Women leaders are redefining the construction industry by creating a safe space where everyone feels valued and appreciated for who they are.
In a heavily male-dominated industry like construction, where women comprise only 10.9% of the workforce, women-led construction management companies are quite rare. This makes Laurie Allen, CEO, and Monique Allen, President of ACMS, outliers in this industry.
However, that has not stopped them from growing ACMS Northwest into Portland’s premier women-owned, COBID-certified construction management and inspection services firm.
Discovering a love for heavy construction
While Laurie fell into the construction and civil engineering industry quite by accident, Monique’s decision to join the construction management industry was made after she joined her father for a bring-your-child-to-work day in high school.
“I learned so much in one day and it changed my life,” says Monique. “My inspiration came from my parents and being associated with other strong women that are in the same industry.”
For Laurie, a temporary position kickstarted her career in the AEI consultant world. “I found out I LOVE heavy construction, it’s fascinating!” says Laurie. “My career even provided me the opportunity to visit our tunnel inspector on the tunnel boring machine (TBM) which happened to be 160’ beneath the Willamette River. Not many can say they have been there!”
Even though she had pretty much gone as far as she could in her career, contributing to the success of her employer, Laurie did not want to simply join the competition, so she began thinking of starting her own C/M firm. “I have learned the skills and mechanics of the operations. What I needed was to squash the negativity and get out of my own way,” she says. When Laurie’s father told her to “do it!” quickly, without hesitation, and with great conviction, that’s when she knew it was time. “My next question was, ‘Monique, do you want to do this with me?’”
Surviving through the lean years
For both, Laurie and Monique Allen, the prospect of starting a new business was not without challenges. Laurie resigned from her 19-year position a few months after her father had passed away, battling a very aggressive form of cancer.
In addition, as she had already helped her previous employer win all of the contracts, there were literally no contracts to win. They knew going in that there would be at least three very lean years ahead. ACMS won their first contract in 2015 but it did not become active until August of 2016.
“Ours was a very humble beginning with the office located in a bedroom of my home. I had expenses, so I took a job at the Moda Center bartending at the Local Cork wine bar, but that was not enough to cover bills,” recalls Laurie.
So she also worked as a bartender for a year and took on part-time catering jobs. “That was hard work, very physical – catering is not a cakewalk,” she says. “The top caterers are just really good at making it seem effortless.”
Laurie even poured beverages for former clients and the best moment for her was when a Division Manager of a prospective client stopped by the wine bar to tell her that she “would be getting very busy in the near future”.
When ACMS won a large and significant contract, she gave her notice and left her years in customer service positions behind, though she treasures the many valuable lessons she learned.
For Monique, life before ACMS involved working for other engineering and environmental firms. At one point, she had to quit her job and work at Jenny Craig until ACMS won enough contracts to get up and running. “Not easy!” she says.
However, their willingness to take the negatives and turn them into a positive, overcoming the roadblocks that fate had thrown at them, paid off in the long run.
“Those early years were the perfect time to get the news out about ACMS and essentially ‘start over’ in establishing a presence in the area. We’re now entering our ninth year in business and expanding,” says Laurie.
Getting the job done with Vision, Innovation, and Passion
Today, ACMS is a woman and minority-owned Civil Engineering firm that specializes in construction management, roadway/utility design, project controls and inspection services.
Their scope of services includes construction, management, inspection services, civil design, and emergency preparedness and response. Their website is www.acmsnw.com.
“We are based in the northwest because we are from the northwest,” says Laurie. “Our company is certified as an ESB/WBE/DBE firm and we are honored to provide professional services to public and private sector clients within the Pacific Northwest.”
“At ACMS, we believe in striving for excellence,” says Monique. “Our clients come first with our VIP Services which stands for Vision, Innovation, and Passion as our driving force in delivering on our promise to get the job done right the first time.”
Laurie believes that the sky is the limit for ACMS. Her goal is to continue to provide opportunities to women and people of color and be known as a local firm that truly cares about their people.
