Words: MASONRY Magazine
Photos: Liz Graves
Editor’s Note: In this month’s installment of our GEN NXT series, we had the opportunity to talk with Liz Graves of Spec Rents. Liz is the daughter of Susie and Paul Odom and was exposed to the masonry industry at a young age through her parent’s masonry company P and S Masonry. She is just as passionate about the masonry industry as her father, who is the Chairman of the Mason Contractors Association of America. We’d like to thank Liz for her time and for being the first interview in 2019. We’d also like to give a special thanks to JAGClamp for their continued sponsorship of this important article series.
Masonry Magazine: Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Liz Graves: I grew up in the masonry industry as the daughter of Paul and Susie Odom who owned P and S Masonry. After college, I went to work with them straight out of college. Actually going into college I thought was going to be an athletic trainer and I ended up not wanting to do that for the rest of my life. But it was a really good experience because I was able to work with all kinds of people. Learning to deal with everything from bureaucracy to one-on-one was very helpful coming into the business.
When I started working at P and S Masonry after college I worked primarily with HR and safety. But my very first job at P and S, as a child, was working in the shop doing whatever needed to be done. On the first day of my first “real” job over the summer they had me working at the end of the grout pump with the hose. I don’t think I’ve ever been as dirty as I was that day when I got home. My dad was big on me experiencing what the guys in the field are experiencing if I ever wanted to work in the company because those guys actually make it happen.
M.M.: Can you tell us more about your memories working with your mom and dad in the family business?
L.G.: My mom and dad were great role models. Their motto was always “If you can’t take care of your family, then you can’t take care of my family.” That’s definitely been a lifelong lesson for me and, even though I’m on the equipment side now, that’s the way we strive to treat our employees. My dad is also just a wealth of knowledge if he doesn’t know something he knows somebody that does know, and he doesn’t stop learning. He taught me early on if you don’t know something, learn it. Our office was and is located in central Texas in a town of 3,000 people, and there wasn’t much construction going on in that town. We would travel for work, and my dad would always listen to a book for pleasure or education. He passed this life-long learning lesson on to me. He’s always been a great role model for me.
My Mom is so good at keeping the business going. Because of her we survived through some tough jobs through her financial savvy. I still have a long way to go on this side of the business but feel very fortunate to have her as a mentor for this.
Being in the family business, I grew up around the guys, riding around with Dad to the jobs. We were a company that when we hired someone, a lot of times they’d stick around, so we had and have a lot of long-term employees. Some of them stuck around and are on the equipment side of things with us. Now I’ve got a group of three guys that I work with still from P and S and two of them I’ve known my entire life. That’s great to work with guys like that. But because of that, they’ve watched me grow up, seen me do stupid stuff as I learned.
When I first started, I was looked at as the boss’s daughter so I wanted to show them I can get out there and get my hands dirty. I never went through an apprenticeship program, I stopped at laborer but when I first graduated from college for the few months I was a glorified gopher. I ran errands for the foremen from job to job and it was such a great experience for me. I learned what their needs were and how complicated the work was on a day-to-day basis. When I moved on to HR and safety I took on a more of a manager’s role with the guys that have watched me grow up. It was a hard transition, but I think my dad having me work in the field with them every day, you see it’s a hard trade, there’s nothing easy about it. Knowing this helps you to be better at working together with your team versus just managing your team.
It’s been a good transition working with dad because of his connections he’s made through the MCAA and the Texas Masonry Council and all the local associations we’ve been involved with. So my customers are able to call me and I can be a resource for my customers now, teaching them how to do things safely and more productively, helping them to look outside the box.
M.M.: How is it working with your family?
L.G.: I think every family business is going to have its own challenges. I think because our family business is not just my dad, it makes it a little different than a lot of other mason contractors. But I have the dynamic duo, which is my dad and mom, my mom is the money lady and my dad is the “go get it done, let’s figure these things out” person. I am the combination of them. It’s funny, sometimes I’ll say something and my dad will say I’m just like my mom, and I’ll do something else and my mom will say I’m just like my dad. I’m also fortunate to have my Brother-in-Law that works with us now as well and we work very well together.
We have our squabbles about things and we don’t always agree. But we’ll sit down and have a conversation about the things that are super important. They’ve been good to allow me to make decisions. Sometimes they may not agree on those decisions, but in the end, they don’t say, “I told you so.” At the same time, they treat me like an employee too and they treat all their employees really well so it’s like a big family.
M.M.: Tell us more about your decision to work in this industry.
