Making the [New York] City & State 2022 Construction Power 100 is no easy feat. Deborah Bradley, president of Deborah Bradley Construction & Management Services (DBC), did it by building solid relationships, participating in mentorship programs, leveraging minority- and women-owned (M/WBE) certification programs, and her ability to learn on the job fast and well.
Bradley’s path into the construction industry was accidental and rocky. She worked for Deloitte Touche as a CPA before moving to New York to go to Columbia Business School for her MBA.
She worked her way through school. But, when she needed surgery to get tumors removed from her ovaries, the small finance firm she worked for fired her. Having $150,000 of school debt, she didn’t have the money nor the inclination to sue.
However, her firing was a clarion call. It was the early 1990s and corporations didn’t have parental-leave policies or the facilities to pump breastmilk at work that Bradley wanted so she could be the mother she wanted to be. Bradley wanted to breastfeed her children at work. To have that flexibility, she had to start her own company.
Bradley had some business ideas, but then an unexpected opportunity knocked. She was living in Columbia housing and the superintendent for her building came to fix something in her apartment. He asked her for help. The company he worked for had gone belly up and he would lose his job.
Bradley spoke to real estate agents who managed Columbia-owned properties to get the lay of the land. She started DBC in 1993, and the rest, as they say, is history.
With no money, she used a life insurance policy as collateral to borrow $2,000 for insurance for her new company, buying a used truck, and supplies. The superintendent knew everyone and the phone started ringing.
But all was not right. DBC’s books didn’t look right to Bradley. The guy she was helping was embezzling money from her. She fired him and hired someone who still works for her today.
To learn about the construction industry, Bradley went on site to understand residential construction projects, from plumbing to electrical wiring, from the field. She was a fast learner.
Bradley learned about the NYC School Construction Authority (SCA) mentorship program through the grapevine. She applied and got in, and it was back to learning the basics in a new part of the industry.
Bradley had to learn how to estimate projects and manage large-scale institutional projects. Her mentor was TDX Construction. “They taught me the ins and outs of working with SCA,” she said. They still team together on big projects.
It wasn’t always smooth sailing. There was a lot Bradley didn’t know. “But if you tell me once, that’s all you have to do,” she said. “I’ll do it right after that.”
Bradley learned a lot and made lifelong business relationships. “The [SCA] model of earn-and-learn is a great one,” she said. Classroom learning can’t compete.
SCA’s also had a graduate mentor program that covers bonding, insurance, and keeping your financial house in order. She applied and got into it. A contract bond—aka construction surety bond or contractor bond—guarantees the performance of obligations under a contract. Bradley’s company had a bond for $2 million, but, to win more significant projects, she needed a bigger bond.
Bradley shopped around with no success until she met with one of the owners of USA Insurance. He asked about her background, which gave him the confidence to give her company a $6 million bond. “This enabled us to apply for and win bigger projects,” said Bradley. “I won six projects.”
“I found out about the SBA 504 loan program,” said Bradley. It can be used to purchase and improve the property, and to buy machinery and equipment. She purchased a property in Harlem, where her office is still located.
Diversification has been key to the construction company’s growth. DBC does general contracting; electrical contracting; construction management services; and capacity building, mentoring, and field supervision in these industries:
- Education, including K-12 and higher education
- Emergency & Rapid Response
- Corrections and Justice
- Health & Life Sciences, including hospitals. healthcare facilities and laboratories
- Green Infrastructure & Resiliency
- Parks and Recreation
- Transportation (Transit and Aviation) & Infrastructure
- Utilities & Energy
Bradley now has women-owned certifications with NY City and State agencies, federal agencies, and corporations. She leverages them all.
Still, growth hasn’t been a straight line. Bradley’s company nearly went bankrupt twice. The first time was when construction projects in Manhattan shut down after 9/11. The second time was caused by the Financial Crisis, which for the construction industry lasted from 2008 through 2014. “We slowly crawled back,” said Bradley.
By the time the Covid-19 pandemic happened, she had built a safety net and had more resilience. PPP loans and Covid-19 emergency projects also helped. “NYC wanted to work with as many M/WBEs [NYC certified minority- and women-owned businesses] as possible,” said Bradley. “We end up with a fair number of emergency projects.”
Finding skilled workers is an ongoing challenge. The construction industry has an aging population and the next generation doesn’t have the necessary trade skills.
As others have helped her, she helps those starting and growing their business. Bradley loves mentoring. “I love to mentor,” she said. “I never want anybody to go through the challenges I faced without having somebody to ask questions to.”
She helped start the Women Builders Council and is a past president and on the executive board. She mentors for SCA, Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA)—which is responsible for public transportation in the New York City metropolitan area—NYC Department of Small Business Services (SBS). I met Bradley through the SBS M/WBE Mentorship program, which my company manages.
How will you take advantage of mentorship opportunities?