Maria Bennett joined the asphalt industry and Lehman-Roberts Company, Memphis, Tennessee, in 2018 and works for the company as its contract administrator. She switched careers from a local bank in Memphis, where she’d worked her way up from an insurance processor to vice president of collections and special assets. “My move up the ladder was a sixteen-year journey that I was very proud of and the promotions, as well as my husband’s time in the National Guard, helped to pay for the education my husband needed to complete his schooling.”
Once her husband graduated and landed his dream job as a flight paramedic, Bennett saw him excited to go to work each day. “He was happier and really loved what he was doing. It was then that I realized I was envious of his excitement and love of his job. The bank experience had been really good to me and had helped me grow professionally, but just because I was good at it didn’t mean I was happy doing it. The atmosphere was very corporate, and I never felt like I could just be me, like I always had to walk a line to be what everyone expected me to be.”
With the extra expense of school behind them, Bennett had the freedom to look for “something else.” Her aunt, who had been working in construction for over 20 years, suggested a company that was looking for a contract administrator. Bennett took the plunge and applied to Lehman-Roberts.
“It was one of the best things to ever happen to me. I am at a place that is professional yet does have that genuine family feel.”
Bennett took some time out to share her experience as a woman of asphalt.
AsphaltPro: What part of your education would you recommend or “highlight” to others wishing to join this segment of the construction industry?
Maria Bennett: There are so many wonderful areas to get involved in within this industry, whether you are just graduating high school or hold a master’s degree.
There are people that I work with that never went to college who simply started out with a shovel and determination. They’ve since worked their way up to foremen, managers and the top “go to” people in our field. That’s what I believe makes this industry so amazing. There is a place for everyone.
I was able to bring my computer knowledge, management skills, and system knowledge I had learned from banking and found ways to apply it to my job here at Lehman-Roberts.
AsphaltPro: What do you find most rewarding about your role as contract administrator for Lehman-Roberts?
Maria Bennett: The appreciation I get from my peers and my management team makes me feel like the hard work and all the effort I put into my job is absolutely worth it. I love the feeling of getting everything ready for a new project because it’s always something different. The processes may be similar, but the jobs always have their own “flavor.” I feel like I will be doing this job for another 25 years and will still be learning new things every day.
There are so many people and pieces involved with a project (The subcontractors, the plants, the haulers, the project managers, the administration, HR, the crews, etc.) that when a project is complete, you can’t help but sit back and say to yourself, “Wow! That’s incredible! All those cogs in the wheel worked out perfectly!” That always amazes me.
Maria Bennett: My main duty is processing all the paperwork with the project owners and any subcontractors we may use for a project. I handle the contracts and subcontracts to make sure that we are in compliance with the required paperwork like the monthly payment and progress forms for the different states and counties. I also post the state and city estimates and process the quantities for the subcontractors for payment. I work directly with seven project managers, so the projects and workload can add up quickly. There’s never a dull day. From processing accounts receivable (AR) and accounts payable (AP), ordering bonds, ordering plans and specs, managing vendors, posting estimates and contracts, I am never bored.
AsphaltPro: Why did you choose to become a contract administrator? What about that position is “most cool” to you?
Maria Bennett: I am very detail oriented and the paperwork that is involved in a project can be overwhelming, especially if you have 10 or more subcontractors on a project! So, I loved the challenge of making this role organized and the process smooth. I was given free rein to set up my position as I saw fit. I’ve really been able to make my position transparent and easy to follow up on. Thanks to the faith my team had in me, I was able to really make this position my own. I have it so organized now that anyone can see what step we’re on at any given time. I love being busy and there is never a dull moment. I thrive when I’m busy, it helps me focus and the day flies by. This position is a multitasker’s dream.
AsphaltPro: What do you think is the most important skill you’ve brought to your position as a contract administrator in the asphalt/construction industry? (And how would you encourage other women entering the industry to hone a similar skill?)
