Building PA Podcast Season 1, Episode 12: The Joys of Being a Small Business Owner in the Construction Industry

Introduction: I don’t know if jealousy is the word to describe it. Nah that’s not the right word to describe it. I think it’s admiration – yeah that’s it. I admire business owners, especially the ones who started from scratch. I love when we interview business owners on the Building PA Podcast so we can hear about their launch, the challenges they faced and how they overcame those challenges. My co-host Chris Martin is a fellow business owner and I think it’s awesome when he interacts and shares experiences with our entrepreneur guests. Here’s a transcript of a podcast interview of Sandra Palone. Checkout her story, it’s a good one. I hope it inspires future entrepreneurs.

To listen to the entire interview visit: The Joys of Being a Small Business Owner in the Construction Industry.

Jon O’Brien (00:00):

Hello, and welcome to another episode of Building Pennsylvania, a construction podcast for Pennsylvania’s construction industry. I am Jon O’Brien from the Keystone Contractors Association.

Chris Martin:

And this is Chris Martin with Atlas Marketing.

Jon O’Brien:

Hello, Chris, how are we doing today?

Chris Martin:

Oh, I’m doing well, Jon. Hopefully little technical challenges aren’t going to screw us up, but hey, we’re doing really well.

Jon O’Brien:

Yes we are. And let’s hope. Yeah. Let’s hope there’s no issues. We have a great, great guest today. We have Sandra Palone from Palone and Associates. Hello, Sandra.

Sandra Palone (00:39):

Hi. And if I may Sandra Palone and Associates.

Jon O’Brien (00:44):

Oh, I’m sorry. Oh, okay. You got it. Sorry about that mistake. Welcome. And today we want to talk about a woman owned companies in the industry and you know, you’ve been around a few years. Well, you know, instead of me, why don’t you just give us a little history on your company and get us up to date on your company?

Sandra Palone (01:07):

Sure. Let’s see. I’m going to try to keep this brief. I opened the doors of Sandra Palone and Associates in 2015. So we’re about four and a half now. It’s been an interesting ride. I started the company as mainly a manufacturer’s representative for specialty precast concrete items and construction. That’s my background and I have grown into also now supplying of precast products, certain kinds. And I also do some consultation if you will. Whether it’s in the form of doing onsite representation for manufacturers of precast or other types of materials now. But that’s where we’ve gone from. We’ve gone from being a rep to a rep and a supplier and also to some consulting,

Jon O’Brien (02:10):

Pretty amazing four and a half years, time flies.

Sandra Palone (02:15):

It feels like it flies. And then it feels sometimes like it’s going very slowly. But it’s been really, really interesting.

Jon O’Brien (02:26):

And your market, is it public or private and what kind of your territory as far as what bridges do you cover?

Sandra Palone (02:34):

So my primary market is Pennsylvania. So quite honestly whether it’s Western Pennsylvania, center of the State or in the Eastern part, all over Pennsylvania, mid Atlantic overall, I would say that my secondary state is Maryland at this time. And those are the two areas where I have my WBE women business enterprise certifications as well. So I spend a fair amount of time in the public sector, as well as in commercial construction.

Jon O’Brien (03:17):

And concerning the certification, the WBE certification. You said two States, so Pennsylvania and Maryland, any lessons learned you’d like to pass on the future company owners or is that, or are we not have enough time for that?

Sandra Palone (03:35):

Well I will say this if I believe that the women business enterprise or the, what they call the disadvantaged is what it’s currently called. It’s kind of a bit of a umbrella term disadvantaged business enterprise, otherwise known as DBE. I think that these particular types of agencies and certifications are doing a really good work, trying to get people like myself involved in projects and whether that’s for a PennDOT project or whether it’s for a transit project. These agencies do a very good job of trying to do that. I will say that it is not an easy process getting certified. It’s not showing up and saying, Hey, I’m a woman. Gosh, I’d really like a certification. And that would be nice if it doesn’t work that way. It’s a very tedious process that is based off of mostly your financials and to show that you have financial control of your company. So I would say, go for it just don’t be daunted by the paperwork.

