Katy Kothmann Abraham, President and CEO of Construction Cost Management
Katy Kothmann Abraham is the President and CEO of Construction Cost Management (CCM) and took some time out to talk with The Industry Leaders and provide some golden rules for business owners in 2023. Abraham is the President and CEO of Construction Cost Management. CCM provides quality estimating and cost management services to architecture and engineering companies, with a specific focus on government and large institutional projects. Since she bought the company in 2012, CCM has experienced over 500% in revenue growth and obtained its WBE, WOSB, TX Hub and HUBZone certifications, opening a multitude of opportunities to work on federal contracts. Abraham has also helped recruit top talent to the company which has gone from two employees to a team of 13 professionals, many of whom came from an internship program that Abraham established in partnership with the University of Texas, Arlington. She is a strong believer in fostering a company culture where her team feels empowered to grow in their careers.
Under Abraham’s leadership, sales reached $2 million in 2018, which represented a 358.6% gain since 2015. In both 2020 and 2021, Construction Cost Management was named to Fort Worth Inc Magazine’s “Fastest-Growing Companies” list, and CCM was ranked #1,129 on Inc Magazine’s 5000 Fastest-growing U.S. Companies” list. CCM was also recognized for Project of the Year by the American Society of Professional Estimators for its work on the Transcanyon Water Distribution Pipeline.
What's your industry?
While what we do sounds technical, my industry is actually design. At CCM, we work with architects and engineers in the design phase of their projects, giving them the tight, accurate cost estimates they need for every aspect of their project, from arranging financing, to developing schedules, to build-out estimates with general contractors. We work all over the US, but we rarely leave our building!
For those who don't know anything about you or your work, can you provide a bit of background?
My first job out of college was as a “buyer.” I started in retail, then switched to the wholesale side. I loved it! Then I met somebody who said he could teach me everything I needed to know to be successful in the natural gas-drilling industry. I was young and intrigued, so I took him up on his offer. Boy, was he was right, because five years in, I was running the water supply and debris equipment at 56 drilling rigs! When the natural gas industry collapsed, I found my way to another passion: selling prescription dog food. I am a certified dog fanatic, so having the opportunity to improve a furry friend’s life made this one of my favorite jobs. I did this for four years, and would probably still be at it had my dad not asked if I wanted to buy his company. I resisted for a while for several reasons: First, I loved what I was doing and saw no reason to step away. Second, I knew nothing about the construction cost estimating business, and wasn’t sure I was truly interested in learning. Third, my father is an absolute legend in the industry, and I couldn’t see how me owning his company would benefit anyone. But then he explained that if I – a woman – owned CCM, the firm would be able to bid for a much wider range of projects. His instinct was spot-on: with the company’s stellar reputation that was carefully built over 35 years, and our new WMBE (Women-Owned or Minority Business Enterprise) certification, we were able to grow by 500% in the first three years of my ownership.
Initially, I did both the dog food and the CEO jobs, but the more I got to know the business, the more I loved it – and realized that I was, in fact, the perfect person to help achieve truly meaningful growth, and set the company up for the next 35 years! As we added employees, we were able to market ourselves to different departments within the companies and organizations that we were already working with. It was a symbiotic growth pattern; with CCM’s new certifications, many of our clients were able to go after much bigger pieces of business, because they knew that we could support them. In other words, clients were already using us, but the WMBE certification allowed them to go after more business, because they could lean on us in a greatly expanded way. That’s a very long answer to say that I am the Owner/President and CEO of Construction Cost Management, I handle all marketing, sales and client relations for the company, and I couldn’t be happier!
What does an average day look like for you?
We start every day with a 9:45 am huddle where we look at the production log, talk about existing and future projects, and get quick updates on everyone’s work. This is where I share any new business pitches, ideas that I have for marketing, and feedback – good and bad, but almost always good – from the clients. About half of my day is spent working directly with clients, and the other half is interacting with the team. Obviously, I am NOT a “subject matter expert,” but I have excellent people skills, so I often offer guidance on how to present certain things to a client or a “non-expert.” In a way, engineers are like veterinarians: they are amazing at the technical aspects of what they do, but often lack, shall I say, finesse when it comes to human interaction, so unless it is super-technical, I step in as the “face” of our communications. My sales background has made me a very effective communicator, and I know that both my staff and my clients appreciate this. It’s the rare day that I get out to network, but when I do, it has a big impact on the business.