Maria Bennett: Organization! I think that women in general have superior organizational skills. I believe that women have always had to be the ones to organize not only their lives, but everyone else’s too. I see so many working women juggling their jobs, their family’s schedules, outings, and vacations, and these women do it with such grace. They are the ones making sure everyone is on the same page and that the world is on track. I think those natural skills give women the advantage because they are able to look at something and have the ability to communicate clearly what needs to be done.
AsphaltPro: Would you like to share a skill you’ve learned on the job since joining Lehman-Roberts that surprised you OR one that you think other women entering the industry would find beneficial?
Maria Bennett: Honestly, I have taken my skills from my previous job and have been able to apply a lot of them here. I think women may be nervous about joining this industry because they believe it will be so foreign to them. But it isn’t. Trust me when I tell you that I never imagined that I would use all my Microsoft Excel skills in construction! It’s just like any other business environment that needs a million hands in it to run smoothly. You get to learn about estimates and bidding, and a lot of other things that make paving new roads work. But it’s also comforting to know that it’s just like any other job where you have to learn their systems and their procedures. For example, in banking you must learn about many different laws and compliance regulations. It’s the same in the construction industry. There are laws and compliance regs that you must follow here as well. So, once you get into this industry, you will find it’s not as scary, intimidating, or as foreign as you may think it is. That was a very pleasant surprise for me personally.
AsphaltPro: What would you say was the most challenging “obstacle” you, as a female in the construction/asphalt industry, had to overcome in the past four years, and how DID you overcome that obstacle?
Maria Bennett: I initially had two reservations about going into this industry. The first was being a woman in what I thought was a male-dominated field. The second was being super novice. I knew nothing about asphalt or what it took to do what we do. I was surprised to realize it is not as male-dominated as I thought! I find myself surrounded by hard working and fully supportive women. Some as new as myself, and some with tons of years under their belt. Every one of them has been open and welcoming and eager to share their knowledge, which really helped me to find my place in this company/industry. In addition, I also deal with subcontractors every day, and the majority of those contacts are women. So many wonderful women that are contributing to this industry from payroll to estimates to project management and I had no idea. The whole feeling I had about being an outsider in this industry did not last long. The second obstacle I had to overcome was really one that could be for anyone starting a whole new career, no matter what industry they may be going into. I went from knowing everything to not knowing a thing and having to learn all over again. I’ll be trying to overcome that obstacle for years to come, I’m sure, but I am absolutely looking forward to it. I left banking when I was 38 years old. The fear of going to a whole new career path was almost too daunting, but I wanted to have a job that fit me and I wasn’t going to find it by not getting myself out there. With a good company, you will find the training needed to be the best at your position.
AsphaltPro: Let’s talk about teamwork. What is the most challenging project you’ve been a part of and how did you and the team overcome the challenge?
Maria Bennett: We had a project where one of our subcontractors was having a hard time reconciling their quantities with the project owner. I wound up building a spreadsheet of the quantities that were turned in by the subs versus what was paid by the owner. (Lovely regular office skills!) After sitting down and working with the subs, the project manager, and the owner, we were able to find the issues and fix them to where everyone was happy and felt that they had all been treated fairly. I take that as a feather in my cap, since I had never dealt with the subcontractor quantities before that (other than just pulling them in from what the estimate stated). So, this was a whole new perspective for me. It took three groups to get those quantities agreed upon and thanks to the reputation that Lehman-Roberts had with the subcontractor, we were able to work everything out respectfully and still have a wonderful relationship with them.
AsphaltPro: Let’s talk about perceptions. It’s a fact that asphalt paving or construction in general can be hot and dusty. How do you respond to people who say it’s a “dirty job?”
