Dan Kamys: Why don’t we start with how you got started in the industry?
Melonie Leslie: My father is in the masonry business, and I’ve been a part of it since I could remember. He’s had this business since I’ve been alive. I used to go with him at kindergarten age on up, travel on the road with him. I decided I was going to college, not necessarily to pursue anything in the masonry industry. But I did start working in the business officially when I started undergrad. I went through that, finished college with an accounting degree and decided I really liked the masonry industry and didn’t want to pursue anything else. I don’t know if it’s one of those things that are in your blood or what, but I stayed. I’ve officially worked for the family business for 13 years, and completed my MBA during that time and I’m still here.
DK: What are some of the first memories working with your dad and the family business?
ML: My first memories are being in our yard, back when we had pre-mixed mortar in sacks and you had to mix the sand, the lime, and the cement. We had piles of sand [in the backyard] and I’d go with him on the weekend and I’d play in the sand. He’d drive around the forklift and I’d get to ride in his lap. I’d watch him load a truck while I’d play around the yard. Those are my first major memories of being in the field. But for some time the office was in our house and my mom would handle nearly all the paperwork. I was around all the paperwork side, seeing that part happen too.
DK: Was there a period of time when you didn’t work in the business when you were in school or were you always involved? Was there ever a hiatus while you were getting your education?
ML: There was a hiatus, I worked in retail and Bank of America for a period of time, towards the end of high school just before I started college. Then I started college, I had a pretty stringent program I was completing and I decided to come in part time at the family business. I was working in the office doing more accounting type of tasks and that side of things.
DK: That’s very interesting, you’re actually the first woman we’re interviewing for this and we’re very excited. There’s not enough. Tell me how the dynamics work of working in a family business.
ML: You have to be geared for it. You have to be able to separate business from personal, obviously there will be times when things in both directions, may cut too deep, and you step over the line a little bit. I’m one of four children, (my dad has four) and I’m the only girl, it’s not for everybody. That’s the best way to say it, either you can do it or you can’t. I see it in the field with siblings or relatives that may have seniority and the other gets offended. You either have it or you don’t.
DK: Are your brothers involved in the business?
ML: There are not, well my younger brother still is. They’ve all pursued their own [career paths], two of the three have tried their hand [at the business] but have decided to pursue other things. One is a flight attendant for Southwest; another owns his own insurance agency; my younger brother, who still works with us from time to time, is a hunting guide and taxidermist, and that’s his real passion. But during the off-season he helps us out with deliveries, or in the yard, miscellaneous stuff. Whatever we need since he’s worked a little bit of everything.
DK: Lets talk about what you’re doing now, what’s your role in the company? Is there a succession plan, what are you doing now? Are there plans for the future with the company?
ML: As far as the future of the company, the plan is to continue on my father’s legacy. At this point I pretty much have done or pretty much will do, [depending on the day] whatever needs to get done, pretty much everything. Be it estimating, project managing, being out in the field, supervising, or calling control, coordinating, procurement, payroll, HR, safety training, contract review, accounting tasks. Pretty much everything, it just depends on the day and what needs to be done.
DK: Wow! We were in Kentucky at the SkillsUSA competition and there were five female competitors there. Because you are the first female we’re interviewing, have you found it to be a challenge or have you found it to be advantage to be a female in this industry? Have you faced an adversity?
ML: I have faced some adversity I would say, there were certainly some, I guess you would call them stigmas. Or people would assume when my brother worked here, and someone would call, they’d want to talk to him by default. Even though he would be doing different tasks, but because he was male, people wanted to talk to him instead of me. But once people talk to me and realize I’m knowledgeable, they understand and know. I don’t know if it’s because I’ve been around for so long and people know who I am and the knowledge that I have.
So I don’t face that [stigma] anymore, but I have seen it, and sometimes I still see it. They’ll default to the male, without taking the time, but people that know me, or are in the companies that we work with all the time. They know that I can take care of what they’re looking for or what their needs are. It’s interesting I know I’m the only woman when I go to job meetings. I’m the only woman at construction safety classes. You name it, and I’m probably the only woman there.
DK: Why do you think there aren’t as many women in this industry?
ML: I think it’s because a lot of the people in this industry have worked their way up from working out in the field. You see that a lot, they’re not going to college and come back around at this level. It’s usually someone that started out in a trade program, which is kind of cool about our industry. Your possibilities can be endless, it’s what you make of it, but I think that may be why. Especially here in Phoenix, AZ, you don’t have the historic brick and all those kind of things. Which too, would play more to a woman being able to be more capable of doing out in the field on a regular basis. Compared to here, we’re lifting block, so that’s really something you see.
We have employed as mason tenders, but we’ve never had a female mason coming to us looking for work. All of our women have been someone who’s worked in the office. So I think that might play into it, that it’s hard work, and people get their start in the industry by working out in the field. Rather than coming back around from the other side, there are not a lot of educational programs that teach you about masonry, to be more on a project management side, and a lot of it is that these are family businesses and the women who are in the industry are the wives [usually] who handle all the paperwork. I’m kind of an anomaly because I work out in the field.
DK: Have you guys hired any younger people in the industry, if so, what’s been your experience with them?
