When Mary McNamara got started in the roofing business nearly 30 years ago, she was used to being the only woman on the floor at construction conferences.
Correction: the only woman there to talk business.
“When I first started going to conventions, most of the women at these roofing conventions were models,” McNamara said.
Leaning back in her chair in a conference room at Cornell Roofing & Sheet Metal Company in Independence, the company president’s face held in half a smile.
“It was obvious that I wasn’t a model,” she said. “I was there to try and sell product and promote our company.”
Her status as a gender minority didn’t change when she joined Cornell in 2006. She purchased the company in 2007 and became president. At client meetings and board gatherings, McNamara said she is still typically the only woman there.
“It didn’t mean that I got anything easier, because you still have a huge national roofing company here and an attorney here, a Belgian here,” McNamara said. “All I was trying to do is report and tell them what I thought from a business sense.”
McNamara is part of the roughly 10 percent of female construction workers, according to a 2014 report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
As a child – the daughter of an accountant and a roofing businessman – she saw herself becoming a trial attorney. But her analytical brain found a home in accounting and eventually at the top at Cornell, a nearly 100-year-old company.
Asked what she’s most proud of in her company, it’s not the $2.5 million contract she won from Kansas City Power and Light or her company’s role in crafting Kansas City’s skyline by helping build One Light luxury apartment complex. It centers instead around affordable insurance for her employees and their families. McNamara speaks caringly about the 80-employee company she leads.
She sees herself as responsible not only for 80 employees but for 80 households. She says that getting caught up with any one thing, be it price volatility or the challenges of being a woman in a male-dominated industry, is fruitless distraction.
Finding her footing
She and her then-husband moved to Missouri in 1985.
She bounced around among industries for a couple years, including a stint at a clothing store, restaurant manager at the Ground Round Grill & Bar and at a public accounting firm.
That’s where she learned that accounting wasn’t for her.
“You’d have to go in, and you didn’t want to go in, but you’d have to audit this company. You’d have some guy breathing down your neck while he goes, ‘here’ and shows you the books,” McNamara said. “I felt way under qualified.”
“And the person sitting behind me could have duped me — and probably did — in a minute,” she said.
Nevertheless, it was an experience that illustrated to her how central accounting was to all business.
“If you’re going to have a business and own a business, you better understand the finances,” she said. “If you don’t understand the basics, you better find someone that does who you trust.”
McNamara’s day starts like many others’: checking emails in bed, checking the weather.
“If I hear thunder, I put the covers over my head and wait another two hours,” McNamara said with a grin. “Just kidding.”
She shows up between 6:30 and 7 a.m., making her one of the last people to start the day at Cornell.
Depending on their project load, McNamara said the staff could show up as early as 2 a.m., especially during the summer. The early light means it’s already warm by morning rush hour. During the summer, it’s not uncommon for the roofers to be on site by 5 a.m.
“By the time I get in, most of the time — especially in the summer — everyone’s out,” she said.
While the workers are on site, McNamara is at her desk vetting prospects, chasing leads, handling the finances, liaising with local business groups or any of a number of other responsibilities on her plate.
She has a foot in 10 different boards and organizations. Some tie in directly to her business, like being the Women’s Business Enterprise representative for labor and building trades. Others are further removed, like being on the Kansas City Missouri Workforce board.
McNamara has been recently elected chair of the Independence Economic Development Council. The EDC’s 27-member board elected McNamara to a two-year term that ends in June 2017.
Tom Lesnak, president of the Independence Economic Development Council, said that through her leadership, the council wants to expand the Ennovation Center, an Independence business incubator, as well as identify locations for additional industrial business parks.
Lesnak said business leaders like McNamara are a go-to for local business groups because of the applied experience they can bring to commerce boosters.
“She understands helping create jobs and creating capital investment,” Lesnak said. “She’s hired people. She gets it.”
Time spent on the public side is not time away from developing roofing. McNamara has a broader view of her business identity than just the bottom line. It more closely matches something like citizenship.
It’s an approach that’s won McNamara the Kansas City Business Journal’s “Women Who Mean Business” award.
