FEATURE — Fall 2004
   

 

Building a Business with Heart

Joyce Shufro-Espinosa, A.B. '81, is one of the few successful female commercial general contractors in the Tampa Bay area. For the past 12 years, she has been at the helm of the growing firm, Heart Construction.

by Jan Niehaus

Joyce Shufro-Espinosa grew up in Manhattan, the daughter of an investment broker. Her father still manages the firm, Shufro, Rose & Co., LLC, that his father founded, and recently her youngest brother joined the business.

With a similar entrepreneurial spirit, and knowledge gleaned from the family business, Shufro-Espinosa would build a very different career.

Today, she owns and manages Heart Construction Inc., a commercial design-build firm based in St. Petersburg, Florida.

A trailblazer, she was one of the first 100+ women in the state of Florida to hold a Class A General Contractor license, and she is one of only a few such women in the Tampa Bay area. Her company has been honored repeatedly by the Tampa Bay Business Journal as one of the "Top 75 Women-Owned Businesses" and as among the "Top 25 Fastest Growing Privately Held Companies" in the area.

Despite a sluggish economy, skyrocketing steel prices, an unprecedented shortage of concrete, continually escalating insurance expenses, and obstacles women encounter in male-dominated industries, Heart Construction grew 39 percent last year, from $3.6 million in 2002 to $5 million in 2003.

Shufro-Espinosa is one of those rare individuals who would succeed in any business venture—construction, catering, or telecommunications. Her paternal grandmother, Edna Shufro, now 97 years old, is one of her strongest and most enthusiastic supporters. "My grandmother has always said that women belong in business. She's my one-woman cheering team," says Shufro-Espinosa.

Shufro-Espinosa definitely belongs in business: She anticipates market trends, targets with precision, takes calculated risks, insists on teamwork, forges long-term relationships, and operates within a framework of honesty and integrity that many find lacking in commerce today.

"One of the guiding principles of this firm is that we tell it like it is, whether you like it or not. We've actually talked people out of doing work that we thought didn't need to be done. Honesty and integrity are very, very, very strong for us," says Shufro-Espinosa.

Shufro-Espinosa displayed leadership skills and a certain business acumen while still in her teens: She worked as student manager of the campus delicatessen while completing a bachelor's degree in history at Washington University. "The jobs I had early in my life helped to foster a strong work ethic and high endurance level, which still helps me to persevere in the running of my business today.

"I graduated from Washington University in 1981, moved to Philadelphia, and worked for several years in retail," she says. "I managed a Radio Shack and a computer department. I absolutely loved retail, but I saw how it worked: You work hard and pay your dues, and you get promoted to a larger store, where you have no control. And then you are promoted again to a whole group of stores, where you have even less control." After a pause, she adds: "So where did I end up? In construction—where there's hardly anything you can control! It's one of the most annoying things about this business. We have no control over the architects, building inspectors, flooring, drywall, the other trades, and yet we are accountable to our clients for everything that they do or do not do."

Her original career plan certainly didn't include construction. But to see her at a building site in her bright hard hat, poring over a set of construction drawings with carpenters and electricians, you'd think she was born to it.

Shortly after earning a master's degree in business administration at Temple University in 1990, Shufro-Espinosa moved to St. Petersburg, Florida. "I wanted to buy a business, something where I could use my marketing skills. I'd had my real estate license since 1982, and I thought I wanted to do commercial real estate or business brokerage," she says. "Then I was wiped out by a water spout; that's a water tornado that's driven by wind. It skipped across the Gulf, picked up furniture and debris along the way, and completely wrecked the house I was living in at the time," she says. "I watched the company that was hired to do the restoration, and I thought, 'I could do better than this!'" At the same time, a friend with experience in the construction industry moved to the Tampa Bay area, and, together with three other partners, they founded Heart Construction.

"We started the company very undercapitalized. I invested $12,000 of my own money, and $3,000 of it went to liability and workers' comp. the first year. I had planned to get the business up and running and then leave—let the other partners take charge and move on to some other business," Shufro-Espinosa recalls. Twelve years later, she remains as the sole owner and a very hands-on, in-the-trenches manager.

She's earned the respect of her colleagues in the industry, but it hasn't been easy. "The old boys' network is alive and well in Florida. Prejudice is around all day, every day. It's taken quite some time to gather steam, and it's taken patience," she says. "The hardest thing is remembering how male-dominated the construction industry is yet not letting it bother you. Sometimes I confront it; sometimes I leave it alone. If necessary, sometimes I let one of my male employees step in," says the seasoned Shufro-Espinosa.

The company name—Heart Construction—says a lot about her management and leadership style. She offers this as context: "I come from a small family business. I grew up with the family-business concept, and I've tried to create that sort of environment here. When I say 'small,' I'm talking about not a lot of people. We're more like a construction management firm than a general contractor. We have only nine employees."

"I come from a small family business. I grew up with the family-business concept, and I've tried to create that sort of environment here."

The small-family-business attitude extends to her subcontractors, as well: "I don't believe in the typically adversarial role between the GC and the trades. I believe in teamwork. I use the same trades all the time, and I usually don't bid them. They have been wonderful to me because they know I don't go to their competitors for pricing. The level of service and volume pricing my trades provide to us for our clients is wonderful."

Heart Construction has cultivated a cadre of reliable subcontractors and a group of loyal clients, as well, in a specialized niche market: tenant improvements. "We're one of the few contractors in the area that does tenant finish work. It accounts for about 90 percent of our revenue," she says. "We work directly for the property owners. It's quick work. It turns cash in 30, 60, maybe 90 days."

Last year Heart Construction completed close to 180 jobs. The company has walked away from a few, too, when "it was uncertain as to whether we'd be compensated," she explains. Shufro-Espinosa screens prospects carefully.

And the future looks promising: "The Tampa Bay area still has growth," she explains. "Sure, we have high vacancy rates, but there's been a lot of activity, too—a lot of new start-ups."

Her strategic business plan involves doing fewer but larger jobs in the years ahead. She also wants more personal time, she says, recalling the year that she worked 50 of 52 weekends.

"We would like to move into bigger projects. We want to develop new business relationships and expand our base and the type of work we do. It would be much easier to bring in $5 million in five projects, at $1 million each," she says. Pausing, she adds, "I'll have to work even harder to prove that I and the members of my team are worthy of the larger projects."

Jan Niehaus, M.S.W. '80, is president of Communication by Design.