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When the Daddy-Daughter Dance Becomes a Business

May 31, 2024
Perils, pitfalls, and pleasures when daughters take over their father’s construction firms.

It’s a typical story:  Father starts a business, the son begins attending meetings when he can barely see over the conference table, and when dad is ready to retire, he proudly hands the company over to junior.

It doesn’t always work that way.

These days, more and more family companies are being taken over by daughters, even in the (mostly male) construction industry. Here in the Dallas metroplex, several thriving firms are being run by the second generation—but the new CEOs are all daughters, not sons.

Katy Abraham

Katy Abraham had a very successful career in the natural gas field and then in the pet industry, where she honed her skills in business development, planning, and management. “I knew that my dad’s business was highly technical,” Abraham recalls, “and since I had no engineering background, I never—not for a second—could have predicted I would be running the place one day.” 

But that day came ten years ago when her father Keith Kothmann, a legend in the construction cost estimating field, asked her to buy and run the business, Construction Cost Management (CCM), so that he could concentrate on his passion, which is cost estimating. By improving cash management, streamlining systems, and aggressively courting new business, Abraham increased sales by 500% in her first three years, and profitability has increased accordingly.

Abraham explains that by working on the business, she frees up her father to work in the business, so both of their skill sets are maximized. Initially, it was a struggle to be taken seriously—both inside the firm and with clients, most of whom are from the military or large governmental agencies—because she did not have the technical background to do the estimating work herself. “Once I finally came to terms with the fact that the value I added was unrelated to CCM’s work output, I began to lead more confidently.”  

Abraham believes that most female business owners—especially in a typically male field like construction—suffer at some point from “Imposter syndrome,” but as soon as the staff saw that life would be as good (or better!) with her in the mix, they began to see that Katy’s skills were just as necessary to the firm as her father’s.

Now a VP, Keith Kothmann comes to the office every day and is still involved in the technical work, but he does not get involved in management decisions. ”That’s her realm now,” Kothmann said, adding, “Son, daughter—doesn’t matter to me. CCM is so much better under Katy’s leadership!”

Kelly Smith

Kelly Smith can’t remember a time that her father, Mike O’Hara, wasn’t involved in the electrical contracting business. She used to do odd jobs in the office—“teenage stuff,” as Smith describes it—but when she went to college, her dad suggested that she go into engineering.

She tried chemical engineering first, then industrial, and finally settled on electrical engineering, which she used in corporate “office” jobs vastly different from the hands-on, in-the-field work that her father and his team did.

“My dad has had several companies over the years, but there was never a discussion of me joining or taking over the helm,” Smith explains. But when her father’s partner decided to exit the company, she found herself with a decision to make: forge ahead in her current career and let All Tech be sold, or join the family firm and see what she could do with it. “I wasn’t sure I wanted to take over Dad’s business, but I was absolutely certain that I would regret it if I didn’t try.  So I left corporate life, took out loans, and became the majority owner of All Tech.” 

Smith credits the time she and O’Hara spent working side-by-side as a critical component of the firm’s success today. One of the most important lessons he imparted is that she didn’t have to run the firm the way he did; in fact, she could and should put her own stamp on things.

“My dad was an electrician through and through. He never went to college, but he knew his craft. I had never worked in the field, but I know how to lead with vision, negotiate insurance rates, and manage cash flow. Our experience, perspectives, and skill sets were different, so we both brought something vital to the company.”

Smith is glad that they were were able to work side-by-side for the better part of a decade until Mike fully retired last year.

Being “the daughter" still comes up. Along with clients assuming Smith had just been handed the keys, there was skepticism among the workforce. To combat this, Smith instituted several new initiatives, like quarterly state of the business meetings sharing the company’s vision and goals with the team. She also continues to make frequent trips out to job sites.

“It was difficult to be accepted as an owner,” Smith recalls, “but when my dad left, he said that I had built All Tech into the biggest, most profitable business he had ever owned. That made all the bumps in the road seem worth it.”  

Carmen Autry

A daughter doesn’t have to take over a father’s company to follow in his footsteps. For Carmen Autry, the hours of dinner-table conversations about things that happened on a jobsite, and the lifetime of growing up surrounded by tradesmen relatives were enough to inspire her to go into the family business.   

Autry, the founder, sole owner, and CEO of NTD Mechanical, grew up in Wisconsin in a blue-collar, union town, and came from a long-line of pipefitters. Her father was a union process pipefitter; through him, she saw firsthand the pride, dedication, and sense of family for which the construction industry is known. 

After a brief try, it was clear that college wasn’t her passion, so she held several front office positions in local construction firms, and learned how to streamline efforts so that the tradespeople could perform their jobs more easily and efficiently.

When Autry had the opportunity to buy a sheet metal company at very favorable terms, she grabbed it, turned that company around, sold it, and took over the sheet metal division of a larger conglomerate. Once she brought that into the black, she worked for other companies, but never strayed from her construction-industry roots.

Autry moved to Dallas in the late 1980s, and held a series of roles that gave her more management experience in the industry. With unwavering encouragement from her father, she decided to strike out on her own. In 2001, Autry started North Texas Ductworks—now called NTD Mechanical—with her own funds. Revenues were $500,000 the first year, and today, the company generates close to $30M in revenue. 

According to Autry, “The exposure I had to the construction trades during my childhood had a tremendous influence on my decision to go into this business.” She often thinks of her father’s “I’ll figure this out” mentality, where you get your hands dirty, solve one problem, and move on to the next. When faced with challenges in her own business, she believes this attitude has helped her be successful for so many years. 

Autry is committed to helping the next generation of tradespeople and construction business owners. In 2021, she was voted the President of the American Subcontractors Association/North Texas Chapter (ASA) and has been on the board of directors for eight years. She is also a founding Board Member of the Association of Professional Women in Construction. In 2017, Autry’s company won the LUNA award for Outstanding Established Construction Firm of the Year. 

Valerie Krieger is writer, marketeer, history buff, and proud mom of both dogs and humans. Krieger specializes in capturing stories of interesting people doing unusual things, and hopes that her work not only introduces readers to new ideas, but inspires them to expand the way they perceive the world. When not at her keyboard, Krieger can be found playing mediocre tennis, finding ways to avoid cooking, and reading, especially biographies.

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