Maria Bennett: They are right. There are a lot of positions in this industry that make you go home craving a shower as soon as you walk in the door. But that’s because they are hard working men and women putting that labor out there to give society that smooth road to work, to school, and to home. It’s an honorable job and one that we as a society desperately need. It takes a VERY strong person to stand in Mid-South humidity next to an asphalt machine spouting out 300-degree asphalt. That is something that should be respected. There is a lot that goes into paving a road. There is so much papwerwork, teamwork, administrative work, and a million other duties—yet not all of it is outdoor labor. You can find anything from driving, mining, payroll, accounts payable, accounts receivable, logistics, surveying, IT, programming, communications, and so much more. A woman can absolutely find her place here and rock it.
AsphaltPro: What do you think is an incorrect perception that we, as an industry, can re-educate young people about to encourage more women to consider a career in the asphalt business?
Maria Bennett: This is not just a man’s industry anymore. More and more women are joining the workforce in this field and this field needs us. It is an industry that you can grow with and absolutely shine in. Women are capable of so much and there is so much this industry can offer us. It is also a field that is needed no matter where you move in this world. The world will always need roads and a strong infrastructure. It’s an industry that isn’t a fad or the current new thing. It’s job security in a field that you could grow in, learn so much, and never get bored with it because it’s always changing.
AsphaltPro: What is the most challenging aspect for you of being in the asphalt/construction business?
Maria Bennett: I like to get things done, but with this type of work, I found that I had to really work on patience. I can’t do everything myself because so many hands are in a project. Sometimes it can be challenging to deal with that because you’re waiting for everyone to do their part in order for you to continue yours.
For example, I will complete the subcontract packages and send those out to the subs. Then, I have to wait for their paperwork to come back. Then, I submit those subcontracts and required documentation to the DOT for their approval and have to wait for them to get approved.
I find myself moving forward with momentum and then in the blink of an eye, I can shift to waiting on DOT, the subs, or the project managers to do their part to move the process forward. It’s part of really learning how to be a team and how everyone has a hand in all the projects.
AsphaltPro: What is the most rewarding aspect for you of being in the asphalt/construction business?
Maria Bennett: Being able to see the end result. To see a completed project and know that I had a hand in it. That is a good feeling. Nothing beats riding in to work with a cup of coffee on a road I helped get completed and it’s smooth as butter. I’m always so proud of our teams.
AsphaltPro: Will you tell us about a person who served as a mentor for you and is there a piece of advice from this person that you would share with other women in the industry?
Maria Bennett: I have been incredibly fortunate to have many mentors in my life. I have spent my 42 years surrounded by strong women. It’s very hard to list just one. There have been so many women to influence who I am today from my mother, my aunts and my grandmothers. My mother taught me the value of being a hard worker and responsible. My aunts taught me how to have fun and be nerdy while at the same time being strong and confident. My grandmothers taught me kindness, empathy and to appreciate every day I’m given on this earth because tomorrow is never promised.
I am very blessed to be able to say that these women are still very much a part of my life. They teach me so much by how they live their own lives. To see my Aunt Bonnie working as a construction manager for the city and how many glass ceilings she shattered to get to where she is today is both humbling and awe inspiring. To see my mother work so hard at her job and then come home and work hard to make her house a home for her family. To see my Bubbi fight cancer for over 20 years and still live life to the fullest. To see my Nana caring for all the wild animals and plants in her yard and how she is always going out of her way to make sure we all have food to eat and that we still make time together as a family. To see my Aunt Joni working hard at her successful career and still making time to be a kid whenever Star Wars is mentioned and not caring what anyone else thinks because she is happy. All these things have molded me into the well-rounded person I believe myself to be today.
One thing all the women in my life have told me without fail is that you miss 100% of the shots you don’t make.
I didn’t know anything about the asphalt industry when I applied four years ago and as scary as that was to make such a huge change in my life, I am so glad I did. I made my shot, despite my fear, and now I work for an excellent company that truly cares about their people and community. I encourage women to take that shot and realize that we are all powerhouses in our own right and that we can do anything together, even take over the asphalt industry.