Chris Martin (04:55):

I’ve heard that too. And especially in the, you know, the marketing and advertising industry are there. It’s, I mean, obviously it’s the same across the board, but there’s a lot of there’s a lot of call for minority and women owned businesses, but Sandra, you mentioned working agencies, can you help our listeners understand what agencies you work with and what that means?

Sandra Palone (05:19):

So there are agencies that do, what’s called a, like a third party certification, and this is in a sense, like an independent certification process. And so what that means is instead of self-certifying, for instance, going to the state website and saying, I’m a woman own business click, it’s its own entity. If you will, these agencies, these third parties, and they actually have yes, a sort of a federal guideline as to what type information that they ask from you in order to determine your status. But they also have a component of an onsite audit to ensure that you are who you say you are and be that you do what you say you do. So that is all a part of it. And so one of the agencies that I am certified with that this called the Pennsylvania Unification Certification. I said that wrong. So I’m going to repeat it is the Pennsylvania Unified Certification Program PUCP and under that umbrella, is Southeastern Pennsylvania Transport Authority and a host of other government agencies such as in my area, Allegheny County.

Chris Martin (06:57):

Okay. So, as you’re working with these agencies, obviously setting and establishing your women business owned company, are you seeing advantages from that or are you running into more challenges?

Sandra Palone (07:15):

Both. and I’ll describe what I’m talking about. The nice thing about it is, it opens the door for me to bid on all kinds of projects. As I said, whether it’s a PennDOT project perhaps it’s something with a County, maybe it’s the turnpike or, or SEPTA. As I mentioned earlier, it gives me that opportunity to do that in order to meet certain goals that the general contractors normally have to meet the set asides, is that there’s a stigma out there. And difficulty, sometimes general contractors have with their own kind of qualification of people like myself to ensure that they are going to get an, one quality supplier to make sure that it’s not just someone who’s going to be a pass through. And so that’s where I think the real work is for a company like myself to differentiate myself. Sometimes they have to give me a shot in order to see what I can do for them. And what I have available to them is really my ability to service them as much as possible any opportunity I can to make their jobs a little easier. That’s how I distinguish myself. So, and that’s also how I break some of the stigma of what any woman business or a disadvantage business do.

Jon O’Brien (08:57):

Have you been involved at all with any of the DGS, the Department of General Services, any of their Best Value projects?

Sandra Palone (09:05):

Well, I’m working towards one now. We’ll see how it turns out. There is a DNA test lab that has recently been bid in Greensburg, Pennsylvania. That’s a DGS project. The types of projects that I go after, don’t always fall under DGS were the ones that I look for, but I do keep my eyes out for them.

Jon O’Brien (09:38):

Yeah. So over the past, you know, 15 years DGS has been using Best Value Contracting and, you know, to applaud them, they’ve been reaching out to stakeholders and various construction associations and various DBEs and general contractors, and they, I think they really want to get it right. When it comes to DBE and the bidding of a project, there have been, you know, quite a few black eyes with a lot of pass throughs, you know, assisting, you know, various contractors and getting work. And I think they’re on the on the right road to correcting these issues. I was just wondering if you’ve been involved in any of these peer groups or any of these feedback sessions that DGS claims to be holding them, they claim to be holding these events around the state.

Sandra Palone (10:32):

I have to say I haven’t been a part of that, but I do have an opinion and my opinion is that if it, the one way the great equalizer, you know, the common denominator, the way that things are checked seems to be through amounts of money on a project. So if you have a hundred dollar project and you need $12 of it to be with a woman own business, the easiest way to calculate that is to say, well, I’m buying $12 from this company therefore check the box. It’s just an easy way to do it. I personally think that beyond offering a product, which tends to push towards this pass-through scenario that they should look more for companies to offer an expertise in the form of say, if you want to call it consulting great.