Her vision for the future of the company includes their expansion into Washington and Idaho, growing talent from within the organization, and teaming with at least one of their clients to implement their inspector training program.
Challenges come in Many Forms
Laurie believes that what does not destroy you only makes you stronger. Challenges teach us to never give up, to look for the good, to find the best possible solution, to think fast and respond accordingly, depending on the situation. Even in discouraging moments, she looks for the good.
“One of my biggest roadblocks was me,” Laurie admits. “For as much as I liked to think I was a positive person, looking back I realize now that I harbored a lot of self-doubt, which manifested into negative thoughts that translated into me convincing myself that ‘I can’t’ instead of looking a little deeper for why ‘I could, I can, I got this, I am.”
Describing herself as “Resilient”, Monique believes that certain challenges, like racism, sexism and projected imposter syndrome, should not be piled on top of the additional hurdles of starting a new business.
“I have dealt with all of these and more,” she says. “It’s taught me that hard work, dedication, knowledge, and dependability do not always get you the win and also that’s not a reason to give up. In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. – We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”
Redefining the construction industry
Laurie’s experience in strategic planning and client relations and Monique’s experience of over 15 years in business development and marketing, have both played a significant role in the growth of ACMS Northwest.
But what sets them apart is that they do not overpromise and under deliver. Instead, they listen to their clients and staff, ask questions to make sure they understand what they want and what is most important to them, and then make it happen. They believe in sharing their experiences with their staff, listening to what they have to say, and working alongside them behind the scenes.
“I am not sure if I’m redefining the industry or simply keeping some long-standing traditions alive such as being approachable, dependable, and attentive to the needs of our clients and employees. Perhaps that is, in fact, how I’m redefining our industry,” says Laurie. “We like to ‘keep it real’ at ACMS, and I believe our clients and staff both really appreciate it.”
“Adjoining myself with someone who agrees that treating our employees well is important, along with showing them how much we care about them as well as our clients, makes a big difference for growth,” says Monique.
This approach is helping ACMS Northwest redefine the construction industry and their clients and employees have nothing but commendation for them, as is evident by their repeat business and recognition.
“It also draws like-minded ones to us and that is not something you can fake,” says Monique. “We start each week with staff and inspector meetings and we start each meeting with a safety topic. Promoting a safe culture in our professional and personal lives is very important to us.
Raising the bar as Leaders
ACMS puts a strong emphasis on education and tries to elevate people to the next level and promote from within. As a leader, Laurie takes it upon herself to ensure their staff has the tools and professional development to empower them in their positions and be successful. She believes that taking the time to follow-up and not leave anyone hanging goes a long way.
“My strengths as a leader include humility, determination, and experience, patience, taking calculated risks, honesty, and focus. Leaders have no one to lead if their team is not standing with them,” she says. “At ACMS we definitely have each other’s backs! I work ‘with’ our staff rather than them working ‘for’ me.”
Laurie defines herself as “Adaptable,” and believes in expecting the unexpected.
“In addition to my responsibilities as CEO of ACMS, I am also billable on a mega wastewater treatment plant expansion program here in Portland. My team consists of Project Controls Specialists, a solid Construction Manager, and Civil Inspectors for the project that has a substantial completion date of 2024,” she says.
Monique communicates with current clients and potential clients, keeps their internal staff coordinated and involved, and works on bringing in new business. She believes that great leadership creates great teamwork, which equals a great outcome for the product.
In addition to providing the best in company benefits that they can, Laurie and Monique appreciate and recognize their staff on their successes and accomplishments. They also extend compassion and offer support when that is needed.
“We have a great deal of respect for our team and do our best to reward them accordingly. Our team is the key to our success!” she says.
Cherishing the Ultimate Recognition
Monique started her career as an administrative assistant at the Columbia Boulevard Wastewater Treatment Plant in the 90’s. She names her best professional recognition as being selected as a Woman of Vision and ACMS being recognized as one of the top 100 best businesses to work for in Oregon, 2022.
