During National Women in Construction Week, Levelset is recognizing and celebrating accomplished women in construction. I had the opportunity to talk to D’Ann Johnson, a corporate contracts and credit manager at A-Core Concrete — and a member of our Levelset Payment Professionals Community.
D’Ann discusses her career journey getting into construction, the challenges of working in credit, and the importance of building a network and being able to have relationships with others.
Lori: Why don’t you tell us about your career journey and how you got to where you are now.
My journey started in a weird way, and it’s a pretty funny story when you think about it.
I had previously worked for a shared executive suite company. [At] the company I worked for, we would go into a class A building and take over a floor. Then we’d sublease space to Fortune 500 and Fortune 50 companies, and we would offer support staff. So I went from leasing office space, to running a very lean operating management system for this company, to doing credit.
And the leap was odd because the day I left that company, they closed their locations in Utah, and I had packed up my office and was leaving the building. I had my box in my arms, I’m walking out to my car, and my phone rings and it was this friend of mine who said, “Hey I know, you just left this job, but I’ve got a friend who’s really needing somebody to do collections.”
And I thought, “Do I wanna do collections or not?” I just got out of a high-pressure industry, and I wanted to take some time and think about it. She’s like, “Well, she’s really cool. Just call her, just, just give her a phone call.” So I got in the car, called my husband, and he’s like, “Well, what could it hurt? Just give her a call.” So I gave her a quick call and the first phone call was three and a half hours.
She asked me to come in on Monday to meet with her in person. And so I went in, and she told me about the availability of classes and more details as to what I would be doing. She assured me it wouldn’t be just collections. It would be credit—working for a trucking company in the parts department. It involved UCC filings and all these terminologies I’d never heard of before, but they piqued my interest.
All the hard stuff.
Exactly. So I went in and met with her and after about two hours, she excused herself and went down the hallway and came back with the HR manager and he said, “So here’s your paperwork. Here’s your keys to the office.” And I thought, “Oh, so I’ve got the job.” The interesting part about it is that my friend who actually introduced me to my new boss, her name was Karma.
You know, I’ve never even heard that as a name.
I know. I was like, wow, okay. So Karma got me into this, right? So I can either, I can either applaud her or blame her, you know, whichever. So, um, from there, and that was with Kenworth sales company, I worked there for a few years.
I have a degree in the medical field. So I went back, I had an opportunity to go assist someone, um, who was trying to build a business for, uh, products for sleep apnea. So I kind of took a little detour, went back into consumer and medical. That probably lasted maybe a year…at that juncture, I started looking for other work and wound up at Roofer Supply, which I worked there for almost 16 years.
During [that] time I got my CCE, I got my bachelor’s degree and my MBA, and I got into the world of liens and lien laws and all the fun stuff that goes along with that.
So what does a day to day life look like for you? Is it usually the same stuff, or is every day different?
In construction, there are no two days that are alike. In addition to credit and collections, I also oversee AR and our front desk staff. And just because I wasn’t busy enough, I decided to take on contract management for my company.
So a typical day for me starts around 7 a.m. in the office. It’s processing credit applications with the help of my assistant, overseeing AR and cash applications, calling customers, short pays, disputes — anything like that. In addition to that, I’m mentoring, coaching, bringing up my team so that they are fulfilled and can step into a position at any time. I [also] throw in contracts just because, you know, I’m crazy. So I could be in the middle of a 250-page contract and get a phone call from a customer. I’m wearing multiple hats. It’s over around 4–4:30, and then I wake up the next day and do it all over again, except it’s never the same thing twice.
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What skills have you found that are essential for the position that you do now?
First and foremost, you have to have great customer service skills and a thick skin. You are the person that represents the company and it doesn’t matter if it wasn’t your fault — it’s your fault. So you have to be able to understand it’s really truthfully, not your fault, not take it personally, but also be able to talk to the customer. [You need] sharp customer service skills, good communication skills — whether either on the phone, in person, or via email — to make that customer understand your point of view without making them feel undervalued or that they don’t get it.
The other thing about construction that is very interesting — and it doesn’t seem to matter what part of the country you’re in — if you deal with customer X, Y, Z, and you leave a bad taste in their mouth, they go tell 20 people, and that can definitely have an effect on your business. So you have to balance what is best for the business. What’s best for our marketplace. Is this something that we can give a little, or do we draw that hard line in the sand and still be able to look at our other customers and say “we had to do what we had to do”?
