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Solid as a rock Featured

10:56am EDT July 29, 2005
Heart surgeon Russell M. Nelson once observed, “A firm foundation is necessary for any building, institution or individual to endure.”

Laura Deklewa, president of Allegheny Construction Group Inc. in Bridgeville, is a walking example of these wise words.

Deklewa’s foundation includes 28 years in the construction industry, a strong business and life partner (Richard Deklewa, her husband since 1979, who serves as Allegheny’s vice president and construction executive) and an exemplary staff. And don’t forget Deklewa’s personal investment.

“When it comes to secrets of success, there is one ingredient that is not a secret — hard work,” says Deklewa. “I don’t know of any replacement for it”

Deklewa, who holds a bachelor of science degree in economics and business management, worked for her husband’s family’s construction business for 20 years before purchasing controlling interest in Allegheny Construction Group in 1998.

Deklewa was acknowledged as a force to be reckoned that year when Allegheny was named one of the top 100 growth companies in Pittsburgh. Its main focus at that time was pre-engineered metal buildings, but under Deklewa’s direction, the business quickly expanded to include institutional and industrial projects, with emphasis on work including demolition, concrete, steel erection, rough and finish carpentry, and interior construction. Staff count blossomed from two full-time employees to 82.

Smart Business spoke with Deklewa about her management philosophy and the advantages of working in a traditionally male business.

What is Allegheny Construction’s competitive advantage?

The building business is all about meeting deadlines. Anticipating and maneuvering around obstacles is imperative, and we do this very well at Allegheny. Our philosophy is to refrain from using subcontractors, as we prefer the work to carry our personal seal of excellence.

Custom millwork is one unique aspect of our business. We recently secured a large project with the University of Pittsburgh based on our ability to deliver state-of-the-art millwork. Our customer recognized that we had something they could not get elsewhere.

What’s it like to be a woman working in a traditionally male field?

It’s an advantage. Let’s face it, women are wired differently. I capitalize on this in my day-to-day work.

Women tend to clearly see the human element. This allows us to get inside the customer’s mind and determine what really matters.

About 80 percent of our business is generated by private businesses. We tend to shy away from public contracts, since added value is less of an issue with these jobs. It’s mainly about the bottom-line cost with public business.

We prefer to build relationships and delight the customer rather than secure a job by being the low bidder.

What is your management philosophy?

More than anything, I want to be considered fair, available and a good listener. You cannot be aware of what is going on in your business unless you are willing to pay attention, stay in touch with staff and be aware of what is happening at all levels.

I’m a hands-on manager and some people may perceive this as micromanaging, so I’m careful to balance my need to be in the know with employees’ need for autonomy and space.

What has been your most valuable business lesson?

The old saying is true — the devil is truly in the details. When I worked on a large power plant contract with Fluor Constructors, I learned first-hand how the biggest and best performed. I realized that you have no grace to allow anything to fall through the cracks.

What’s your people approach?

You cannot fit people into a mold. Creative management finds ways to minimize personal weaknesses while magnifying and capitalizing on the unique strengths and motivators. I look for values, ethics and good character.

What’s in the future for Allegheny?

Pittsburgh is an extremely competitive market. The reality is that there are more construction companies than there is work, which means we constantly have to stay on our toes, maintain relationships and identify opportunities where we can build loyalty and strong referrals from our clients.

I generally put in at least 60 hours a week, which leaves little time to stop and smell the roses. My strategy includes cultivating key employees and providing them with a higher level of responsibility and decision-making authority.

HOW TO REACH: Allegheny Construction, (412) 221-0500