“My best personal recognition is when the young girls from elementary school say I want to grow up and be a boss just like those ladies, and when my parents tell me how proud they are of me,” she says.
Laurie recalls a time when there was one person who wanted to try out for a spot in the inspector training program, but he did not think he had a chance. Thanks to her encouraging words, he made it into the program and is now employed as a public works inspector with a large municipality. To this day, when she hears someone say she helped them start their career, or that “everyone wants to come to work for you,” it makes her feel really good inside.
“However, the ultimate recognition was the pride in my mother’s eyes when she would read about an accomplishment of mine,” she says. “My parents were my biggest fans and supporters.”
Inspiring Change as Women Leaders
Monique strongly feels that as a woman in the construction industry, she has a responsibility to reach out and empower other women.
Her plans for the future of ACMS are to keep expanding, be known for having happy employees who provide quality services and being a leader in employing women and people of color. She speaks on topics that women are dealing with, and is involved in organizations like Women in Transportation, to encourage other women in the industry.
“I currently serve on the board as a co-chair for DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion),” says Monique. “We also are proud of exceeding external expectations for having women and people of color on our projects. Our Inspector Trainee Program also gives priority to including women and people of color.”
She hopes to inspire change by giving opportunities to other women and interacting with elementary school-age girls and youth to show them representation, as well as examples of themselves in lead positions. In fact, ACMS Northwest sponsored a school reading program, as well as a pizza party for the students, to congratulate them on their achievements.
“Some of the little girls were overheard saying they want to be a boss one day just like us,” says Laurie. “When I heard this, I paused for a moment to reflect. It takes me back to the Reverend Jessie Jackson who used to say, ‘If my mind can conceive it, my heart can believe it, I know I can achieve it’. Those children may or may not understand anything about construction, but they saw females who are bosses and felt inspired to be a boss one day too.”
Laurie’s goal is to continue to inspire the next generations to believe in themselves, and know that, they can be successful regardless of gender or anything else – just keep on keeping on! She feels it is important to help people see their potential, especially when they do not see it in themselves, and chart a path to help them get to where they want to be.
“I firmly believe women should be supportive and not competitive towards one another,” she says. “Whenever I have the opportunity, I make purchases through other local, small women-owned business to show support. We can all rise together if we try.”
Monique defines success as that happy circumstance when you love what you do, can keep your integrity, and find balance with the professional, personal, spiritual, and recreational parts of your life. She does not believe in doing anything that adversely affects one’s mental, emotional, physical health or spiritual well-being.
“Balance in my personal and professional life takes work. If you have a field and you plant corn seeds, corn will grow,” she says. “If you sit back and do nothing, guess what? Weeds will grow, take over, and choke everything out. You must make time for what is important and decide what your priorities are.”
Laurie defines success as achieving one’s goals while helping others reach their own, and doing it with integrity. She recalls a song called Humble and Kind, by Tim McGraw, that resonates with her:
“When those dreams you’re dreamin’ come to you, when the work you put in is realized, let yourself feel the pride but always stay humble and kind and when you get where you’re going, don’t forget turn back around and help the next one in line.”
Laurie’s message for aspiring women is to never give up, to believe in yourself, and surround yourself with people who believe in you too. She works hard and plays hard, enjoys the things most important to her – family, friends, music, and nature – and focuses on gratitude and appreciation for all of the support, guidance, encouragement, and lessons received along the way.
“I do not think any of us get to where we are going all by ourselves, I know I sure haven’t,” she says. “I am and will be eternally grateful for every one of the people who took the time to help me in my journey. In turn, I have been able to help quite a few people achieve their career goals, and that is a really good feeling.”
“The message I would tell aspiring women in leadership, in the words of Michelle Obama – Bring excellence to everything you do!,” says Monique. “Never allow someone to make you feel like you don’t belong and keep your inner circle of trusted and supportive ones strong.”