We’re back to homebuilding this week, following our profiles of a 43-year-old architecture partner and a 23-year-old site superintendent. For our third post in the Future of the Field series, we talked with Sandra Malm, a 26-year-old project manager who grew up in her family’s homebuilding business, the McLean, VA–based Craftmark Homes.
She now helps to oversee the construction of infill spec homes for one of its divisions, BeaconCrest Homes, on lots in and around the Washington, DC, metro area that are walkable to public transit — targeting the growing class of millennial homebuyers in the region.
We talked with Malm, who graduated from Wake Forest University in 2012 with a Bachelor’s degree in business and enterprise management, about how she got started in the industry, her job today, the mentoring tactics that have been most useful to her and how outside interests like teaching yoga influence her work.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
How did you get started in the business?
MALM: My first job in construction was when I was 16 working for Craftmark in the customer service department. I was answering the phones for homeowners that had problems [with their properties], which was an interesting way to jump into the business. Summers after that, I worked in the settlements department, and I also worked for another company, Elm Street Development, as a land developer doing market surveys for possible new communities on a much larger scale.
Did you think you always think you’d pursue homebuilding?
MALM: I did. I wanted to own my dad’s company when I was young. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve seen how much responsibility and scale that the guys at the head of our company take on. I have a lot of respect and awe for what they take on every day.
How has that impacted your career trajectory so far? It seems like you’ve put some thought into the work experiences you’ve pursued.
MALM: I’m trying to be mindful as I navigate my career changes. I’m interested in homebuilding because I love being a part of architectural history. I like being able to walk into my creations, walk by my creations, years later. I worked in media for a couple of years and found that I wasn’t fulfilled. I’m interested in having a job that allows you to move and is also involved with the physical environment.
Did your family advise or encourage you as far as work experience that would be good to have?
MALM: When I was younger, I was very interested in working in the field, and they protected me from that — in that, they weren’t comfortable sending a teenage girl onto a construction site. I used to push back against that. To some extent they were justified in simply how I handled myself at 16, 17, 18 years old standing up to people who might not expect to see me on the job site. It wasn’t until I was 25 that I was given a job as an assistant project manager on a job site and I was very much able to handle it.
People are often surprised when they learn that I’m the superintendent. I wouldn’t call it sexism as much as assumptions are made and you have to overcome them. Once you lay down your intention, people are very quick to get with the program. It took a couple of years of professional development to be able to handle things in a way that was confident and professional.
What are some specific tactics or approaches you take in a situation where you may be second-guessed?
MALM: I give so much credit to my immediate team. My immediate supervisor is not a family member. He’s a wealth of knowledge, and having him just a phone call away allows me to step into situations where I might not know the answer but confidently know that I can get it. Even today, I had someone ask me, "Where is the super?" I said, "I am the super." He laughed, and then gave me the question. It’s just a matter of not taking things personally.
So you had some experience in customer service, land development and even media. What kind of project experience did you have before becoming a manager on a job site?
MALM: Zero. I was thrown into it with heavy supervision. The first house I did was a renovation, and I was paired with contractors that we’ve worked with for many years. My job as a project manager is to get things done on time and on budget with the contractors that my contracts manager has already lined up for me. We have a fabulous contracts manager, and I’m grateful to have her because once she lines up the contractors, I know that she’s already negotiated the proposals and that she trusts them to get the job done. Then the ball’s in my court.
What flexibility do you have to try out new things?
MALM: One of my kind of brainchilds was a pre-drywall open house. The house is very beautiful when it’s freshly swept out before insulation is in and it’s just framing and tech wires. You can kind of imagine the home coming together without any finishes on it. For my first new house, I got that place looking as swept out and as clean as you can get a job site to look, and we had an open house. I printed out pictures of the light fixtures, the appliances, some of the finishes that would be in the house. I outlined them in blue and used bullet-points to describe what the finishes were, making it a kind of interactive tour. As you walked through the house you would see these blue placards explaining [potential finishes].
