Kathleen Buono is one of Perlo’s powerhouse Project Managers. As the child of a real estate developer, Kathleen was exposed to the real estate industry from a young age, but her path to Perlo and construction project management wasn’t a straight path. We took some time to sit down and find out more about her story.
Tell us how you got into construction and what you did prior to this career?
I was a commercial real estate appraiser for 18 years prior to working for Perlo, and I actually have a degree in History. Well into my appraisal career, I was looking for a change, but it was during the last recession, so I stayed longer than I wanted to.
I started doing informational interviews with people I trusted about what their jobs were like to figure out what I could do next. I started looking at finance, business, property management, and real estate development. Over drinks at a baby shower for a fellow CREW (Commercial Real Estate for Women) member, I got to talking with Elissa Looney about what she does in construction, and she said she’d be happy to talk to me. We met up for coffee and talked about skillsets for project managers and there were a lot of overlaps there. A few months later she called me and offered me a job at Perlo.
How were you initially exposed to real estate?
My Dad retired as Vice President of PacTrust, a local real estate trust and developer, so I had been exposed to real estate a bit as a kid. I got pictures of the whole process because PacTrust did both development and management, from permitting and planning, construction and the ongoing property management, so I learned a lot about all of those things over the years.
The real estate appraisal company that I worked for previously was owned by one of our neighbors – I babysat his kids growing up – and I had done an informational interview with him. It was a very male dominated field, and he recommended I interview a woman in the field before committing to it. So that’s what I did and ended up pursuing that as my first career.
What was it like changing careers midstream?
I thought it would be a lot scarier than it was. I didn’t do it for so long because I felt like what I did as an appraiser was very specific and that the skill set wouldn’t apply to other careers. When you are mired in what you do on a daily basis, it’s hard to know that the soft skills that make you good at what you do can apply to other things. It took me awhile to figure out that those skills were transferable and I didn’t have to be a bean counter for the rest of my life. The informational interview process made it less scary. And then of course, Perlo being an opening and welcoming environment made it less scary, as well.
Tell us about your position at Perlo.
I’m a Project Manager in our Special Projects Group (SPG), and that group has morphed pretty substantially since I’ve been here. When I started it was more about repairs and maintenance type work for past clients, and now we’re very integral with our interior tenant improvements (TI’s), both large and small. I still handle the small maintenance items for our longtime clients, doing things like taking out a door and sidelite or helping them with concrete repairs. At the same time I’m running a $500,000 build out with new dock pits and levelers and adding offices and conference rooms in an existing industrial building.
My job requires a lot of time management – that’s integral to project management. Especially TI’s, which have a short timeline. You have to be able to structure your day and still be able to respond quickly as things change.
What do you like about project management?
The best thing about what I do is seeing people get really excited and happy as their projects come together. A lot of people can’t visualize what things will be when it’s just drawings on paper, but as we build it, people get excited about it. It’s hugely rewarding to provide that kind of service to people.
I like that the projects change and the challenges that come with that. Even with different TI’s in the same building, each one has its own challenges. Sometimes achieving a short schedule is most important, but the person next door might think a certain feature is most important.
There’s always the challenge of finding the best way to repair things in a creative way that will provide the result that the client wants and longevity of the repairs. I like the short term quality of SPG. Our TI’s aren’t typically longer than three months, and some projects are even just a day or two. So it’s always changing, it’s never the same day twice.
What do you find particularly challenging about project management?
Clients tend to delay what they knew they needed, and so time is exceedingly critical, and everybody wants their work done yesterday. It can be stressful to try to convey realistic expectations – sometimes I feel like I’m saying no too often. Time is not our friend.
What skills are required to be successful?
You need to be detail oriented, organized, a self-starter, and resourceful. You need to have an innate sense of curiosity combined with resourcefulness. You have to be able to find information for yourself and know when to ask questions. You have to be independent, and a resourceful researcher to find the answers that you need, whether that’s from Google or our company server or another PM, architect, etc. And staying diligent about finding the answers you need until you determine the right answer.
What has been your most challenging project to date?
Probably a tie between the VLMK building renovation and the Tuality OR remodels. Both were complex projects. On VLMK, even the manufacturer of the tectum tiles that we needed to replace hadn’t seen it used in the manner that existed on this building. And the OR’s because time was such a factor. We had three weeks to completely gut and remodel two OR’s in an active hospital, and that was challenging.
Do you find that being a woman in construction presents particular challenges?
I think on rare occasions, but less so now. I felt like when I was newer to the industry, men might have assumed that I didn’t know enough to do the job. But very quickly, that became a non-issue. I do think you have to be a particular type of woman to work in construction because it’s so male dominated.
Where do you see the industry heading in the next 5 – 10 years?
Certainly we are becoming more digitized. All of our plans and processes are digital, nothing is paper any longer. The integration of technology like Building Information Modeling (BIM) is going to infiltrate construction even more. Reliance and implementation of technology, reliance on IT professionals is going to be required to be a larger contractor.
On the 5 year horizon, I see continued strength in the industrial market, particularly the distribution side with the growth of online shopping during COVID-19. I think adaptive reuse of office buildings will be coming as people realize that remote working is effective, but I don’t think that will be as big a deal on the 10 year horizon as it will be in the near term. Employees will start asking to be a part of company culture again.
What advice do you have for someone who might want to pursue project management?
The informational interviews I did were integral to figuring out what I wanted to do. I looked at a lot of roles in the commercial real estate sector and construction project management was by far more interesting to me than most other positions that I looked into. I do think development would be interesting, though. So my advice is to do lots of interviews. Find out what their everyday is like, what the skillsets you need are and think critically about whether you like those. You have to like a fast changing world and uncertainty in construction.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
Perlo’s a great place to work. It’s a wonderful company to work for. There’s a reason we’ve been in top workplaces and 100 best companies for multiple years in a row.
Thank you, Kathleen, for taking the time to share your story with us!
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