This week’s woman in construction feature is Elissa Looney, Senior Strategic Initiatives Manager at Perlo. A 13-year veteran of Perlo, Elissa’s current role includes working with internal teams on new directives, improving operations, efficiency with processes and protocols, and new business pursuits. Prior to this position, Elissa founded Perlo’s Special Projects Group (SPG), creating a department that contributed nearly $17 million in small projects to company revenue with four project managers and seven superintendents at the time she passed the torch in 2019. She was also a recipient of the Portland Business Journal’s 2021 Forty under 40 class!
We asked the women in our office to submit questions for Elissa to answer for today’s article. Keep reading to learn more about Elissa’s time in the construction industry.
What led you to the construction industry?
My Dad. He’s one of the owner’s of Perlo, and when I was looking at going to college, he would tell me, ‘I think you’d be an excellent project manager’. I knew how hard he had worked in his career and I wasn’t sure I wanted those long hours to be my life, so I didn’t think it would be the career for me.
In 2005 while I was home on summer break, I came to work here and was the assistant to the assistants. The company was trying to decide if they needed more help and figured they could test it out on me, since I would be there only temporarily. So, I refilled the printers with paper, helped organize submittals, made calls to subcontractors, helped with filing and whatever else was needed. When I went back to school, they hired a permanent person for the role. I did that for one more summer and then asked for something more challenging, so in my third summer I was an intern and learned more about estimating and project management. I guess it stuck, because I asked for a job upon graduation and was lucky enough to be given one.
What was the first project you managed and what was your favorite or most challenging project?
I have to admit, I don’t remember what my first project was. I’m sure it was something really small. But I do know what my favorite project, or series of projects was.
Perlo built the original building for Portland French Bakery (PFB) many years ago. As all buildings need, they’ve made some upgrades and replaced their roof and I ran those projects as the project manager. The people there are awesome. One of their owners, Dave, likes to tell stories, and he always wanted me to bring my dogs by to visit (outside the bakery, of course). And they always sent me home with their delicious bread. It has always been my favorite fresh from the bakery, but once you’ve had it right off the line? No bread compares—it’s the best.
Additionally, PFB’s projects were always made more complex because it’s a food production facility and they operate 24/7. We had to be very careful to contain all construction debris and dust, and carefully plan logistics to complete their work. It’s always challenging, but always rewarding.
What does your current role entail?
I wear a lot of hats in my current role. I work with almost every department on some kind of strategic initiative. It might be implementing new programs, such as our warehouse consumables purchasing program. It might be working with our onboarding teams to create more formal onboarding training. I also work on our DEI initiatives and scholarship program, with marketing on web articles and RFP pursuits, and some business development.
I get to work with our project managers, superintendents, support staff, accounting, and executives in any given week. I get to be the person that figures out how to get the right people in the room with the expertise to create and manage each program moving forward. It’s been incredibly rewarding, and I enjoy it a lot.
Have you felt the need to work harder and prove yourself more since your Dad is one of the owners?
Absolutely. When I was younger, I absolutely felt that some people didn’t think I belonged or that I’d only been given the job because of my Dad. In some ways, that may ring true to some based on my education (business degree, not a CEM or engineering degree).
For the most part, I think I’ve proven myself, but I know it can be natural for people to sometimes make judgements about me and my abilities and think that I haven’t earned my place here. I have always been grateful that my path here has been different than a traditional project manager, though. I’ve been challenged with starting new company programs my whole career, from my first task of improving our subcontractor tracking programs when I was fresh out of school, to starting and developing the Special Projects Group. That means it’s hard to compare my performance to others because it’s so unique.
How did you manage projects and SPG without a CEM degree?
The short answer is that it was a lot of trial and error, and, I had a lot of help! In the beginning, SPG was focused only on very tiny repairs and maintenance items. Things like finding a leak in a roof or wall, installing a new door opening, or ‘fluff and buff’ projects where we just updated carpet and paint. Really, it was more about customer service, logistics and the business side of profit and loss, making the department run efficiently, and things like that.
