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Women lead top construction projects

Construction is still a male-dominated industry, but two women are calling the shots at some of the largest construction projects in South Florida.

• Norma Pendo Knott, senior project manager for Suffolk Construction, manages construction of Sinai Residences, a $250 million continuing care community in Boca Raton for the Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach County.

• Katie Chesney has been project manager for Palm Beach Outlets in West Palm Beach and Toll Brothers' Royal Palm Polo single-family home community in Royal Palm Beach.

• Tricia Fitzgerald leads the $4 million restoration of Beach Club Tower I in Hallandale for the Fort Lauderdale office of Thornton Tomasetti, an international engineering design and analysis firm.

• Lori Douvris, project manager at Stiles Corp. in Fort Lauderdale, manages a $42 million, 261-unit apartment project, Elan 16Forty in Victoria Park near downtown Fort Lauderdale, for Greystone, a developer of multifamily housing.

While there are no data showing the growth of women in top construction roles, those in the industry say they've seen a change.

"I've seen women being promoted to management positions in construction — roles that were typically male-dominated," said Ayisha Gordon, incoming president of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Chapter of the National Association of Women in Construction. "Women are in those roles; they're out in the field; they're on the site; they're building,.

Those who entered the industry a decade or more ago often were relegated to office-work roles before their management skills were recognized. Newer entrants join construction firms out of college after earning a construction management or similar degree.

The job is lucrative, with construction managers making an average of $49 an hour in Palm Beach County and $42 in Broward, according to the state. On an annual basis, that's $87,000 to $100,000.

Still, women remain rare in the roles Knott and Chesney fill, managing day-to-day activities on the construction site, making decisions about supplies and working to stay on budget.

Here's how these two got where they are.

Norma Pendo Knott

When Knott started in the business in the mid-1990s, she recalls having to ask a male colleague to pitch an idea for her at a meeting.

"I would go to a meeting and say something, and people would keep talking. Then one of the guys would say something and people would listen," she said, with a laugh.

Knott began by doing office work for a home builder. It wasn't until she went to Florida Atlantic University to get her management degree that she was able to move into project management. She has been a senior project manager since 2005.

"She just had a knack for it," said Joe Harris, senior vice president for Moss Construction in Fort Lauderdale, who met Knott in college and later worked with her at two construction companies.

She demonstrated a easy grasp of a project — "better than the guys with a construction degree," Harris said.

Knott said she enjoys the non-stop problem solving of project management. "We do it without the testosterone. We don't generally blow up," she said.

At the same time, Knott said women tend not to have the same self-assurance as men entering the industry. "Women say, 'I'm not ready for this. Men say, 'I can do it.' "

"Do not undervalue yourself. Ask for what you're worth," she advises younger women in the industry.

Katie Chesney

Chesney, Centerline Utility's project manager, grew up in the construction business. Her father, Fred Chesney, is the owner of Centerline, based in Palm City, and she used to drive around with her father on weekends, checking on various jobs.

After earning her construction management degree from the University of North Florida in 2007, Chesney worked for Elkins Constructors in Jacksonville as an assistant project manager.

As a female construction manager, "you're looked at a bit differently," said Chesney, 29, the only female project manager at the firm.

Chesney said she has worked long hours to gain people's trust. "You have to be flexible and learn to deal with all the things that come your way," she said.

Tricia Fitzgerald

Fitzgerald, 39, has had an affinity for building since she was a child. She used to help her father, a mechanical engineer, do home-repair projects, such as fixing the roof.

She earned an architectural engineering degree from Oklahoma State University in 1999, which she said gave her the opportunity to understand how both architects and engineers think.

She joined Thornton Tomasetti in 2002 and has led both construction and restoration projects.

Co-workers come to Fitzgerald for her expertise on "building envelope items," including windows, stucco and water-proofing.

She used to being one of the few engineers at a firm or project. But even in recent times, she has found that being a woman in the industry can still be threatening to some people.

In January, she went to a Bahamas site to investigate why a crane had collapsed. "A guy told me I would never be able to figure it out," she recalled.

But aftering examining the site and doing research, she did find the cause.

"I like to prove people wrong," she said. "I know my skills, and I just go out and perform."

The most challenging part of managing a project is trying to get people to work together and prioritize, she said.

"Things aren't always rosy. But when you pursue your passion, it makes it very easy to get up in the morning," Fitzgerald said.

Lori Dourvris

Douvris, 50, said she's used to being one of the only or few women on a job.

She said she deals with it by maintaining a positive attitude and never assuming that she knows everything. "You learn a lot when you're in the field," she said.

She was hired as an assistant project manager in 2006 and promoted within a few months to oversee a school building project.

"What I like is that you see the whole process of building and turning it into something beautiful," said Dourvis, who earned her bachelor's degree in construction mangement from Florida Atlantic University.

Dourvris enjoys the fast pace of the job, where she has to make decisions about whether it's worth waiting for a specific product to arrive or go with another, which may rankle the customer.

Her boss, Ian Schwartz, said Dourvis works well with clients.

"She is a very good people person. It's very hard to tell someone you can't have that. She does it with a smile on her face so people almost thank her for telling them that," he said.

mpounds@tribune.com or 561-243-6650

 

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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