Linda Sue “Susie” Comer, Comer Construction
With so few women in the construction industry, there really isn’t a stereotype to compare her to – she has a firm handshake and manicured nails, and is dressed like a thousand other workers in offices across the country. But as the female president of a $30 million construction company, Susie Comer raised more than a few eyebrows when she started in the business three decades ago.
Linda Sue “Susie” Comer joined her father’s construction company in 1982 as vice president. An admitted “daddy’s girl,” she enjoyed being anywhere he was and followed him from running a bar and restaurant to forming his own company. “I had no idea what I was doing when I started,” she muses. “I didn’t go to college, and I studied cosmetology in high school. But I wasn’t afraid of trying and was willing to learn.”
Taking over from her father in 1987, it wasn’t long before Comer starting ruffling feathers in the male-dominated industry. Male counterparts weren’t used to a woman in the ranks and weren’t about to make it easy for her. “Men would want to talk to my father or ‘the boss,’” she says. “But I was committed to earning their respect on my own, so the more hard times they gave me, the more determined I became. “I noticed at the industry related meetings and trade groups, that none of the men would talk to each other. I tried to get them to understand that being competitors didn’t mean we couldn’t be friends. It also didn’t mean we couldn’t learn from each other. I started encouraging them to talk about work issues like employee benefits, equipment, suppliers and contracts. We began to develop a trust of the person and the information so that we could feel like we weren’t in this alone. Now, we actively call each other for business tips, concerns about employees who may be leaving and things like that. It’s a much better atmosphere.”
After about seven years in the industry, Comer received a nod from her colleagues that validated their acceptance. “I was nominated as president of the Harford County Contractors Association – the first woman to receive that honor,” she says proudly. “That’s when I knew that I had earned their respect.”
Blazing the trail with Comer were two of her three sisters. Leona Hill joined the company in 1987 and Ruby Comer joined in 1989. “We’ve never just made a position for a family member,” Comer states. “We only hired family when there was a need.” When Comer and her sisters purchased the assets of their father’s company and formed Comer Construction, Inc. in 1998, the corporate board was officially all women. Susie Comer serves as president, Leona Hill as vice president and Ruby Comer as corporate secretary. Susie also serves as treasurer.
“I think women make great business owners and managers,” she says confidently. “I think we definitely bring a different management style, but I think it’s one that’s very effective.” Comer describes her style as personal, like managing a family. She feels that like her, women may be more empathetic when managing their employees because they understand all the issues that someone may be facing at home. “In the early years, I was raising four small children while I was running my company. I know what it takes to juggle work and family commitments. It’s not easy, but it can be done.”
When Comer took over the company, she admits she was surprised by the magnitude of the issues business owners face. “Running my family, the issues were in terms of dollars and cents. Running my company, the issues were in the millions of dollars. That took some getting used to.” The company doubled in size four years in a row, so Comer had a steep learning curve ahead of her. “I just stayed true to the principles that my father taught us as children and applied it to my business – honesty and respect. We treat everyone that way – customers, employees and suppliers. My feeling is that we are all in this together so an honest and respectful relationship is important.”
|COMER CONSTRUCTION PROJECTS
Abingdon Library, Abingdon, Harford Co.
Owings Mills Boulevard,
Owings Mills, Baltimore Co.
Honeygo Boulevard, Perry Hall, Baltimore Co.
Cal Ripken Sr. Academy, Aberdeen,
Ripken Stadium, Aberdeen, Harford Co.
Forest Oaks Development, Edgewood, Harford Co.
Abingdon Estates, Abingdon, Harford Co.
Goose Pond Estates, Joppa, Harford Co.
The Fields of Delmar, Fallston, Harford Co.
Irwin’s Choice Sec 1 Phase 1&2,
Bel Air, Harford Co.
Autumn Run, Abingdon, Harford Co.
IKEA, Perryville, Cecil Co.
Main Street Center, Bel Air, Harford Co.
HEAT Center, Aberdeen, Harford Co.
Association of Retarded Citizens of
Northern MD., Aberdeen, Harford Co.
CVS Pharmacy of Greenbrier,
Bel Air, Harford Co.