ML: We have, and we’re always looking for new people in general, but typically our newer people are coming in as tenders. They are usually younger; we’ll hire someone and we usually do it in spurts, because they tell their buddies. So this is how we get younger generation in. We’re also big supporters of the Apprentice Program here, at the local MCA has. So a lot of our employees have been through that program. So it’s definitely something that entices, the opportunity there, that we support that, we’ll put you in if that’s something you’re interested in. We do get the younger generation on. It’s interesting, I think at first a lot of them will fail because they don’t realize how hard it is to do the job. It’s really hard, the temperature here are 115º so that’s another factor that plays in.
So you get a lot of them that you lose, and some that you keep. It’s hard work, and unless you have that drive, work ethic and desire, you’re not going to be able to do it. You have to put in your time to be given the opportunity to advance. You know that’s the other thing is I think for the younger generation, it’s harder for them to see that. Not just in our industry, but also across the board, they have to put in the time to reap the rewards.
DK: What would be your advice for someone going into this field?
ML: I would say you have to work hard. It’s about respect, you respect us and we’ll respect you. Loyalty respect, and making sure you’re doing best every day really goes a long way. You know, we’ve been fortunate that we have a good group of guys. A core group that we don’t have a lot of turnovers. We work a lot of hours to make sure they have what they need in the field.
We make sure to let them know, we need them to come to work and do their best, so we put our best foot forward so that we can all succeed together. That’s kind of the culture we try to have, and be professional, because that takes us a long way. It gets us referrals; it gets us recognition with awards. As far as advice, work hard no matter what position you are in, you will see the reward from that.
It’s about hard work and the time you put in. Both my husband and myself have MBA’s and have gone through undergrad, and it’s not for everybody. It’s kind of an oxymoron, we’ve pursued that route, but at the same time we’re strong believers of promoting the trades. You don’t have to do [go to college] that; you can be successful in other ways.
DK: Can you talk about some of the challenges that are facing the industry?
ML: I definitely think the workforce shortage, the stigma with the construction industry. Which is really interesting, it ties into the silica rule. Think about all the requirements of the silica rule, and now you have to have a competent person on sites. They have to know all the rules and enforce them, not to mention a scaffold competent person; a forklift certified person; a CPR/first aid-onsite certified person; an OSHA 10 person. It’s interesting the trades are stigmatized, but you think about all these requirements that are put on us even at a subcontractor level. That’s a lot of stuff to keep track of, manage, and be knowledgeable of.
It’s getting to the point that it’s not the “dumb construction guy” anymore. It’s really a lot of paperwork, even my time— the middle process, the shop time, all of this stuff has analysis before you can go on a site. Your STS books, and all these requirements that we have it’s definitely a challenge. I think it’s an issue when we can’t bring people in, it’s a stigma, and getting out there and getting people interested in the trade industry would really help.
All the safety requirements, we want to work safe and be safe, but it’s difficult when you have so many things that you’re trying to keep track of. It’s even hard just to do the job. So it’s a challenge finding that competent person, your foreman, your go-to person who’s there on site to keep track of things. Even your project manager, your office super intendant level, and there’s another tier of keeping track of things. I think moving forward that’s where everybody getting technology and systems in place it will be easier. Now blueprints are electronic, information now just moves faster than it did. I know that’s a big thing for me is putting systems in place. In our industry our systems are sometimes archaic with the different things.
But having more electronic systems, utilizing electronic plans on tablets, creating some sort of forms that are easy to go to. Sort of like what the MCA has done with their silica exposure control plan. All of that stuff will help our industry going forward. I also think we’re not able to compete with lumber like that, we don’t have all the backup documentation to get out there to the architects and engineers. To get in front of them to show them our wall systems are just as good or better for those given applications. It stays current, I see it, there’s a spec book and all the sudden you can tell who’s been out to architects offices, because then you get the rash of the same persons spec’ed in the spec book. We have to do the same thing for masonry, so us continuing to work together is the only way it’s going to happen. To keep our products—wall systems out there.
DK: Lets talk about how you got involved with the MCAA, the benefits you see.
ML: We’re involved locally with the Arizona Mason Contractors Association, and the Arizona Masonry Guild locally. Several years back, my dad was president, and there was a time when there was an executive director and we actually did a lot of those duties. Performed a lot of the paperwork to keep the ball turning until the new one was appointed. In addition to that we started creating a formal graduation dinner for the Apprentice Program. It’s one of my favorite events to go see. One of the guys would say that’s their college graduation. That’s something they’ve worked towards, it means so much to them. From that, my parents are involved in the MCAA, and my dad is the Regional Vice President. Through him and Mike [Sutter] asked me to come on to the South of 40 committee, and before they roped me in to going to D.C. once, for an interim D.C. trip. We’ve always gone to World of Concrete, and gone to all the seminars, ever since my dad has been involved.
It’s kind of been natural that we’re involved in associations at all levels. I think it’s important because we are in numbers, and I hear a lot especially at local associations here, how they’re just amazed that the masonry industry can have friendly competitors. You can go to one of our events, whether locally or nationally and all these contractors can be in the same room together. Exchanging ideas and nobody’s ready to punch someone in the face [laughs] or anything like that. It’s not like that with the concrete guys at all, it’s different amongst the different trades. It’s nice that the masonry industry is not like that. We’re working together to achieve our goal, so that’s always a good thing to be apart of, for the benefit of the industry as a whole and your company to have resources available to you.