3 business women build a place in the contractor field
by Rosalyn Demaree
While home-repair contractors remain overwhelmingly male, females are gradually making it "women's work."
Sixteen Texas women working in construction started a support group in 1953 that's grown into the 5,500-member National Association of Women in Construction — one of several similar organizations in existence today.
While women in rugged trades remain a minority, their numbers and influence are growing. As the first in an occasional series exploring this topic, we take a look at three highly rated service providers who pursued careers once performed exclusively by men.
Sparks fly at first
Electrician Anna Procaccini is one of those self-employed pioneers. In 1978, she became the second woman licensed as an electrician in Dallas. Now she's chief electrician — and the only woman — at her business, Anna's Electric; her husband and three other men work for her.
She says women electricians who have worked for her have left to start families or found electrical work too difficult. Procaccini, 54, admits toting ladders and crawling to pull wire through attics is hard.
Employee Jesus Serrato finds her no different from male bosses, although he questioned the dynamic when Procaccini, the only woman electrician he knows, hired him nine years ago.
Growing up in a traditional Hispanic household, he says he wasn't familiar with women overseeing men.
"It's not much different than working for a man," Serrato says. "Anna's straightforward. I got real comfortable with her real fast."
Procaccini says gender was an obstacle early in her career, when she worked for the city.
"Inspectors and a few electricians were mean," she says. "I just wanted to make a living, not a statement. But I was a hard worker and accepted after four or five years."
Some customers have been less than enthusiastic when a woman reported on the job. Procaccini recalls one time, before she'd named her business Anna's Electric, a male customer closed the door in her face after proclaiming, "Well that just ain't right" when Procaccini introduced herself.
Angie's List member Richard York had no qualms about hiring a woman to do electrical work in his home. York says he appreciates Procaccini's candor and adherence to local building codes. After she completed some work, York wanted a ceiling fan installed. She turned down the work, explaining that the circuit breaker would have to be enlarged first.
"I've recommended her to other people, including my boss," he says.
Handywoman's best tool: creativity
Darien Tropf has built her Indianapolis business, The Handywoman, tool by tool.
She wields a screwdriver one day, a paintbrush another. And who knows what she needed — beyond determination — for one of her first jobs: Helping clean out a school biology lab freezer that had quit working months earlier and stored a two-headed calf specimen.
Tropf, 45, has held a variety of full-time positions, but credits that summer job when she was a teenager for framing her career.
She enjoyed doing the odd jobs around the school, did the work well and became convinced there are no career boundaries for women determined to do what they like.
Tropf says being a woman in a male-dominated occupation has advantages — she's so busy working by herself, she'd like to find a woman business partner to share the work. Women comprise at least 70 percent of her clients, according to Tropf, and older women in particular prefer hiring a female to work in their homes.
Angie's List member Nancy Nash, 63, hires The Handywoman repeatedly.
"A woman thinks about things in a house and knows how a house is supposed to be," she says of her reason for hiring Tropf.
To illustrate, she cites how a handyman's proposed solution fixed a problem with her French doors but narrowed the bathroom entry. Tropf's alternative didn't hamper movement and was attractive.
Tropf's advice for handymen?
"They need to know what women look for in a contractor, not an old boys' network," she says.
Lifting doesn't weigh down hauler
Some people called Patricia Doran crazy to start a physically challenging business when she was a woman in her late 30s.
"Our strength goes against us," acknowledges Doran, now 40 and owner of Annie Haul in Portland, Ore. But that hasn't stopped men or women from hiring her. "People trust [women] to treat their house like we would treat our own home.
"We don't walk in wearing muddy boots," she explains. "We're caring, particularly with seniors, and sensitive to issues like hoarding or working with a family of someone who's deceased. We have an emotional edge over men."
Her caring extends to the environment, and that has carved a niche for her hauling business. After a load is collected, most items are donated or recycled. That "conscientious disposal," Doran says, was missing in Portland when she moved from California in 2007.
To remove a king-sized mattress set from her attic, Angie's List member Gail Zuro hired Annie Haul because it was local and woman-owned; she loved the name — a twist on "Annie Hall" — and found the company's shamrock logo a clever symbol of Doran's Irish roots.
What impressed Zuro was how Doran and her partner Annie Murray completed the job.
"They had no issues taking all of my stuff and although the king mattress posed quite a challenge, they worked great together to get that monster down the steep stairs," Zuro wrote in her Angie's List review. She also appreciated the items were donated or recycled.
Working for a woman in a male-dominated job doesn't faze Maurice Holmes, an Annie Haul employee since March. "Women are more intuitive and organized than men," he says. "It's never an issue that my boss is a lady."