PUNTA GORDA — Suzanne Graham, who was one of two girls in her high school drafting class, has been recognized as one of the state building industry’s leading lights.
In October, Graham was inducted into the Florida Home Builders Association’s Florida Housing Hall of Fame “for her dedication to improving the building industry locally and throughout the state of Florida,” according to a press release.
Graham, 54, was the FHBA’s second female president. Prior to that, she was the first woman to be elected president of the Charlotte DeSoto Building Industry Association.
When she’s not helping guide the future of Florida’s building industry, Graham is director of governmental affairs for Massey Services, a pest control company with locations in seven states.
“I have a degree in interior design,” she said, “and now I’m killing bugs.”
Graham handles “all the rules and regulations” for Massey, the fifth-largest independently owned pest control company in the U.S.
“I have to make certain we abide by them and our (employees in the field) are compliant,” she said.
Graham moved here with her family in 1981, and graduated from Charlotte High School in 1983. She and husband Jim owned a pest control company for 20 years. Her husband worked in the field, and she did everything else. In fact, people referred to the company as “Suzanne and her husband’s business,” she said.
They sold their company to Massey eight years ago.
What does pest control have to do with construction?
Pest control is an essential link in the chain of Florida home construction. By law, homes must be treated for termites before construction is considered complete, and builders will subcontract to pest control companies.
This is how Graham came to know so many people in the local industry.
She joined the CDBIA, an organization representing the region’s builders, but she could rise no higher than associate vice president because she wasn’t a licensed builder herself. In 2005, Graham got her state contracting license just so she could become the organization’s first female president.
“It was the next step in my career.”
Was there resistance to a woman in charge of a construction organization?
Not locally, but there was “a little at the state level,” when she became FHBA president.
“I always felt you had to work harder as a woman in the construction industry,” she said, “and in the pest control industry.”
How does one become a human “Swiss Army knife”?
Donna Barrett, CEO of the CDBIA, called Graham “the Swiss Army knife of the building industry.”
“With unyielding energy and enthusiasm, Suzanne has spent over 25 years building her company and framing the industry for success by advocating and forming relationships locally and around the state,” she said. “Her steadfast commitment to the industry, mentoring of the next generation and off-the-chart energy is legendary. Whether it be with membership, conservation issues, impact fees or sending a quick text to many legislators, Suzanne has worked behind the scenes on many issues facing the building industry, leading to a victory.”
Also, Graham “led the charge through the end of one of the worst building crises our industry has seen,” Barrett said, referring to the construction downturn following the 2008 Great Recession.
Zac Extejt, current CDBIA president, said Graham is a “dynamo.”
“Everything I’ve ever seen her take on, she does, and she does well,” he said, noting her efforts lobbying lawmakers to score wins for local builders, as well as helping to improve relations between the industry and local officials.
What is the outlook for women in construction?
“I see more women-owned businesses in the industry,” Graham said. She attributes that to “more opportunities.”
“When we were in school, you never had women going into drafting classes,” she said. “After the downturn in the economy, different courses were eliminated (like home economics), so girls are being taught to do a lot more of the things boys are being taught, which is a great thing.”
The number of women- owned construction firms grew 15% between 1997 and 2017, the highest of any industry in the U.S., according to a study commissioned by American Express.
What about the next generation?
“The building industry is coming back,” Graham said. “The biggest challenge is getting young students to get in the trade.”
When Charlotte’s vocational college eliminated some programs due to the slowdown in local construction, “it hindered us.”
She wishes schools would encourage more students to consider trades.
“Not every student is college material,” she said. “They can make a good living going to a technical school and working with their hands.”