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Local Luminaries Chat: Mary Gately of AGC

Today’s Local Luminaries Chat is written by Sarah McGillicuddy, Director of Marketing & Business Development at Acentech, and Vice President/President-Elect of SMPS Boston. She can be reached at or on LinkedIn.

Mary Gately is Director of Market Services for the Associated General Contractors (AGC) Massachusetts Chapter, where she has dedicated her skills for the past 16 years. Mary develops management education programming and collaborates with allied associations to offer a more harmonious team approach for the building process. In addition, she researches future industry trends and economic indicators. Mary works diligently to enlighten the A/E/C industry about the good work of the local AGC community with whom she works so closely. Mary is someone I have had the pleasure of getting to know over the past four years where she has served as a dedicated mentor to me personally, as well as to several talented professional women within the A/E/C industry as part of the Women’s Exchange for Leadership and Living (WELL) group. Mary and I sat down at The Cottage in Wellesley where we chatted about her well respected career path to present day, her views on the state of the local construction industry and beyond!

Mary GatelySMPS: You’ve been at AGC for 16 Years…impressive! How does it keep you interested and engaged?

Mary Gately: In Massachusetts, The Associated General Contractors (AGC) has over 200 member firms, which means that all staff in each of these firms can call upon me and my associates at AGC at any time with construction questions on labor, safety, training programs, and legislative or regulatory concerns. Each and every day is new and different and enables me to build relationships. As a people person, there is a lot of gratification gleaned from the constant interaction I have with the different personalities and people from all walks of life. This interaction keeps me engaged and helps me to develop programming and interesting marketing events that are really in tune with the common challenges and evolving trends that all of our members are facing.

SMPS: How do you find programming that is so consistently on target with what AGC’s membership is looking for?

MG: Maintaining active communication with the membership is critical and helps inform how programming frameworks are developed. Through questioning, performing research, and investigating trends coupled with the active dialogue I have with AGC MA members, programs comes to life.

SMPS: The construction industry in particular was hard hit by the recession. What is your perspective on the changing landscape of the construction industry?

MG: I believe the big will continue to get bigger. There is no doubt that Pac-Man is at work gobbling up lots of firms. It seems every day there is a new merger or acquisition. Many of these acquisitions enable a variety of services to be under one roof – going back to a design build or master builder mentality. Smaller firms need to work to really define their niche whether it’s high end residential, specialty retail, or bathrooms (and I’m not kidding!). I ran into a gentleman the other day and that’s his business: he does bathroom construction for a range of clients, both commercial and residential, and he’s doing very well for himself. In addition to specializing, the smaller firms need to figure out how to provide their niche offering as economically as possible – that’s the magic formula. Many very successful firms got their start by developing a strong presence in a single market and then branched out into other sectors. Obviously, firms need to find their differentiator and capitalize on their strengths.

SMPS: Thinking about the A/E/C industry, it seems construction came to appreciate the value of marketing and business development later. However, now many are right there on the cutting edge, especially when it comes to business development. What are your thoughts?

MG: I agree the construction industry has finally caught on. A number of firms do still resist it and yearn for the days when a job well done and decades-long relationships were enough to earn repeat business, however, times have changed. Begrudgingly or not all construction owners can’t ignore the need for marketing and business development if for no other reason than all their competitors are doing it, and doing it well. Construction owners realize that they can’t do everything any more) and they are hiring the appropriate staff to meet their marketing and business development goals. Many firms are also utilizing all their staff in the development of business whether that is checking out their local area, talking with their current clients and subcontractors or just reading the local news and bringing the information back to the appropriate staff people; I’ve really seen firms excel at this. Once that mentality is brought into a company, it helps instill a culture of business development-minded staff.

Marketing within construction firms is here to stay, no doubt about it. It’s expanded, as it should have, beyond just proposals to websites, stunning graphics, videos, and Building Information Modeling (BIM) as a marketing tool. More and more firms are engaging in some pretty sophisticated market research, adding graphic designers, proposal writers and ramping up presentation skills. Technical staff often wants – and can – do it all successfully. However, when it comes to presentations, they too can use a little guidance. At a job interview, owners don’t want to see BD people at the table. They want to see the team who will build their building. They want to converse with the Project Manager and the Superintendent. Having these staff resources confident and prepared is critical and, as we’ve heard at AGC presentations from the likes of owners like Harvard’s Maureen McDonough good communications skills do matter. If your staff is interviewing for a multi-year engagement, they need to be able to look the owner in the eye and instill confidence.

SMPS: There are many trends. In your opinion what is important to owners? Safety, BIM, Integrated Project Delivery?

MG: Price! That will never go away. I think quality is important to some more than to others. Safety is a direct hit to the bottom line so that is important if you have an astute owner but remember: there are many different kinds. A trend I am happy to see is that a lot of owners are finding the value and looking to construction firms for solid pre-construction services that will help them to arrive at a budget that meets their financial goals without impacting the design they want to have.

SMPS: Do you feel then that Owners are now more willing to pay the premium up-front for the pre-construction services, understanding that ultimately it will yield savings and fewer change-orders in the end?

MG: I am not sure it is a premium. Dollars may be spent initially but they will come back to the owner in the end. Hopefully, as we start to come out of the doldrums, owners will understand the worth derived from preconstruction and that they have to pay for it. I believe construction firms are no longer willing to give it away. Most construction firms want to work collaboratively with architects because it yields a more positive experience for everyone involved.

SMPS: Hard Bid vs. Construction Management at Risk? It seems the public sector has really embraced the negotiated project delivery method (i.e. Chapter 149A). However, when the economy turned, it seemed a lot of private owners either turned away from or went back to hard-bidding. What’s your perspective on hard bid vs. negotiated work?

MG: I believe it is reflective of the times. The economic challenges made many sophisticated owners turn to a “low number wins” mentality, perhaps believing they would be able to manage the project internally. Some projects can do well utilizing the bid process – the model school program in MA for instance. But when you have an occupied space, multi-phased project, out of the ground new work, you really need to have a team of designers and contractors working together to solve the many challenges that come up.

SMPS: As a well respected woman in construction and a mentor to young women at varying levels of their careers within the W.E.L.L. Group is there any sort of support you wish had been available in the early stages of your career?

MG: I was lucky. When I was at Perini my boss was (and still is) a real dynamo, a wonderful mentor to me, very supportive of my career growth, and we worked harmoniously together. As team support, we went through a number of mergers and acquisitions and he provided me with the leeway I needed to be successful. Perini was a great training ground. The firm afforded me opportunities to go to meetings where women didn’t typically have a presence. I was there for ten years and again it really laid a strong foundation for my career.

Mary Johnson was president of Mass Building Congress and I went to a meeting knowing she would be speaking. I sat there with 9 other men around the table. They never once spoke to me the entire program. When it was time to leave I leaned over and said, “Gentlemen it has been such a lovely time conversing with you, I look forward to next month when we can have another lively conversation.” You just have to laugh, take it in stride, and keep at it and that’s what I did. I became engaged with NAWIC (National Association of Women in Construction) and eventually became President. You couldn’t be a shrinking violet especially working among so many talented women. The early exposure and having a seat at the table with the rest of the men early on coupled with my leadership of NAWIC gave me the tools to be successful.

SMPS: Lastly I need to ask a question I’ve always wanted to ask — were you once a fashion model?

MG: Yes indeed I was, prior to joining the AEC industry I modeled for a Boston agency. Mostly it was agency work, runway shows and photo shoots. My last modeling job was memorable; it was for a young Alfred Fiandaca Couture and it was an outdoor runway show in the Boston Common right by the swan boats.

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