Sandra Palone (11:40):

And what I’m getting at is whether it be onsite representation. As I started out saying, I started my business as a manufacturer’s rep, and you could take that through a project. If you know what you’re doing you could take your expertise and understanding of product and offering your service, if you will, as a value, add to a contractor whether it be in the form of really good communication to make sure that anticipate a problem that you might see down the road and take care of it before it happens ways to increase the quality of a project which also reduces the risk on a project for the contractor, finding ways to reduce risk. I can’t think of a better way to add value to a project than to help a contractor reduce their exposure. So that’s my opinion. Okay.

Chris Martin (12:53):

And Sandra is risk exposure, is that something that you offer in your consultation side of your business?

Sandra Palone (13:00):

That is what I market that I am available to work on projects in when I’m staying in my lane of understanding exactly the product and how it can help. I try to at least stay in my lane on that in my specialties as much as possible. But I do offer it and I find that some people say, huh, well, I don’t know if we need that. I mean, we have our project managers and these people have their project managers and I say, yeah, that’s true. I get it. But do you still have headaches? Do you still have issues with getting product? Do you still have when the product comes? Is there something not right. You know, I like to see myself as a bit of a conduit, someone who can help the contractor get the product that they need when they need it.

Sandra Palone (13:54):

And it’s just the part of my stamping on a project that Sandra Palona Associates was here. This product worked out really great. We’re really happy with it. It’s not an easy sell, but most, I think new ideas, if you will aren’t, they’re not easy sells, they’re a bit of an uphill climb. It is something that I continue to offer though, as a DBE, when I’m reselling, that’s what they’re getting, they’re buying that they may be buying a bit of a markup. But the markup is me making sure that’s what the value add is.

Chris Martin (14:35):

Okay. So you’re, you’re focused heavily on customer service and to that point, yeah. To that point, customer service is kind of one of those non-entities, if you will of the construction industry. So can you talk a little bit about how that customer service approach, as it relates to the construction industry is really beneficial.

Sandra Palone (15:03):

So if I am offering architectural precast to a Mason on a project and he calls and he says, Hey, there were supposed to be a 10 pallets, we got nine. Is he calling the manufacturer? No, he’s calling me, he’s calling me. And he’s saying, what’s going on with us? That’s when I go to work and do what I’ve got to do. So that’s what I’m trying to build. I’m trying to build some trust that I’m a seamless part of their operation, that I’m just another person on their team. And I’m the one they’re going to call for the product that they have come to me for. So regardless if everything’s great, and if everything’s so, so, or if there’s a hiccup, that’s what I think really helps. And here’s how you can tell if it works, do they call you again to quote something else and to work on another project that they have? That’s really the best way to measure if you’ve done a good job, in my opinion. And that’s where I operate from this sort of lather rinse, repeat type of mentality based off a service. So it is a non-tangible right? You can’t, it’s something you can’t say. Well, that value was worth is sort of that, but it is something that every project needs

Jon O’Brien (16:36):

Definitely. Yeah. Customer service is very important and definitely helps on future projects. But if you don’t mind, can we maybe travel back a little bit? Can we go back four and a half years? So was there a moment that like, you know what, I should start my own business and also along those lines where you’re fortunate or where you’re able to have any sort of mentors or coaches to kind of help you along. So take me back to 2016, what’s it like?

Sandra Palone (17:09):

Yeah, it’s a little scary. Yeah. 2016, you know, I’ll say this for those who just take a plunge into working for yourself, it may help to remain a teeny bit naive and extremely optimistic which is exactly what I had done. I didn’t have a whole lot going on at the time and early 2016. So let me just give a shout out as to what happened. And I have a mentor. Her name is Laura Kirkoff. I worked for Laura at my first precast plant known as Casscron Stone in Saxonburg, Pennsylvania area. She’s the one who taught me everything about precast. She’s the one who taught me about attention to detail. She was the first woman own business that I ever worked for. They’re third generation family owned business. And she was the best mentor a person could have.

