New York’s construction industry has more than its fair share of interesting characters and distinct personalities.
But even in this crowded field, Barbara Kavovit manages to stand out.
Kavovit is the rare female executive who, despite having no familial—or personal, for that matter—tie to the industry, has founded and run her own construction company, a couple of them, in fact. And when it comes to her gender discrepancy, she isn’t one to downplay her lack of a Y chromosome.
“My hardhats are all different colors because, you know what, every day of the week I feel differently,” she told Real Estate Weekly in a recent interview. “I have a hard hat that’s bedazzled and a hard hat that’s green and pink and blue and red. Just because I’m in construction doesn’t mean I’ve lost that female touch, that femininity that I think is so important to this industry.”
Yet beyond her status as a self-made woman in New York real estate, Kavovit’s path to success stands alone, too.
From doling out business cards in a supermarket parking lot to signing multimillion-dollar contracts with Fortune 500 firms; from launching her own brand of tools, appearing on daytime TV and landing a reoccurring guest column in the New York Post to multiple bankruptcies, the past two decades have been a rollercoaster ride for the CEO of Evergreen Construction.
“I’ve been through, like, the Riker’s Island of construction learning,” she said. “I’ve learned from the bottom and I’ve taken every hit and punch that you can possibly take. I’ve been there.”
Born and raised in the Bronx, Kavovit credits the borough with giving her the “tough, snake-like skin,” that one needs to survive in big city construction. She also cites the discipline taught by her mother and her father’s willingness to put a hammer in her hand at the tender age of 9 to help him build a bunkbed for her and her sister.
Despite this early introduction, however, Kavovit did not take to the building trades right away. Instead, she envisioned her journey to the C-suite starting on the trading floor as she earned a degree in finance at the State University of New York at Oswego.
“When I was coming out of college, I thought I was going to run the mergers and acquisitions department of Morgan Stanley,” she said. “There was nothing stopping me, no matter what it was I was gonna choose to do I was gonna be CEO and I was gonna make it. That was just my mind set and that’s the mindset that one has to have.”
Things took a turn after graduation when she moved back in with her parents, who had by then moved to New Rochelle. Living there, she began to notice a trend: many of her mother’s friends were struggling to find reliable handymen to make even the most menial repairs or renovations to their suburban homes.
She’d identified the problem and came up with the solution: she was going to be the middle man and make sure the workers showed up where they were needed, when they were needed. With a $60 bundle of business cards from the local printing press, she became a general contractor.
“I would literally get these calls at my parents’ house and get in my dad’s 1975 Buick LaSabre and I would pick up these handymen,” she recalled. “I would describe the home improvement then I would make the spread.”
In the early days, she cut her teeth by compiling a list of all the tradesmen who ran ads in the local PennySaver. She knew little about construction and almost nothing about pricing. To say she was an easy target for deception would be putting it lightly.
“They all tried to take advantage of me: ‘Oh, I’m going to really get over on this one, I’m going to charge her triple what the job really should cost because she doesn’t know the square foot prices of dry wall and how to count sprinkler heads and how much tin we’re putting up,’” she said. “So yeah, I got royally taken advantage of and [faced] many, many learning curves and many, many subcontractors being thrown off projects and lawsuits.”
Thanks to her early hard knocks and some sound advice from an older contractor she befriended, Kavovit learned quickly. She built a loyal customer base, most of them mothers and wives. For all the deception she faced, she was able to present a trustworthy front to other women who were also fearful of being ripped off.
After establishing herself in the residential space, Kavovit then made the jump to commercial through more shoe-leather ingenuity. She began bombarding IBM, the computer giant, with calls, looking for any work they might have. Six months later, they got back to her with an offer.
“They gave me a two-year contract to do all their small work in their corporate headquarters,” she said, “their small, little, mundane work that nobody else wanted to do, similar to what the homeowners couldn’t get done either.”
Her time working for IBM ended up being a spring board into the greater commercial real estate sector. She soon won build-out contracts for buildings such as Carnegie Hall and companies such as iVillage and hotjobs.com.
She struggled to gain traction with what she described as “the old boys club,” the long-time property owners and developers who she said only want to hire the men they’ve known for a long time. There are still pockets of the industry that she hasn’t cracked through to and she suppose she ever will, though she takes solace in the fact that times are changing.
“It’s the old boys network and I realized I’m never granting acceptance to that market, to that boys club but I’ve created my own, I’ve created a girls club,” she said. “If the door is nailed shut someplace, you go to another door and thank God there are many doors I can go to.”
Kavovit has been something of a branding wiz from her earliest days in the construction business. It started with business cards then evolved to a white Ford Econoline van with woman in a hard hat painted on the side.
That mentality evolved into her own brand of woman-centric power tools, first called “barbara k” then later referred to as DIYva. The company, Barbara K Enterprises, ultimately filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy but her efforts to build up her name have not died.
Her latest endeavor is a ghostwritten novel recently purchased by Harper Collins that’s based loosely on her own life story.
“It’s called ‘Heels of Steel,’” she said. “It’s about a girl from the Bronx who makes her way into New York City to start a construction company.”