For example, I love to attend the SAME conference ( Society for American Military Engineers) which is the military’s opportunity to spend in-person time with all of its prime and subcontractors..The first year I went, I walked the floor and met everybody. Now, eleven years later, CCM has its own booth, and people come to see us! Our office is dog-friendly, so I get a few breaks during the day taking out whichever four-legged friends want to walk with me. Another daily goal is to get in a workout, but sadly, that’s the one that most often gets relegated to the “tomorrow” column. That said, health and wellness are extremely important to me, so I prepare most of my own food and do yoga every morning before work, just to get centered and calm.
How do you balance the needs of your business with the needs of your personal life?
A few years ago, both my mother and best friend pulled me aside and said they were worried that I was going to work myself into an illness. Their concern really resonated with me, and I knew I had to find a way to work smarter, not harder. So I leaned into my calendar and impressed upon my friends that I could not respond to calls and messages immediately, and that formally scheduling time to chat doesn’t mean I don't prioritize them; to the contrary, it means I value them enough to ink them into my calendar. Eventually, everybody got the hang of it (including me!) and now that I have fewer interruptions, I can be fully present, both personally and professionally.
One of the reasons I felt the need to do this is because as the face of our company, it is important to be seen out and about. Being active in the community not only shows that CCM is flourishing, but is tangible evidence that we truly want to support our local people and institutions. Since I am the “big cheese” and control my schedule, you would think it would be easy to balance my personal and professional life. Like most CEOs, I have found the opposite to be true: The job is so demanding that if I didn’t intentionally set aside time for my personal life, I wouldn’t have one.
What's the best advice anyone ever gave you on your journey in business?
I had a boss who once said, “I hired you because I knew you were going to be good at this, so when it’s time to make a decision, trust yourself, make the decision based on your knowledge and your intuition, and then move on. Don’t hem-and-haw or you’ll just be running in place.” It was great advice, and I give it to all of my new-hires. If my people make a decision based on facts and thought, I will support them, even if it turns out to be wrong, because none of us get it right every time. This man also told me that the more decisions you make, the better you will be at it. This is absolutely true, because experience brings confidence.
What's been the hardest part about the path you've taken and how would you advise someone facing a similar situation to overcome it?
I’ve been in the CEO chair for over a decade, but until very recently, I had severe anxiety when it came to meeting one-on-one with my engineers. As I said before, I am a business owner and leader, NOT a subject-matter expert, and I often felt “lesser than” when I interacted with folks who hold advanced certifications and have decades of experience. I was worried they weren’t going to take me seriously because I didn’t know the lingo, and then when I learned the lingo, I was worried I wasn't using it correctly. Once I finally came to terms that the value I added was not linked to subject matter expertise, I started to relax about what I (and only I) considered my shortcomings. I think women suffer from “imposter syndrome” more than men, but it is imperative that anyone who is not an expert in the field they lead remember that true value comes in many forms.
One way to overcome this is to project a physical aura of confidence. I do this with my handshake: it is always the heartiest, and I look you straight in the eye and smile. This shows that I have confidence in myself and my power, and people always respond to it.
Are there any well-known Books, Podcasts, or Courses that you credit your current success to?
“We Can Do Hard Things” is on Apple Podcasts. Every woman should listen to it. The format is deceptively simple: Three women talk about current events and how they affect your inner dialogue. What makes it meaningful to me is that it provides a lens into the thought process of people who are not in my industry. A book called Hard To Kill , by Dr. Jaime Seeman is also a go-to. The author is an ob-gyn, a body-builder, a nutritionist, and a former beauty queen. It’s a health book that has nothing to do with business and the workplace! Like me, Dr, Jaime has had several different careers, and believes that she gets her drive and stamina from proper nutrition, exercise, mind/body work and social interaction. Seeman is proof that with the right tools, you can be strong and assertive, speak your mind, AND be a beauty queen.
