Ms. Boss

The quest for control and money draws more women into businesses that were once the exclusive domain of men

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Jose Ramirez Girard grabs a hard hat and orange work vest and climbs the dirt embankment to the top of the commuter rail tracks.

Up ahead a nine-man crew is replacing an old wooden bridge that supports a 100-foot stretch of track. The job isn't easy. They must work without shutting down the trains that roar by at 70 miles an hour.

It's a hard-nosed business and one still run by men. But Ms. Girard feels right at home - she's the boss.

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Five years ago, she started Phoenix Construction Services and has built the company into a major contender in the commuter rail maintenance business. Last year, Phoenix grossed more than $3 million.

Girard is hardly alone. Increasingly, women are starting businesses in traditionally male industries.

The number of women-owned firms in construction, manufacturing, transportation, and wholesale trade has grown faster over the past decade than in any other industries.

Many of these women are frustrated with the glass ceiling in the corporate environment, but others go their own way for the same reasons as other entrepreneurs: They've got a good idea; they want to be their own boss; they want flexibility.

Yet wider access to financing, the rise in government contracts, plus the quest to follow the big money are drawing more women entrepreneurs into the world of hard hats and tool belts.

"There are no boundaries. Women can go into any business they want to go into," says Sharon Hadary, executive director of the National Foundation for Women Business Owners (310-495-4975: www.nfwbo.org), a research group in Silver Spring, Md.

"These are also high-profit-margin areas," she adds. "Women aren't stupid."

Consider the 170 percent increase over the past decade in the number of women starting construction businesses. Just this year, women bolted together 281,000 new manufacturing firms, a 112 percent increase over 1982. (See chart, right.) These numbers still look tiny compared to the number of service firms launched by women.

In fact, it's tough to name a business type that women aren't running. They're involved in trucking, textiles, welding, electrical wiring, pest control, and furniture manufacturing.

Marilyn Helms, director of the Institute for Women as Entrepreneurs (423-785-2283: www.utc.edu/~bschool/iwe.htm) at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, recently got a call from a woman who wanted help buying a forest - she plans to get into the pulp business.

"We're just not surprised anymore when we take information from a member, and it's a woman who is in trucking, construction, or engineering," adds Judith Luther-Wilder of Women Incorporated (213-680-3375: www.womeninc.com), a Los Angeles group that helps women entrepreneurs find financing.

The women who start businesses in nontraditional fields tend to have some related work experience. (Studies show, however, that women are more likely than men to start a business in a field unrelated to their previous experience.)

Four years ago, Jennifer Guillory left her job at a security company to start Calitec Security and Canine Patrol in San Diego, which provides security for residential complexes as well as businesses.

"I started under the 'good old boys' structure," says Ms. Guillory, who set out with just $730 - her last paycheck from her previous job. "But as my experience and exposure developed, I began to realize I can do this too."

She's definitely doing it. Calitec now employs 50 people.

For some women entrepreneurs, a man's world isn't unchartered territory.

Before starting Phoenix Construction Services in Riverside, Calif., Girard spent 20 years in the aerospace industry. She worked both at TRW Corp. - where she was the first woman technician - and then moved to Hughes Corp., becoming a technical adviser on engineering and contracting matters.

"I didn't know women weren't accepted," Girard quips. It didn't hurt having eight older brothers.

When Hughes gave her a choice of getting laid off or moving to Mississippi, she opted against relocation and in favor of striking out on her own.

While still at Hughes, she took classes leading to her general contracting license. She also learned the trade with by working for a friend who owned an asphalt business.

Then in 1993, with $5,000 of her retirement money from Hughes, Girard opened Phoenix Construction Services.

The firm started with concrete walkways, and for two years Girard worked every job. "I was out there pushing a shovel like anybody," says Gerard, now training one of her daughters to take over the business in five years.

Today she concentrates on new business and marketing. But working the front lines was essential to earning the respect of her workmen.

"They know I'm physically capable of running my own jobs," Girard contends.

Indeed, the crew working on the bridge has no qualms about working for a woman: "She lets us run ourselves," says Dean Stuart, one of the foremen on the job. "But she also lets us know if we do anything wrong. She's not shy."

Still, the top issue for women business owners is that they aren't being taken seriously. Nowhere is that more true than for women who own nontraditional businesses.

"Unfortunately," Girard says, "no one would question a man in what we believe to be a woman's world."

One of the biggest hurdles, she says, is finding clients willing to take a chance on a woman-owned business - especially in construction.

Men, she says, don't take women-owned businesses seriously unless they have to.

And plenty of women tell of employees who ignore them and clients who would rather deal with a male, even if he knows less.

When Toni Ziff started TR Trading Co., which buys and sells used office furniture, in Gardena, Calif., customers who didn't know she was the owner would often ignore her. Some ignored her when they knew she was the owner.

"I had guys at the beginning say to me, 'Where's your husband?' " says Ms. Ziff, seated at a desk on the warehouse floor.

Fifteen years later, she laughs about it. She now does enough business to fill four warehouses with furniture and last year took in $1.6 million.

Many women admit they've had to alter their styles for managing and communicating.

"Whenever a woman gets upset about an issue she's crazy, whereas men can blow up or have a face-off," says Deborah Berg, who owns Berg & Associates, a construction management company based in San Pedro, Calif.

"I've learned how to phrase things or approach things," she says, "without being called a whiner."

But many women agree they don't have to become one of the boys to run a company of men.

"You don't have to be a gum-chewing pirate mouth. You can go in and be yourself," says Nancy O'Rourke of Mr. Cat Productions, a sound and lighting company in Long Beach, Calif..

"If I speak with integrity," she says, "I am treated with integrity every time."

In fact, women say their approach often gives them a competitive advantage.

"Some men say they like working with women because they like the completeness they take to their approach," Ms. O'Rourke says.

Ziff of TR Trading adds that she still runs her business "like a girl." "I'll take care of those details that men wouldn't think about."

Most agree the climb is getting easier.

"When I attend meetings, I'm still the only woman in the room, but I don't feel like I'm being looked at as a woman first," Ms. Berg says. "The atmosphere has changed."

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