Government

Women gain place at table: Increase in WBE firms seen at airport

October 10, 2005

At $1.66 billion, the 1.2-millionsquare-foot midfield terminal project, scheduled to open in late 2008, is more than the future gateway to the city. It is a gateway of opportunity for many local women-owned business enterprises (WBEs). The Indianapolis Airport Authority's commitment to increasing participation of women-owned businesses is more than lip service.

"Over half of the users of our airport are women," said Lacy M. Johnson, president of the IAA board of directors and champion for women-owned and minority businesses. "Women are more and more involved in the business community, so from a business perspective, it just makes good business sense."

From the project's beginning, Johnson, project director John J. Kish and other IAA board members made women's participation a priority, employing unusual practices such as hiring an independent diversity coordinator to assist WBEs and requesting that each construction management team partner with a WBE and a minority business.

"We think it important that the development of the airport project be led by and permit participation by a diverse collection of individuals and companies that reflect the makeup of the community," Kish said. "We are reaching out to ensure that there is that diversity."

It's working. Participation by WBEs at the airport in the last decade was approximately .05 percent; today that figure is approaching 9 percent for all airport work, including the midfield project, Johnson said. The focus on midfield has raised women's awareness of the nearly $200 million in aviation-related work that is awarded annually.

Job turns into a business

Sue Schalk, 45, was already working at the airport as part of a team employed by R.W. Armstrong & Associates Inc., a local consulting firm, when she was inspired to form a business specializing in airport planning.

"I started thinking about what if we were a planning firm on our own instead of a planning group within an engineering firm," Schalk said. "It felt very risky, but all five of us were interested and invested money and started the firm. I think there were a lot of reasons why it felt like the right time to do it, but one of those reasons was a recognition that some of the things that we as a team had helped visualize at Indianapolis International were moving forward."

Schalk is now president of Aerofinity Inc., the aviation consultancy she and four others-three of whom were women-founded in September 2000. Aerofinity is involved in two aspects of the midfield project: processing Federal Aviation Administration paperwork to ensure the construction process does not negatively affect air-space requirements and planning land use and deciding the best locations for airport support facilities.

"Planning is looking ahead and identifying what the long-term vision is, and then backing up and making sure each of the short-term steps support that longterm vision and don't do anything to make it more difficult to achieve," said Schalk, who studied aviation and aerospace at Indiana State University. She later earned a master's degree from Indiana University in public administration after becoming interested in airport planning while serving as assistant director of Terre Haute's main airport.

Jump-starting WBEs

Approximately 25 percent of Aerofinity's work has been with the IAA, and the midfield project helped put the company on the map. It also helped it land a contract at Nashville International Airport.

"I think your first couple of projects are critical anytime you form a new firm," Schalk said. "What we needed to do was go out and prove ourselves by delivering a quality product. By doing a good job on one project, you can take the same service to another place. That's how a firm like ours thrives."

Schalk said she appreciates the opportunity the midfield project gives to WBEs, "but in the end, I think, we all want to be known as a firm that provides great value in their area."

Another firm owes its very creation to the midfield project: Eaton & Hancock Associates Inc., an Indianapolis-based consulting firm specializing in document management and construction administration.

BSA LifeStructures, an owner's technical representative, needed a registered woman architect with construction experience, said Paula S. Eaton, who has a master's degree in architecture from the University of Texas at Austin, "and I am one of a few."

The 56-year-old Eaton, who has 25 years of experience as a construction administrator, was contacted by an owner's technical representative for the midfield project and told that she would receive help in getting a contract if she started her own company.

"An opportunity like that doesn't fall in your lap very often," Eaton said. "It was a no-brainer. I asked Dottie [Hancock] to be my partner because I didn't really know anything about running a business."

Hancock, 64, occupied the mayor's chair in Carmel from 1988 to 1991 after serving two terms as clerk-treasurer. A high-school dropout and mother of two by the time she was 17, Hancock completed her GED when she was 30 and has 20 years of experience in business administration, finance, public relations and governmental affairs.

"I was fortunate enough not to say, 'I messed up and I'm never going to be anything,'" she said. "Every time I got a chance to move forward, I took it ... and then figured out how I was going to do it. So far it has worked for me. All women business owners, somewhere along the line, took a risk or they wouldn't be where they are."

Principals Eaton and Hancock founded their company in January 2004 and received a contract that May.

Tracking the paper trail

Hancock handles the day-to-day business functions and business development.

Eaton focuses on classifying every piece of paper generated on the project, assigning each a unique number based on document type, the specific job it relates to and the phase of the work. The number is then logged into a spreadsheet and the paper filed. The ultimate goal is that the owner will be able to locate a specific piece of paper, from the thousands generated, years from now.

Many people would find this tedious. "To me it has been like reading a novel about how to build an airport," Eaton said. "This project has given us credibility and experience. It has given us a line on our resume that shows we have a major project under our belt when we chase the next job. It is the biggest game in town right now."
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