Sandra Palone (18:14):

She was respected by architects, engineers, and by contractors, which is not an easy feat. I’ll say that. So kudos to Laura. Luckily I do represent her product line and it’s excellent stuff today. So I stay in touch. You remember the recession that happened and Castcon Stone was a precaster manufacturer. We were extremely specialized in the type of precast that we did. And the recession when it came along, there was very little vertical construction being built and being that we made 99% of what we did at that time was precast stairs. And we sold to precast garage producers. So there wasn’t a whole lot of that business going on. So we had some pretty slow years where we were trying to pick up the pieces and find other things to quote, and everybody was trying to quote the same work and there really wasn’t much to be had.

Sandra Palone (19:24):

So we basically scraped by for a long while. And at the end of my tenure there, I was went from a salary employee to a full time commission employee because you know, we didn’t really have enough work to pay everybody a paycheck. So if I sold something I’d make money and I thought these people have taken care of me, I’m going to, you know, I’m going to invest myself into these guys getting back to where to where that they worked. And so we did that problem was in 2011. The bills came due and over the course of that time, even though we were making money again, and the business, the economy had increased, you know, the bills became due and the company went bankrupt and it was a real shocker. So I was one of the statistics along with everybody else that I worked with including Laura, who lost their job.

Sandra Palone (20:34):

And so I, like a lot of other people, were thinking, what am I going to do now? It was still not the best market. And I went out to several other precast companies and interviewed and had a couple of offers. And I waited and me and a couple of my other colleagues helped reopen the plant when it was bought by another company. And I’m really glad I did that. So I got the experience of knowing what that’s like to kind of reopen something that was shut down. It was difficult to gain the trust back of our initial customers, but we were able to do it. Something had happened to me though in that timeframe. And I didn’t quite understand what it was is this little boy saying, I’m not sure if I’m supposed to be here.

Sandra Palone (21:33):

Even though we had hired back many of the same old people I just didn’t feel I was part of the culture of the larger company. And I decided to take another opportunity with a small civil engineering firm not too far away that also did land surveying. And I got to learn what it is to be on the front end of projects that are being designed from the site, whether it be a PennDOT type project or whether it be a commercial project. So it was great experience, but again, I felt, I don’t know what I’m doing if I’m going to be here full time. I just and what I mean by that is, I don’t know if I’m going to stick around. I just had this little thing in the back of my mind. And so in 2015 you know, like I applied for my EIN and basically packed up my stuff without a whole lot of commitment from companies to rep and said, I’m going to give this a shot. And that’s what I did. I took a plunge from a perfectly good paying job and decided to go into poverty for a little while

Sandra Palone (22:54):

Just to try it out. And at first it was really exhilarating, but it got a little scary going, wow. Now I did that. I left a paying job in order to work on my own. So it really instilled in me, I’ve got to do it now, now’s the time. And I was 50 and at the time, I was 50 and I figured if I’m going to do it, now’s the time. So that’s what I did. And so with the manufacturing representation, I figured I could rep for a few of these companies. And I mean, I don’t have the money to build my own precast plants, very expensive. So it would be kind of a nice way for me to get back into the industry. And I know I could make an impact.

Jon O’Brien (23:41):

A few years later and look at you,

Sandra Palone (23:50):

Go ahead.

Jon O’Brien (23:51):

I was getting ready to say that that it has, have kind of turned them. So are you mentoring instead of seeking for advice? Are you helping out other people?

Sandra Palone (24:01):

I do help out a few people and I do still have mentors. Laura has been a great mentor over the years but I do have other people in my life that mentor me and other entrepreneurs that sort of took the splash around the same time when we get together. When we talk about Hey, this is happening for me. Is this happening for you? So it’s really, really great to be able to do that. I, you know, and certainly I take a course here and there in order to do a combination of networking and also learning. And what I mean is places like UPMC University of Pittsburgh Medical Center will have construction management seminars that they offer. So it’s an opportunity to network, but it’s also an opportunity to learn how they expect a company like mine to work with them.

Chris Martin (25:16):

Well, it sounds like you’re just continuously learning and moving forward, so kudos to you for that. That’s fantastic. And obviously, you know, in a predominantly male dominated industry, it sounds like you’re making headway and moving things along. So congratulations.