Willow Chase Phase I & II,
Bel Air, Harford Co.
Vale Woods, Bel Air, Harford Co.
Over the years, Comer Construction has developed a reputation for being service oriented. They actively pursue value engineering in their projects, making sure to analyze a job completely before and during construction to identify potential issues, recommend adjustments, and solve the problems that could lead to increased costs before they happen. “Our customers know that we’re not going to just complete a job and walk away. We want to make sure that the job is done right the first time.”
Doing it right has earned Comer Construction a multitude of awards and recognitions. In 2007, Comer was named a recipient of the Smart CEO Bravo! Award and took home the Harford Award in 2009. Last year was a banner year for the company when they received three notable awards: the company earned the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) Builders Mutual “SAFE” Award recognizing their achievements in developing and implementing high quality construction safety programs; the Small Business Administration Family Owned Business of the Year for 2011; and the Maryland Washington Minority Contractors Women’s Business Enterprise of the Year.
In addition to the accolades last year, Comer was also part of one of the most recognizable and talked about jobs in Harford County – the Boulevard at Box Hill. “We did all the site prep for the huge Wegmans project at Box Hill. From the road to the front door. We did the water lines, the [Route] 924 improvements, the sewer, the roads and the retaining wall. It was a major dirt job.” When asked about all the trees that were cut down in preparing the site, Comer adds, “They were all taken to our mulching facility in Aberdeen and recycled for wholesale mulch.” Her work continues on the Box Hill project as they get ready to do the site prep for the recently announced JCPenney store that will anchor the center. “These are big jobs – what we call ‘the meat’ in our meat and potatoes job queue. The potato jobs are more like housing projects and smaller venues. Meat or potatoes. We’ll take them all.”
The economy has definitely affected Comer Construction like it has other established and thriving businesses. “We were growing rapidly and successfully. When the downturn started in 2008 and continued in 2009, we operated business as usual trying to be optimistic about a turnaround. When it became evident that the economy wasn’t going to recover quickly or robustly, we finally had to give in and make changes. We started trimming staff through attrition and made some very hard cuts in our employee benefit plan. These are difficult decisions to make when you feel like family. But because we operate with honesty and respect, our employees were loyal and understanding, knowing that we tried.”
Another way the economy has affected Comer Construction is how they do their marketing and business development. “I’m responsible for those areas now, but we’re looking at bringing someone on board to handle that so I can concentrate on running the company. Since we are a certified minority/women-owned business, we’re going to actively develop new business within those guidelines. Previously we didn’t have to rely on that for opportunities. Referrals and word-of-mouth took care of it. With the economic downturn, we have to change how we do things.”
Comer has never wandered from Harford County. In fact, she never left the county until after she was married and that was only to shop at White Marsh Mall. “I’ve always loved it here. I never felt an urge or a need to go anywhere else.” Comer grew up in Street and graduated from North Harford High School. She lives in a rancher just a stone’s throw from her office on the Comer Construction property on Slade Lane. “I’ve seen the face of Harford County change over the years, and we’ve been a big part of it. It’s gone from a quaint rural community to a bustling metro in some pockets. I can’t say that I like all the changes that have taken place, but I appreciate and understand them.” Staying true to her love of her community, 90 percent of the work performed by Comer Construction has been within a tight radius of Harford County.
Comer has also taken an active role in support of Harford County. In addition to committee work for the Harford Hospice Regatta, board appointments for the Upper Chesapeake Health Foundation and Army Alliance, Inc., and memberships to the Chamber of Commerce, the Contractors Association and Conservative Business Caucus, Comer has also made major donations in time and resources to Harford United Charities, the Senator Bob Hooper Hospice House, the Fallston Recreation Fields and the Extreme Makeover Home Edition project in Cecil County.
“The best part of my job and success is the friends and relationships I’ve developed over the years. I’ve met some truly wonderful people and I value that.” Anything missing in her life? “The only thing missing is a good crab shack here in Forest Hill. But I’m working on that.”
Comer Construction, Inc.
2100 Slade Lane
Forest Hill, MD 21050