Women in Construction – Debra Cobun, Controller


Continuing with our series on Women in Construction, this week we’re talking with Perlo’s Controller, Debra Cobun. A great asset to us since 2005, Debra works in our accounting department as our Controller and was one of our recent Employee Spotlight recipients. We’re learning more about her career, what she’s learned about the industry and the advice she has for others who might be interested in pursuing a career in construction accounting.

Tell us about what your current role is, and what that means for the company?

In a nutshell, my position as Controller is part of the checks and balances of accounting that prevents fraud, whether internal or external. I’m essentially financial support for the company. I look for accounting errors, review invoices, manage cash flow, review sales tax, profit sharing and things like that. I also look for process improvement strategies.

With all of the financial processes that a construction company has, you really need two people to oversee accounting, so we also have a Director of Finance here. I supervise and manage the accounting department, and handle day-to-day operations, answer questions and help solve any issues that come up. To be a controller, you need to have an accounting degree because you have to do ledger adjustments and complete inter-company transactions and that kind of thing. While there’s a lot of on-the-job training, my position is a lot of very traditional accounting work, too.

What do you think the most interesting thing about construction accounting is?

It’s different. For instance, in manufacturing accounting you account for raw goods, work-in-process and then finished product.  But in construction the work in process part of accounting is really different than accounting for other businesses because the work is so complex and takes so long. The government/IRS determines how a company recognizes revenue, so that guides some of how we operate. To learn this type of accounting, you really need on-the-job training for the work-in-progress schedule of construction; they don’t teach it to you in school. It’s ideal to start by learning the basics and then working your way up through all of the different processes before you get to my level so that you really understand the ins and outs of how numbers work in construction.

It’s also fun watching buildings be built through numbers.  You can tell where the building is at based on what invoices are coming through the door. For instance, when I see batches of concrete invoices come in, I know they’re pouring the slab, and when the next batch comes through, it’s the walls. And we often go out and visit the sites, so we get to see the action, too.  

What led you to the construction industry?

I essentially got started right after college. I briefly had a job in accounting for a restaurant/hospitality company and then moved to construction with a materials supplier. They supplied bricks to construction projects, including some really famous projects. I was living in Klamath Falls, Oregon, at the time. Then my husband relocated for his job, so I moved up here and started interviewing for accounting jobs where I found an electrical contractor to work for.

At the electrical company, I worked my way up to Controller and held that job for more than a dozen years. I moved over to Perlo in 2005 to take over the controller role when the current person was retiring from that position. So, I guess I kind of ‘fell’ into construction. It wasn’t really intentional, but it’s been fun and an interesting way to work in accounting. 

Do you have any favorite stories or memories you can share from your career?

I enjoy the culture and team building events. At a past company, we built floats for parades each year.  That was really fun.  We’d also go sturgeon and salmon fishing and do things like that.  I like those kinds of team building events, and we’ve done things at Perlo like having a bowling team, among other things.  

One of my favorite career events was when I became President of the Construction Financial Management Association (CFMA), and we traveled to Jackson Hole, Wyoming for leadership training. They had really great leadership exercises, plus visiting the area as a tourist was great. We did scavenger hunts around the area, visited museums and it was fun. It was a neat opportunity and a beautiful place. We even got stuck in a traffic jam because of buffalo crossing the road!

What changes have you seen in construction accounting over the course of your career?

Personal computers were just coming around when I began in the industry. My first accounting job was on a pegboard system. We posted the general ledger by hand, did payroll by hand.  We had books to look up payroll taxes instead of checking online. Technology has come a long way since then. You know, I lived through the age of dial up internet, too. Aside from technology, there’s a lot more regulation, especially after the ENRON scandal at the end of the 90’s. We now have Sarbanes-Oxley Compliance, where IT systems and accounting are now audited. Accounting has always been audited, but it’s more extensive with the regulations that were enacted to prevent fraudulent financial reporting from occurring.  

What changes have you seen in the general construction industry over the course of your career?

Similar to the changes in accounting, there’s been a lot of technology upgrades and increased regulation of the industry as a whole. Safety practices have increased significantly.  When I worked in manufacturing, safety wasn’t really a priority. The industry is starting to diversify a bit, although some groups might still feel a bit excluded. I know when I started in electrical work the industry was almost exclusively white males, at least here in the Northwest, and that’s changed. There seems to be more sophistication, now, too. When I was young, around 24-25 years old, harassment was pretty normal. It was normal to get calls from older men that said ‘Oh honey, let me take you to lunch,’ and they’d be married! I think there’s much less of that. It was normalized then, and you had to put up with a lot. It made you stronger to deal with it, but it’s far less common, now. There’s still a few unsavory characters out there, but not like it used to be.

My view has changed a bit now that I’m kind of at the ‘top’ of my career and I need to be training and mentoring those below me instead of trying to ‘compete’ to be at the top. I think you have to make your own mistakes, but I try to prevent those below me from making the same ones I did.

What do you see for the future of the construction industry?

I think technology is going to continue to improve. I imagine we well see a lot more building with things like 3-D printers, for instance, to make parts and things. I also think sustainability will be a bigger focus. As we have materials shortages, we’ll probably need to find more local suppliers and more sustainable sources to utilize, too. Prefabrication may become more common, which a lot of the sub trades have been doing for quite some time, but I’m guessing it will become even more commonplace.

Do you see women advancing in the industry? Why or why not?

I think so. There’s been a lot of progress. We need more, though. Women presidents still aren’t common unless they’re minority owned companies. But it’s coming.  

What advice do you have for people who may be interested in accounting in the construction industry?

Get your Certified Public Accounting (CPA) certification. If you’re already in accounting, join CFMA. They host specialized construction training, have discussions about financial issues specific to construction, things like that. I’d also say to learn all you can. Learn every aspect of the job, from the ground up. It makes it easier to supervise others and understand every aspect of the work to help coach those below you.

What are you most proud of in your career?

That I worked my way up. It means I have learned a lot and done a good job.  Others could see that I could be a controller, including my peers. In the old days, controllers often weren’t great with people, and I wanted to get along. If you want to know about good industry changes, you can no longer be snarky to people and be a controller or else people won’t tell you things that they should. Be firm, but nice. This position is not just about technical skills, it’s also about people skills. So, don’t forget that part when you’re learning.

What kind of culture shift have you seen at Perlo?

It used to be super conservative and risk averse here.  We were always ‘safe’.  Now it seems like nothing is out of reach.  We can take risks and try new things. We’ve diversified our market sectors, including doing prevailing wage work, now, which is a big shift for accounting. Additionally, we’re a much more outgoing group. We try to have social interactions and make it a fun place to work. The activities and culture building that we do includes all departments where it used to feel like the PM’s were sort of more privileged. Other departments feel more valued now.

 Is there anything else you’d like to share?

Everyone has made mistakes and ‘been’ there. And that’s ok. It’s important to learn from those mistakes, remember them and don’t repeat them. Some people want to do it all…but at some point, don’t try to do everything because you won’t be able to master it all. Do one or two things well, pick a direction and then be the best at those areas.  And make sure you enjoy them so you can excel over time.

Final Thoughts

Many thanks to Debra for sharing her thoughts with us today! If you’d like to find out more about employment opportunities at Perlo, check out our Careers page now.