What do you think are the most important qualities for a successful business owner or executive to have?
You need a thick skin. Confidence. The ability to tell people they are wrong in a way that makes them feel that you’re not coming down on them, but instead, protecting them and helping them grow. Another critical quality is to be yourself, but if you are the “face” of your brand, make sure that you always – always – represent it in a respectful, and respectable, manner. Anything and everything that you say and so reflects on your brand. Remember that.
What advice would you give to someone who is just starting out as a business owner?
At the beginning, managing my cash flow was critical. (It still is!) Even though we were a well-established company, we grew at such an astronomical rate that stringent cash-flow management was essential. I’m proud to say that I have never used our line-of-credit or had to find investors, because I am a fanatic when it comes to managing our money. Just as I am intentional about putting 15 minute snippets of my time on my calendar, I delineate all of our incoming cash into fully segregated silos; each silo has its own bank account. Some goes in the salary silo. Some gets put away for taxes. There’s another silo for bonuses, and another for G & A. I like to think of it as paying ourselves before we pay everything else. That discipline helps alleviate my anxiety, because I always know where we stand. I recommend this strongly for any business owner.
Another thing to remember – especially at the start – is that you can’t do it all. Budget enough money to bring in professionals for the things you know you need but are not good at. For example, I can’t keep on managing my social media, so I hired an agency who specializes in that. They weren’t cheap but they created visuals that made us look super-slick, and even more capable than our funky offices in the old Fort Worth stockyards might suggest. I could never have done it on my own, and it has been a game-changer.!
What are the top three things you think are essential for business success?
A perfect product. Every business lives and dies with that. You will always have competitors that are good, so you have to find ways to be better. Be better at communications, at marketing, at your back-office systems like accounts receivable/payable. Find a way to stand out by being better.
Sales and marketing. You can’t just sit back on your laurels, ever. Stay hungry! Always think about new services you can provide, or ways to enhance existing services. Never get too relaxed.
Get the right people in the right seats. This might be the most challenging thing of all! I love the mantra “hire slow, fire fast.” Don’t just hire to fill a seat, but conversely, when you know it isn’t working, don’t hesitate to make a change.
Do you think someone can be a great business owner without having many years of experience first?
I am proof of that! I surrounded myself with people who helped me and was humble enough to spend a lot of time listening. This wasn’t always easy, because one of the people I had to listen to was my father – and we all know how that goes! It took a while to come to terms that others – like my father – would always be the “industry expert,” but I reminded myself that I had a platform of success, too, and that my leadership and management skills were eminently transferable, and as importantly, very much needed by CCM.
As I mentioned, we grew over 500% in my first three years at the helm, and we have continued to grow. My father and I cut our salaries during the pandemic, but I am tremendously proud that we had no layoffs, and are projecting 300% growth for the first quarter of 2023. Our business tends to work on long lead-times, so projects that we sign now will be in the pipeline for the better part of a decade. This bodes very well for our future, and I think it proves that someone without industry experience can be a very successful leader!
In general, do you think the world is producing better business owners in 2023 than it was fifty years ago?
I think CEOs of 1973 would laugh if they saw how much hand-holding we have to do for our staff! With the pandemic and the reshuffling of what “work” looks like, you have to juggle the logistical and emotional needs of your team, all while maintaining a steady flow of work output. In some ways this has been great, because it has forced us to reevaluate everything we’ve ever done for our people, from things like benefits, to workplace environment, to work/life balance. This has caused business owners to be more empathetic and think more dimensionally, which ultimately makes them stronger.
The other thing that has contributed to producing better business owners in 2023 is diversity in the C-suite. Yes, we have a long, long way to go to have all races and genders represented equally in the leadership ranks, but at least the trend is going in the right direction. And let me clarify; having a more diverse class of owners does not guarantee a better outcome, but it does guarantee that more perspectives will seep into the workplace, which ultimately helps the people that work there: the employees.