver licenses. "It’s about helping the community and building it up around you.”
Success and acceptance wasn't instantaneous. Bryant said her competition looked askance when she entered the business, and people made intimidating phone calls. Then there was the challenge of gender stereotypes. On job sites, customers would speak to her male foreman, presuming she was neither boss or owner. Some assumed her husband owned Bryant Paving.
“People call the office and ask for Mr. Bryant and we have a laugh over that. There is no Mr. Bryant. I have no husband. I started the business and it’s completely mine,” said Bryant, who is 48 and now owns a second business in real estate.
“I don’t feel I’m any less advantaged than anyone else who wants to run a business,” she said. No federal government contracts have resulted from it, but being listed as a woman-owned business has allowed her company’s name to circulate more widely on lists of paving contractors for hire.
Bryant encourages women to apply for construction industry jobs, and work their way up, just as men do.
“Anyone is qualified to come in and start as a laborer and work up to run a roller or paver,” learning essential skills and advancing through the ranks, Bryant said. She thinks more women don't enter construction trades because “I think it’s in their mindset that it won’t be accepted, that they’re not qualified or skilled enough. It takes each individual to realize they’re not limited, then their limits will be removed.”
Although change has been slow, management positions in many industries have become increasingly common for women. In 2018 women comprised 47 percent of the U.S. workforce, but 57.1 percent of management, professional and related positions, labor and census data show.
Jennifer Landon, director of education and workforce development for Associated Builders and Contractors - NH/VT, said she’s witnessed an increase in the number of women enrolling in its “Future Leaders in Construction” program, designed for anyone in construction who wants to develop leadership skills, including in communication and conflict management.
Landon said public perception of the industry as a viable fit for women has been changing over time, including during her four and a half years at ABC-NH/VT. In general, there's been a shift in the public's view of the opportunities that construction and building trades offer. “It’s not just swinging a hammer,” said Landon. “Our industry needs people with all backgrounds and experiences” to work as owners, administrators, project managers, estimators, heavy equipment operators, skilled tradespeople, accountants and human resource staff. “There’s no position in the field that women can’t do.”
But stereotypes have been hard to slay. Parents, while recognizing the financial security of a career in skilled trades, have been loath to recommend it for their daughters, Landon said. But more high school and middle school girls across the state are signing up for technical classes in the trades, whether for personal knowledge or career potential. “There used to be this perception that it wasn’t a good fit for girls, and wasn’t something girls should get into. We don’t see that so much any more. The perception of the gruff person out in the field, that’s diminishing,” Landon said.
Bryant said for girls in construction, there are few if any limits. "The only ones we have are the ones we put in our own minds – or others put in our minds. If you physically can do the work, you can do it,” she said.
The paths to constructions careers vary widely, and most young people who enter – male or female – have been exposed early and encouraged by family members or friends, said David Warrender, director of the Huot Technical Education Center at Laconia High School, which serves students throughout the Lakes Region. He said female enrollment in non-traditional classes – including building and construction, and plumbing and heating – remains low, but those who do it are committed and the financial rewards are real.
Tara Saxton of Laconia owns KTM Exteriors in Hampstead with her father, who started the roofing, siding and windows business decades ago, when Saxton was growing up.
“I was dragged into it by my father to pay off my college tuition,” Saxton said wryly. After she graduated from Babson College with a business degree in 2003, the economy was sputtering. Saxton had worked on her father’s painting crew since she was 15. “Everyone in my family worked hard to make ends meet," she said. "I could get out there in the summer and carry my ladder and make what I needed to survive the next year at college.”
At one point, KTM was a full-service general contractor on the Seacoast, with $15 million in business annually. But in 2015 the company refocused on its most lucrative and headache-free segment: outside work on businesses and homes. “If you take an extra day on the outside, it’s not the end of the world,” Saxton said. This made for less stressful deadlines and customer relations.
Over years Saxton cultivated a hefty dose of resilience as a woman in a man's job in the construction world. But the experience has been personally and professionally rewarding, she said. At age 40, as an owner-manager, she mostly meets with customers to inspect roofs and estimate jobs, and manages crews. “It was challenging" in the beginning, she said. "The guys don’t want to listen to you.” But she said respect increases with demonstrated knowledge and skill, and not being flustered or intimidated. And sometimes being female is an advantage.
When a female customer knows the business owner is a woman, that can sway the hiring decision. Saxton said she has heard, "Part of the reason I called you is you were a woman-owned business. I’m a woman-owned business as well." KTM Exteriors’ woman-owned designation appears on a list, as well as in its advertisements.
After being female gets you in the door, customer service, quality work and the ability to solve problems quickly need to be top-notch to garner more referrals, she said.
As far as women working in the trades, Saxton’s advice is: “Go for it. You can’t go wrong. If you’re motivated and driven, it’s good for job security. If you don’t have thick skin, it’s not for you. You know you’re going to be picked on sometimes and you have to be able to roll with the punches. You’re going to be compared to men. You’re going to have to listen to the ways guys talk and you may not want to hear it. Some days I say, ‘OMG!’ then I remember I’m in construction. But as long as you’re strong-minded and bullheaded," you’ll do just fine.