L.G.: When I was in high school I was an athletic trainer and I thought I wanted to do that for life. So I went to Texas A&M, they offered me the best overall package I was going to be paid to be an athletic trainer while being in school, which is great. One of my first electives I took my sophomore year was construction science because I grew up in it and thought it would be a fun break from the other stuff I was doing. I remember coming out of class that first day and thinking to myself that I needed to change what I’m doing. I called my dad and told him I think I made a mistake and that I wanted to go into construction science instead. He asked me if I was sure after all the classes I had already taken. He suggested that I finish out on the academic path I was already on and if I still wanted to go into construction someone would hire me.
So I finished it out and I loved my time as a trainer, but towards the end, as I got older I didn’t want to travel with the teams like I thought I did. Towards the end of college, you start to think about marriage, kids and those kinds of things. When I was in school for athletic training, I wanted to be an athletic trainer for a college. But you’re on the road quite a bit. It would be harder to do if I had children, so I thought maybe I could do it at a high school level. So I did my student teaching because if you’re an athletic trainer in high school a lot of times you have to teach too. My student teaching experience made me appreciate those who teach because it wasn’t for me at all.
After that, mom and dad hired me at P and S Masonry. My graduation gift from college was my first pair of brand new fancy Red Wing boots for my new job.
M.M.: Can you tell us more about your current role?
L.G.: I’m the equipment side of the business, so I work for Spec Rents. I manage all of the sales, business development, the marketing, PR, and all the stuff like that. You know in a smaller business you wear multiple hats. My brother-in-law, Brian, also works with us, and he kind of runs the operations end and does most of the estimating. Our company mostly focuses on Hydro Mobile mast climbers but does other equipment lines such as EZG Manufacturing, Malta Dynamics, Husqvarna, and a few other products. Our goal is not to sell equipment, but providing safety and productivity because we know those two things are the keys to running a successful construction or masonry company.
M.M.: How has your experience been being a woman in the industry?
L.G.: I’d say about 15 years ago, you could walk into a trailer and get looks, but it has changed so much. It’s not even a thing anymore; there are so many women in construction now. For me, I’ve grown up around construction so it’s a little different too, I don’t cringe when an off-color joke is said, or something that is not all that appropriate. Part of it is my athletic training that has helped as well. I’ve heard it all. I think the biggest thing about being a woman in construction is not making a thing out of being a woman in construction. I’m just somebody that works in construction.
M.M.: How’s your experience been working with younger people?
L.G.: I think a lot of younger people weren’t as fortunate to grow up with parents that have pushed them towards physical activities and things like that. We have a generation that is somewhat soft. But I don’t think that’s permanent and as a trade there is a need for the soft skills that are required now to deal with a changing workforce. The younger generation wants to learn but they don’t want someone to yell at them to teach them. I know being a laborer or tender is not rocket science, but it does take some knowledge, for someone to tell you to keep the mud shook up, what and when to stock materials, and to show demonstrate how to mix mortar.
Somebody has to actually teach them these jobs. I think we have a bad habit of just throwing someone out there. I think we still have a lot of potential with younger generations, but we, as an industry, have to do a better job of identifying what our managers and leaders in the field need in order to teach those green employees how to do things effectively. I don’t think the entire generation is bad, I know there are a lot of older generations that do. But I don’t.
M.M.: What advice would you give to someone interested in going into this field?
L.G.: Work hard and network with other contractors so that you can learn from other people’s mistakes, instead of making them yourself.
M.M.: Can you tell us about your involvement in the MCAA?
L.G.: On the contractor side I was more involved because I got a ton out of it from the classes geared to the contractors and the networking. We’ve always been members of the Texas Masonry Council and our local associations but you don’t want to always go to your competitor with questions on things. But when you network within the MCAA you’re usually not talking to your competitors and can ask questions and discuss things with contractors from across the nation. Being able to pick up the phone and ask questions or see if they’ve ever worked with a certain contractor is extremely helpful. If I was on the contractor side still I’d probably be most excited about what MCAA is doing to help with the block check-off program to help expand masonry’s wall shares and also with the many tools and resources it’s providing for workforce development.
From a supplier side, my customers being members is definitely a benefit. But mostly for me, because it is a national association and I’m a regional company, I still get a lot out of the education and networking with other companies. This makes me a good resource to my customers. Plus I learn better ways to do things too because I have other dealers that I get to network with. Also, the Midyear meetings are always fun! Who doesn’t want to go to Steamboat Springs, CO, or New Hampshire?