In our latest Leader With Courage conversation, we meet Rosemary Swierk of Direct Steel and Construction, a commercial construction firm that works closely with architects, designers and end users to deliver greater experiences in the industrial, commercial and governmental spaces. Rosemary’s own path to success didn’t follow the standard blueprint, but as you’ll learn in the first part of our conversation, great leaders know how to adjust and thrive in a variety of conditions.
Value Drivers: You’ve mentioned that this was far from the career path that you originally mapped out for yourself. What do you mean by that?
Rosemary Swierk: I didn’t set out with some grand vision to become the President of my own construction management firm one day. I was originally a Marketing/Advertising major at Indiana University and was hired out school by Black & Decker. In that role, I did a lot of traveling south of the Mason-Dixon line and was promoted to a position in Boston. After performing well there, I was recruited back to Chicago, where I was born and raised, by an independent manufacturer's rep agency.
I did very well in that role. During that time I met my husband. As we discussed the possibilities are starting a family, both of us felt it was important that one of us stay home. At that time, few men stayed home to raise children. In an effort to modify our income stream, I helped him start his company. After a couple of years, it became clear his income would be able to pay the bills. After I became pregnant, I kept noticing a dilapidated commercial building which had been on the market for a couple years. One day I came home from work and told my husband I had placed an offer on the building. While substantially rehabilitating the building, I was able to secure a tenant.
So how long was it before you started on your own path with Direct Steel?
As I evaluated my first real estate purchase pro forma, after the tenant moved in, I realized real estate was a potential vehicle to facilitate a work/life balance. That purchase led to many other value add building and land purchases. In 2003 I was asked to General Contract for another business owner. That request led to the beginning of Direct Steel and Construction.
That prospect would sound positively frightening to some people, I’m sure.
It was definitely a little scary, but I was very fortunate to secure a tenant – which happened to be a bank. If you've ever had a bank as a tenant, it's a really good gig. In addition, we were blessed with two young children who slept about 12-14 hours a day, so in my spare time I kept buying more dilapidated buildings and either renting them or selling them. I did it again and again and the projects got larger. Then I started doing additions, ground up construction including shopping centers. Suddenly, I realize I’ve got a real estate portfolio.
How did you manage to weather the storm of when the economy was at its lowest point?
It certainly wasn’t the easiest time for anyone. That’s when I took a look at my business plan and said, "You know, I've never really marketed Direct Steel And Construction. I think I can do something with it." But who was building in the Chicagoland area around 2009?
Not many firms at all.
That’s right. So I followed the money. In 2009 the Federal Government passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, in which an estimated $831 billion was approved to be spent on the federal level to invest in infrastructure, education, health and renewable energy. However, I discovered that getting government work is kind of like getting your first job. You can get the work as long as you have the experience, but you can't get the experience until you get the work. In an effort to obtain experience, I contacted every single Department of Defense prime contractor in the United States. At that point, there were about 660 of them. As a result of those calls, Direct Steel and Construction secured one opportunity to be a prime subcontractor to build a flight simulator facility. That opportunity led to work with the Army Corp of Engineers, Department of Energy and other government agencies.
Then, in 2012, the private company work started coming back. Direct has done work with many companies including Navistar, Unilock, TC Industries and Intermatic.
What does the balance of work look like today?
It’s a good mix of public and private work. On the public side, we do work for local governmental agencies and municipalities.
On the private side, we’re constructing manufacturing facilities, recreational facilities, restaurants, churches, air plane hangars, etc. We are constructing a wide variety of non-residential facilities.
Mostly through referrals? You did the work and they just keep passing along the word about Direct Steel?
The thing about general contracting is that typically it's a “one and done” opportunity. However, we have clients that every 3 or 4 years do projects - whether it's a new manufacturing facility, an addition or a modification to the current one. Referrals certainly generate the most opportunity. However our website is also a very good lead generator.
That makes sense. As you mentioned earlier that you were trained in marketing, that had to make for a very interesting learning curve. You weren’t originally an engineer or architect. I assume you picked up all this through some classes but was a lot of it on-the-job training?
Yes - and having outstanding resources has always been key. It's who you surround yourself with.
That’s a recurring theme of Being A Leader With Courage – thriving in a field that you didn’t necessarily start in. A lot of the individuals I’ve spoken with who are tech entrepreneurs have a story in which they actually didn’t have a technology background at all. They saw a need. Maybe they didn't know how to fill it right away but they knew that they could find good people as long as if they had a good idea. Once they identified that support, they knew they couldn’t micromanage. They stayed out of the kitchen.
We certainly have good people here. I’d put my staff members toe to toe with the best in the industry. There is also a strong collaborative environment with trust and respect; which is certainly one component to our success. Inherently, construction has a lot of variable parts; a lot can go wrong. Another big key success driver, both from an individual development success and in terms of client success, is having a strong experience and knowledge base.
Plus, in an industry like ours, construction can be both literally and figuratively a very dirty business. There's a ton of ways our clients can be taken advantage of. We’ve witnessed a great deal of that, whether personally or because it’s a relatively small industry.
There are a lot of general contractors that can take architectural drawings, bid it and build it. Some do that well; some don't. What we find is the earlier that our team is brought into the project, the more value we are able to bring to our clients. If we're brought in at or before the time that architect's brought in, our services are able to facilitate the alignment of the four pillars of construction; scope, budget, schedule and quality.
In the second part of our conversation, Rosemary speaks to a variety of potential derailers to success that she’s encountered – and avoided or minimized - while developing her unique leadership style.
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