High-Rising Exec: Clair Pease Tears Down Stereotypes on Her Way to the Top
It wasn’t easy for Clair Pease to get her first serious construction job. She had pleaded and argued for more than a year for a chance to join a framing crew, to no avail. The boss didn’t believe a woman could handle the back-breaking work or the rough conditions, especially not a woman just out of her teens, barely breaking 105 pounds. He wouldn’t let her do anything more than a little clean-up around the site. So Pease offered a deal: Let her swing a hammer for free for 30 days. If she couldn’t cut it, she’d walk and he would lose nothing. If she did a good job, she would be hired permanently. The boss relented, and Pease got her shot. That was almost 30 years ago — and she has been in the construction business ever since.
Not Just Men at Work Clair Pease has built a reputation for quality in the male-dominated construction industry — and torn down a few stereotypes in the process By Tony Bridges Originally published in the Apr/May 2010 issue of 850 Business Magazine
It wasn’t easy for Clair Pease to get her first serious construction job.
She had pleaded and argued for more than a year for a chance to join a framing crew, to no avail. The boss didn’t believe a woman could handle the back-breaking work or the rough conditions, especially not a woman just out of her teens, barely breaking 105 pounds. He wouldn’t let her do anything more than a little clean-up around the site.
So Pease offered a deal: Let her swing a hammer for free for 30 days. If she couldn’t cut it, she’d walk and he would lose nothing. If she did a good job, she would be hired permanently. The boss relented, and Pease got her shot.
That was almost 30 years ago — and she has been in the construction business ever since.
Pease has built homes from Washington, D.C., to Panama City Beach and overseen commercial construction on everything from office space to an indoor surfing facility. Today, she’s one of the developers and managers of the Grand Panama Beach Resort, a two-tower, 300-unit condominium complex on Front Beach Road. And she owns a charter fishing business on the side.
Her accomplishments are the result of an uncompromising single-mindedness that refuses to accept “can’t” and an extraordinary drive that pushes Pease to work seven days a week, month in and month out.
That, she says, is what it takes to complete a project like Grand Panama.
“There’s no possibility of failure; if you ever second-guess yourself or slow down, you might slip and miss it,” she said. “You just have to put the blinders on and go as fast as you can, stay focused on what you have to do that day, and then the next, and the next.”
Learning to Build
Pease grew up in Columbus, Ga., and left home after high school to enroll in the sociology program at North Carolina State University. While there, she took a part-time job doing clean-up at a commercial building site in Raleigh and quickly decided she would rather work in construction.
After a few years in the business, and a brief foray into residential painting, Pease managed to bluff her way into a project-manager position with L.C. Tyson Construction, a major builder in North Carolina, overseeing the construction of homes and apartment buildings. That gave her the experience she needed to do what she really wanted — go out on her own.
Pease took what she had learned and started Faulk Construction (her married name at the time). The company built houses and won a government contract to remodel homes for low-income families.
In 1991, she signed on for a special project in Charlotte, N.C., the first-ever Habitat for Humanity home built by an all-woman crew. The work attracted the attention of former first lady Rosalynn Carter, who asked her to go to Washington for what Pease describes now as the “most challenging” undertaking of her career. The job: Supervise the building of 20 Habitat homes in five days, using a volunteer crew with little to no skill or experience in construction. And she did it.
“I still have the little ‘Approved’ sticker from the inspection department,” she said.
Pease moved to Panama City Beach several years ago to be closer to family and has continued to donate time, sweat and money to the causes of kids and families. She and her son, builder Josh Faulk, along with many of the subcontractors with whom they regularly work, recently completed a remodel of a house in Callaway for the Children’s Home Society. Called “Clair’s House,” it serves as a group home for nearly a dozen displaced children.
(After Pease moved to Panama City Beach, she took a break from construction and bought a charter fishing boat named the Reel Commocean, which she overhauled herself and now rents out. Although she doesn’t mention it in interviews, she uses the boat to take the Children’s Home Society kids on fishing trips.)
The volunteer work is what Pease points to when asked about the achievements of which she is proudest, saying, “That, to me, has been the most interesting part of what I’ve done in my career.”
Seven Days a Week
Meanwhile, the largest and most intense project Pease has ever taken on has been building Grand Panama, the luxury 22-story condominium towers and retail complex that bridges Front and Middle Beach roads. Fortunately, she says, she had partners, so she didn’t have to bear all the weight herself.
“You’ve got to have the right people in the mix,” she said. “You’ve got to have partners … that eat, sleep, dream getting that project completed. If you team up with people just like you, if they’re all a bunch of workaholics and they’re all there together, then you’re going to get something done.”
Funny enough, even after everything she has managed in construction to this point, Pease said the fact that she’s a woman still was an issue at some points. She was reluctant to go into details but said there were aspects of the project, involving construction supervision, that ended up being done by men, even though she was confident she could have handled them.
Construction of both towers has long since been completed — plans for an additional 400 units were scrapped when the market soured — but Pease has stayed on to help run day-to-day operations. She plans to remain until the last 60 units are sold, which she expects to happen by the end of summer.
Through her contracting company, Pease & Associates, she also is working on other projects, including construction of the Shubee Flowrider indoor surfing facility on Middle Beach Road, and is exploring doing some “government work outside the country.”
To squeeze it all in, Pease works 14-hour days, every day of the week. The only vacation she has had in the past five years was a birthday trip she took to Dubai last year to look at all the new construction in what was then a booming nation. For that trip, halfway around the world, she gave herself a week.
“That is probably not normal, and probably not smart because you have to give your mind a break,” she said. “But I just can’t turn it off. Even when I’m lying in bed at night, I’m thinking about what I have to do the next day.”
And you can bet, whatever it is, that she will get it done — and then some.
Q&A with Clair Pease
How do you define success? I don’t think success is measured by who dies with the most toys. It is measured just by how people that work with you, your employees and people you’ve done business with through the years, view you. You probably never really get to know how successful you were … until you can count how many people show up at the funeral.
What have you had to do to get your projects through this recession? Whatever you normally do everyday, you can’t do it anymore. You have to completely think outside the box. You can’t just let your units sit there. You cannot be stuck in ‘This is how I’ve always done it.’ Sometimes, you just have to go in the opposite direction. (Editor’s Note: For her, that has included adding a restaurant and a bar at Grand Panama to attract more interest from buyers and renters.)
At what point do you think Panama City Beach will become overdeveloped? It’s going to take a little while to catch up with what we’ve got built here already, but I absolutely think Panama City Beach is going to bust at the seams on May 23 … when the new international airport opens. (Editor’s Note: Pease spent six hours on the phone making sure she got the first ticket on the first plane flying out of the new airport.)