“Four years ago, if you had said to me, ‘Mary, you are going to own a construction company that does $15M in volume, you are going to bring it back to life when it was on the brink and with the help of an amazing team, you’re going to be at the helm leading it,” I would have laughed and said, ‘You are insane!’,” says kindergarten teacher-turned-stay-at-home mom-turned CEO of construction company Wyatt Builds.
Four years ago, Mary’s husband, then-CEO of his construction company, died in a tragic plane crash, turning her into a widow, single mother of two young daughters and CEO of a construction firm overnight. But despite her fear, grief and complete lack of construction knowledge, she not only took up the mantle and kept the company’s projects afloat, she also turned herself into a force to be reckoned with. Says Mary, “It’s amazing what happens when you are willing to show up and just try.”
We are delighted to introduce today’s inspiring FACE of Birmingham, Mary Wyatt.
Tell us about your role as CEO of Wyatt Builds.
When John died, I remember meeting with our surety agent, Jeff Wilson. I was a deer in headlights, and he said, “Construction is a people business. If you operate with integrity and you treat people right, that will take you as far as you want to go.” And I walked away thinking, “OK, I can do that. I can talk to just about anyone. If that’s at the core of this, then I’ll get the rest figured out.” And so engaging with our subcontractors, developers, owners and architects will always be my most pivotal role.
How did you learn a new industry and keep the company moving forward?
My first step was just showing up, stepping out of my car and walking into the building. I knew I had a strong support system in place. I needed someone with a building science background to fill John’s role. And then, I just listened to the vocabulary and asked lots of questions. Whether it was walking a job site, meeting with my CFO, sitting in on owner-architect meetings or spending nights on the sofa with a glass of wine reading through construction magazines — I knew I had to grasp the basics and then a time would come when I would drill down.
But I think the most critical thing I did was to enroll in this Future Leaders in Construction (FLIC) course at our local Associated Builders & Contractors (ABC) Chapter. Stepping out and trying to educate myself was a vulnerable process but profoundly impactful. I remember sitting in one of the courses and I thought, I’m listening to a foreign language. I came home for lunch and just cried. I thought, How am I ever going to do this? I don’t even know what they are talking about. But I went back, and it just all started clicking.
How did you get through it all emotionally?
It was an absolute roller coaster. People would tell me, “Get out. This is a risky business. It’ll eat you up.” But then the larger voices were, “You can do this. It will be good for you. Look at the example of resiliency you’re setting for your daughters. Look at the platform you have. You’re going to be a woman in construction. Look at what that will bring.”
And then the man who led FLIC, Jim Schug, who has become my mentor and biggest cheerleader, wrote me, saying, “Mary, you’ve been dealt a terrible blow, but from this, you have an extraordinary opportunity and gift in front of you, if you choose to seize it.” And I’ve always held onto those words. See I have goosebumps — because I knew zero about construction; I didn’t even know other working women. I have nothing in my arsenal that would make me successful in this.
But you have something that has made you successful. What is that piece of you?
I mean, I knew I had two choices: Curl up and die or go out and make something good come of this. And that was what was driving me, that resiliency, that desire to fight, that desire to not let this define who I was going to be. I told myself, What do you have to lose, Mary? Go for it. If the business fails, it fails. But at least you can say you tried. I got to the point where I knew I was going to go all in, and even if I fell flat on my face and everyone saw me, I was still going to try. And I had to be OK with that in my head — I had to be OK with failing.
How did you do that?
A lot of positive self-talk, and I listened to a lot of books on tape — Lean In, The Confidence Code. I retrained my thoughts; instead of thinking I’m going to fail or worrying about that possibility, envisioning what our future could look like. It was very cathartic for me to visualize continuing my life without my husband’s company and leading a purposeful and meaningful life. I wrote down goals: Move our office downtown by 2017. Get a project downtown. Increase our negotiated work. All of these daunting things that I had no clue how to do, but all the pieces started coming together.
What advice do you have for those dealing with their own grief, as well as that of young children?
From the moment I saw that John’s plane had crashed, I knew that how I grieved would affect the rest of my life. I chose to grieve fully and openly — I allowed myself to feel it all, to do the hard work of grieving. I wanted to feel the anger, the deep sorrow, the acute pain, because I knew I had to go through all of that to be able to get out on the other side and move forward in my life.
One of the first things I did was call the Amelia Center — they offer grief counseling for families, and they sent me great resources. I mean, I didn’t even use the word death. But, now there was no escaping that very brutal fact of life for my children. I remember bathing the girls the night before the funeral and reading about how to talk to your children about a funeral. Thank goodness we have that resource, because I couldn’t come up with those words. I couldn’t even fathom what was happening. So it helped me to say, “This is what the day will look like tomorrow. This is what it means to be dead.” — all very black and white, which is what they needed in order to understand it.
What did this tragedy and this huge transition into the construction industry teach you?
That we are capable of so much more than we could ever imagine. We are so paralyzed by fear, but it is amazing what happens when you are willing to just show up and try.
What is it like to be a woman in this male-dominated industry?
I definitely stick out. I think they don’t really know what to do with me, and I don’t really know what to do with them, so we are kind of on a level playing field. [Laughs] I remember walking into a room full of mostly men and I said to my mentor, Jim Schug, “I’m scared out of my mind.” And he said, “Mary, they are probably more scared of you than you are of them.” And my whole countenance changed. Now I just own it. I bring something different to the table.
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Do you have any advice for women, particularly moms, who want to become entrepreneurs?
Find your tribe. I think it is really important to have that tribe of women supporting women. Reach out to those people and surround yourself with a team who will take the time to support you and advise you.
What is your proudest accomplishment?
My proudest accomplishment is being four years out and having a thriving business and thriving children and being happy. I didn’t know if I would ever be happy again, and now here I am, sitting in this office downtown surrounded by wonderful friends and family, and we just signed our largest contract to date, a historic renovation, converting the American Life building downtown into 140 apartments.
What is your best piece of advice?
Activity breeds activity.
Besides faith, family and friends, name three things you can’t live without.
Hairspray, a glass of wine in the evenings and my Outlook calendar
Thanks so much to Mary Wyatt for the interview and to Eric and Jamie Photography for these beautiful photos!
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