“The awards are cool. Don’t get me wrong: they’re very, very cool,” she said. “But my main goal for the 80 people that work here is that we have a place to come work tomorrow.”
Of course, McNamara is first and foremost a business leader, but, “I tell people I’m not going to make the money that I want off one job,” she said.
It’s a personal objective of hers to rely on advertising as little as possible. Her company’s work and its satisfied customers should speak on their own.
“I’ve got to keep a good reputation in town. I want someone saying that we use Cornell because we kept a promise to them. That’s what our motto is about: 'Making promises and keeping promises.’”
Those were values she inherited from her previous company, European-owned commercial roofing firm Derbigum. McNamara was there from 1988 to 2005 serving as a senior financial officer.
The company started in 1932 in Brussels, Belgium, and developed a distinction as a reputable roofing company with a stated interest in high-quality, long-lasting materials and environmentally friendly practices.
“In reality, in Europe, their roofing practices have always been more sustainable and more long lasting than in the United States,” McNamara said.
The company was introduced to the U.S. market when contractors-turned-investors purchased the marketing and manufacturing rights to Derbigum in 1979 touting durable, long-lasting roofs with a smaller footprint than their typically cheaper competitors.
Cheaper doesn’t always get you the contract, McNamara said. There’s a strong appetite for a high-quality product that would deliver more years of use out of building.
Nevertheless, “today, construction is much more,” she said, pausing, “value oriented. I’ll put it that way.”
“‘How fast can you get that building up? How fast can you get that roof on so we can turn the lights and the cash register on?’”
“Roofs are very, very expensive,” she said. “Most people don’t think twice about their roofs unless there’s water coming in.”
“I’d much rather you have a building that will last for 30 years.”
Just 'tell the truth'
McNamara’s business philosophy seems to stand against a deep cache of breathless how-to literature: “do this thing, all successful people do this before work,” or “one secret to money management that could change your life,” etc.
McNamara prefers a less flashy approach. One of her central tenets: “Be honest.”
McNamara said there’s a strong case to be made for frank and open dealings between coworkers and teams.
“I just tell them ‘Tell the truth,’” even if it’s ugly, she said.
“The sooner we know about mistakes, the sooner we get a chance to recover. And if you’re not making those mistakes, you’re probably covering something up.”
“And trust me, my mistakes will be larger than everyone else’s,” she added.
McNamara wants her employees leading a healthy workplace culture alongside her. It’s not only impossible for her to be involved in every decision her staff makes on behalf of her company, it’s also poor business practice.
“Warren Buffett doesn’t go out onto one of his production lines and build that widget or whatever he owns,” she said. “What he’s doing is taking care of the big picture.”
“But you also create a culture,” she said. “I want it to be a culture of trust and teamwork because, especially in small business, everyone is dependent on each other.”
“It’s about giving them the tools they need so that they can better communicate and better manage the people they have to manage,” she said.
McNamara said her business’ success leans heavily on the ability of her employees to access the tools and training they need. It might seem like a frill — and an added cost — to have her foreman leave the field for leadership training seminars, but she’s taken a concerted interest in ensuring that a professional work environment doesn’t just come together when she walks through a job site.
Her approach takes apart the walls between white- and blue-collar groups. She asserts that there is real value in ensuring her employees know how to convey their ideas, communicate and problem solve as well as put the actual roof on.
It’s a liberal arts education-styled approach to management that McNamara said is key to her business’ success.
“If you’re going to develop them, you have to develop them,” she said.
That means no one is promoted on a hunch, that real training occurs when additional responsibilities are assigned.
“You can’t just assume that someone’s going to have natural leadership talents,” she said.
Wally Geib, a 26-year employee who rose to field superintendent when McNamara took over, said the new leadership fomented a more cohesive company culture with better communication.
“She’s a very good listener, puts a lot of trust and faith in her employees,” Gieb said.
Geib said McNamara also makes a point of communicating the company’s values through her engagement in philanthropies and charitable giving.
“She is a wonderful business owner, cares about her employees, and always puts them first,” he said.