We sold three houses from that one open house — the one the open house was held in, which was the first house I completed, and then two more homes that were on the horizon in our own schedule.
How did you sell the idea of the open house to the rest of the team?
MALM: Our sales woman had someone walk the house that week, so I had swept it out. We heard their reflections about how great it looked and how much interest it piqued. When you can only see plans on paper, people who aren’t familiar with the industry can have a hard time imaging from blueprints what the final product is going to look like. When you walk through it, you can really feel the spaces.
What advice do you have for companies on how to mentor an emerging professional — maybe something that worked for you?
MALM: Make time once a week to have an update without any issues to address. Many times we only speak when there’s a problem, and our once-weekly meetings are time to give updates that aren’t necessarily a problem — funny things that happened, positive things that happened, conversations with our installers. Otherwise, everything is kind of a fast pace — emails, text messages, problem solving.
I’d also say that, in the beginning, give more information than you need to. Often I’m walking a house with [my supervisor] or one of the other project managers who are senior to me, and they’ll just talk about why things are done a certain way or how things used to be done and changes that have been made. They don’t have to be giving me all this information. They do it at their own free will, and it’s been invaluable to me. I’m on my fourth house now and can pretty much get from start to finish with very few questions unless something goes wrong.
What’s a typical work day look like for you?
MALM: I arrive on the job site between 7 and 7:30 a.m. to open the doors and meet with whoever is on schedule for that day. I make sure they have what they need, play traffic cop to make sure we’re not blocking residential streets, and then I go behind them to make sure they’re building to code and to plan. That usually lasts until 3:30 p.m. or so, at which point I go back to the office and work on my marketing tasks. I’m in charge of marketing for BeaconCrest. Every day is a little bit different.
A couple times a week I look at lots that we’re considering buying. I mostly depend on Redfin to show me what’s on sale in my area. If I see something in my price range, I’ll drive by just to see what it’s like, what the neighbors are like. You have to be there physically — get out of your car, face the wind, look around, listen for traffic — before you go back to the office and tell someone you have a find.
What have you learned from your work teaching yoga, and how does that apply to your work in the industry?
MALM: My experience in the yoga studio is by far my best teacher when it comes to leading on the job site. Mindfulness is a key skill. So much of managing a job site is about having your eyes open and catching things before they go wrong. That requires being awake, observing and being ready for the unexpected. Lots of times I need to get people to do things that they don’t want to do, whether it’s to correct a mistake or dig deeper or double check their work. Being able to be present with them and empathize has helped me run a clean job site and get things done on time.
What have you noticed about perceptions of women and their role in the industry?
MALM: I’ve found much less pushback on the job site. There, it’s about getting the work done as quickly as we can and building it to plan. As soon as they accept that I’m the superintendent, they just want the answer from me. When I was working in land acquisition, the pushback was much more subtle. When trying to make deals, I often didn’t feel taken seriously and would have to put a lot of effort into saying who I am, making it clear who my family was, dropping my whole resume before the conversation got to anything real. Whereas, you know, 25-year-old guys who were in the same position as me at that time were already talking business. I think it’s going to be tougher to equalize in the board room and across the negotiation tables than it is on the job site.
I think that the assumption is the reverse.
MALM: On the job site, it’s blatant and over quickly. In the land acquisition world, they want to know about my life, they want to know about my boyfriend, they want to know if they can do hot yoga. It’s very hard to get down to the business details, which, quite honestly, turned me off the land acquisition game. Part of my motivation for getting out in the field [with BeaconCrest] was to increase my expertise so that when I go back into the land acquisition game, I can speak from a more grounded place.
Where do you see yourself, career-wise, in the next 10 years?
MALM: One of the paths I’m considering is going back to work for Craftmark full-time as their land acquisition manager. That door is open to me, and it was my role for a short amount of time. For a number of reasons because of the feedback I was getting from other industry professionals, I didn’t think I was ready for it. In 10 years, I think, I will have enough experience to step back into that role and make deals for Craftmark.