Sandra Palone (25:35):

Thank you. I appreciate that.

Chris Martin (25:37):

And I know how much fun it is to start off on your own. I started my own business about 11 years ago and then a lot of sleepless nights. I know that feeling.

Sandra Palone (25:51):

Times I joke and I say, gosh, you know who’s the boss around here. And then I have to point the finger back at me. Good. If there’s any problems they’re mind to solve there, can’t deflect. So there are times though that I’d really like to deflect, but I don’t have that luxury right now. So yeah.

Jon O’Brien (26:18):

I too, just want to echo Chris, you know, she’s doing a great job and to be commended and, you know, just glad to know you and thank you. Yeah. Any other like major lessons learned you’d like to share with our audience, anyone that they’re thinking of taking the plunge and starting their own company, any, anything major you’d like to talk about?

Sandra Palone (26:40):

I would just like to say that don’t have the regret of not doing it. I am so grateful that I finally took the plunge and it’s a self-employment. And just to get out there and put my name out there, sometimes it’s a little scary at first, you put your own name on the company and you do that because you want people to know that the buck stops with you. When you first start out, sometimes there’s a sense of imposter syndrome, like, Oh, who am I to be telling, you know, these people, how I can help them. And then you get over it because you get hungry and you realize that you have to take all these steps in order to prove this. And I would say do it because not doing it is you’d regret it. I know that I would regret this.

Sandra Palone (27:35):

If I didn’t do it, what’s the worst thing that could happen. I could fail. Okay. But at least I had tried it and somebody liked me. I would regret not trying it. So I say do it. And I also say that if there’s an opportunity to work on a bigger project than what you’re used to working on talk to your mentors and basically work up the confidence and pursue it, just do it. I went from working on my very first project was a $6,500 project. And I had to beg that person to give me that work just so that I could get it. And my largest contract to date is $1.2 million. So we’ve gone from $6,500 to $1.2 million. So I say, go for it.

Jon O’Brien (28:28):

Bravo. Yeah, that’s awesome. And you know, I’m a supporter, a fan of yours and if you ever need anything, you know, think of, think of KCA. We’re always here to help when DGS reaches out, like I said, from time to time for feedback during the bidding process. And if you ever have any input you want me to pass on, you know, just, just let me know. And we’re here to help.

Sandra Palone (28:54):

Thank you. And Jon, I want to say this about the KCA. You guys have been great to me, and I appreciate that very much. And I want to say that those safety talks that you send I use those as an onsite representative for UPMC with the contract, a company I worked with every morning as a safety meeting. I want you to know that those went to good use.

Jon O’Brien (29:21):

Awesome. That’s always great to hear. I always wonder if people actually opened them on Monday morning. It’s always good to hear that. So thank you, Sandra. Oh, no. It’s like, yeah, thanks. I’ll make sure to pass that good word on to the staff.

Sandra Palone (29:43):

They’re worth it.

Chris Martin (29:45):

That’s good. Well, Sandra, thank you so much for joining us and sharing your insight. It was great to hear from you and most importantly as a listener download more episodes, more coming reach out to Sandra. And in fact, Sandra, how can that happen? Somebody to get a hold of you?

Sandra Palone (30:11):

So you can call me, you can call Sandra Palone and Associates. You can call me at (412) 965-0069, or you can email at slp@sandrapalone.net. And if you would like to see what I do feel free to look at www.sandrapalone.net.

Chris Martin (30:37):

Perfect. Perfect. Well, thank you. Thanks for joining us on the Building PA podcast. And as I mentioned before, there’s going to be a lot more episodes coming. So make sure you download and share with your colleagues in the office and thank you for joining us today. Thank you. And all the best to you this year and beyond. So keep it up.

Sandra Palone (31:04):

Thank you. Take care.

Jon O’Brien (31:06):

Alright. See ya.

Author: buildingpa

I am the proud father of three amazing daughters and I'm married to an awesome lady. When I'm not hanging with the family, I'm the executive director for the Keystone Contractors Association.

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