It was a year or two into SPG that we started tackling larger projects with more formal drawings, structural concerns, etc. So, I had the benefit of learning the ropes of the industry and the customer service side of operating the business without needing a ton of engineering specific knowledge. When I did start learning those things, I asked a lot of questions, studied hard and leaned on my coworkers and superintendents to help me.
A lot of construction management is about customer service, controlling expectations, and paying attention to the cost of work.
What is some of the best advice you have received when it comes to women working in construction?
“Be yourself. You don’t have to think about yourself as being different than others, just work hard and do your job.” I was told this very early in my career by a woman who had been in the industry for a long time, and she was spot on. It’s been harder to be the boss’s daughter than be a woman in the industry.
What is your mantra?
“I’m not sure how, but I will.”
I actually have a sign in my office that says this. I’ve always been one to look at a goal and start moving towards it. I don’t usually know exactly how I’m going to get there, but I figure it out. Sometimes the end goal moves, and typically it is better in the end than I even imagined it to be. I find that this attitude helps me to think outside the box and stay creative. In construction, we can’t look at things the same way each time, because each project is different. If I can’t see an immediate solution, I keep asking questions and looking into possibilities until I find something that works for us and our client. There is always a way if we’re willing to look hard enough to find it.
What personal qualities help you succeed at your job?
Persistence. Determination. A willingness to fail and try again, and to ask a lot of questions to find the right answers.
Where do you see yourself and Perlo in 5 or 10 years? Do you think there will be more women hired/promoted to management positions?
I think this is a hard question to answer for myself. I hope that I continue to progress and join our highest-level leadership teams. I really enjoy what I’m doing now, as this work is giving me valuable experience that should help propel me forward. As for Perlo, I think we will continue to grow and expand geographically. I think the sky is the limit for us as a company and the people who work here to pursue higher volumes, more complex projects, and a wider range of market sectors.
I do think we will see more women hired and/or promoted into leadership positions. When I started here there weren’t any other female project managers, and the only female department head was in accounting. We’ve increased how many women are in project management roles by a significant margin since then. The reality is there aren’t a lot of women in construction and it’s going to take some time for the ‘younger’ generation to gain enough experience that we can reach the highest positions. But it’s definitely coming, and the industry will be better for it.
What is your proudest personal accomplishment?
I have a hard time feeling ‘proud’ of my accomplishments, I suppose because they just feel like things I should have done anyways, because it’s my job. They are things that I committed to and should be expected of me. But if I have to choose, I think I have two:
First, I feel really grateful that I was chosen to be the 2016 CREW Portland Chapter President. I turned 30 the year that I served, and the ladies of CREW Portland are all such an amazing group of women. It was an honor that they felt I was prepared to lead them. I learned a lot from that group – and still do, to this day!
Second, the founding and building of SPG. It was a new department and I had very little direction to go on when I was tasked with starting it at 23 years old. It morphed and grew, and I had fantastic team members. It was also the department that hired our second and third female project managers. I learned so much from the superintendents that worked with me, the subcontractors that worked with me, and it felt a lot like it was our own small company within the larger company. It was a very unique opportunity that become a successful part of our company fabric. I am definitely proud of that work.
What advice would you give to women seeking excellence in this industry?
Work hard, become an expert, but never be afraid to ask questions or ask for help. Have a bit of a thick skin, but don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself, either. Advocate for yourself when you need to, and read the following books:
The Confidence Code, by Kathy Kay and Claire Shipman
Grit, The Power of Passion and Perseverance, by Angela Duckworth
Dare to Lead, by Brene Brown
Alpha Dog, by Mark Breslin
The Culture Code, by Daniel Coyle
Peak, Secrets from the new Science of Expertise, by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool
And finally, be yourself. You don’t have to be ‘one of the guys’ to make it in this industry. Be good at your job, become an expert, ask smart questions, and be yourself.
Thank you, Elissa, for sharing your story with us today. We appreciate you!