From my previous company, I actually have people that I literally took to court and sued, and they will still call me because that relationship was preserved. They understood that it wasn’t personal. It was professional. And it was a business decision. And some people are like, it was best for them, for me to put them in that position to make them understand that they were just digging themselves a hole that they were never going to be able to get out of.
Your customer service also helps you, as you were saying, build your network — because the network is just as important to be able to have somebody that can talk you down off the ledge — or you talk somebody else down off the ledge — when you’re at your wit’s end. It’s like, “I’ve tried everything.” My next step [is] to have somebody that that does what you do in your corner that can say, “Have you tried this?” or “In a similar experience, I had luck with this.” Again, it’s that customer service. And if you don’t give, don’t expect to get.
What do you think is the main challenge? Let’s say, [internally] with your company.
For me — and this is just my perspective — having worked [in this field] for over 20 years now, the biggest challenge for me, is getting people to that “aha” moment where they understand that just because they signed a credit application doesn’t mean they have an account. Just because we went out and did the work doesn’t mean we’re going to get paid.
My old boss had a saying that stays stuck in my head through to today: “Everyone pays until they don’t.” You might have this wonderful contractor. And I wish I had a dime for every time somebody told me — when one of my salespersons told me — “Well, they’ll never not pay us.” You know, it’s just one of those things where if you wouldn’t hand your wallet to a stranger walking up the street, why would you expect your company to do the same thing?
You know, if we don’t have ourselves protected and have [what] I call all our tools and our toolbox ready — which could be a lead, could be a credit application, a personal guarantee, a letter of credit, whatever that is — if we don’t have all that perfected and ready to go, we’re behind the eight ball before we even start. So getting these people to understand that aspect of the business.
Because in truth, in construction, when you’re working with salespeople and estimators, most of the time they started out at the ground level — you know, they started out throwing shingles, or they started out cutting, concrete slab, or pouring concrete, or putting up drywall. They don’t see the entire business structure. So getting them to understand that you’re not trying to be mean; you’re not saying “no” because it’s them. [They say] “You always say no to my customers.” No: I say no because it’s not the right thing for the company. And I’m protecting your paycheck as much as I’m protecting the company.
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Are you a member of any professional groups, associations? Like those network and mentoring groups that you were talking about.
I am a member of NACM [National Association of Credit Management] and Levelset. I also belong to several trade groups here in Utah. We have a group called — it’s an acronym that people don’t understand — we call it ICEL. It’s the Intermountain Credit Education League. So we basically specialize in bringing information to credit professionals or those who work in or credit adjacent. [We bring in] AR representatives to bring them information on current laws that are happening within our state — or we could even [learn] about how sleep is a necessary component of being a healthy person in order to do your job. You can’t fill from an empty pitcher. You have to have self-care. So we try to keep it well-rounded. We mix a lot of business in there, but also a lot of how to take care of things on a more personal level, and how to develop good communication skills.
So obviously the construction industry has changed a lot with the pandemic. How do you see it changing within the next few years, and how would you respond to those changes?
So for what A-Core does, we have not slowed down, because we are a service company and we’re not affected as much as some construction companies by supply chain issues costs of materials.
We are affected by costs of labor and the labor shortage — finding people who can and are willing to do the type of work we do is difficult. Because we work all over the western United States, our guys work in 105-degree weather and minus 20 degrees in snow. Uh, we work 24/7, 365, and if you see, an A-Core truck out on the highway, we’re cutting concrete on the highway. We do bridge overpasses. We work on federal buildings. Uh, we have several different divisions: we have a demo division, a grinding division, a highway division, a pouring division — and we have locations in 12 different states.
So our guys work hard. Finding that labor force to continue the amount of work that we’re being requested to do, that’s gonna be a challenge. Part of that is not something that’s truthfully within our control. And I think people are seeing it across the United States, and in all aspects of work is there needs to be a mindset change that it’s okay.
If our children don’t go to college and get a degree, a trade school is just as valuable and should be paid the same as somebody who goes to college and say, gets an MBA [sic] in literature. You know, not putting that down. I have two liberal arts graduates in my household. A degree is still a degree. You still work hard for that. But I think we need to start looking at how we as a country and as a community look at skilled labor force, as opposed to just the white collar labor force, and put as much emphasis on the skilled labor force — the welders, the backhoe operators, you know, that kind of skill set.
They’re just as important as the president of the company, because if we don’t have those people, we don’t have a need for a president of a company.
And day in and day out for weeks and months at a time, conversely wintertime, you know, our guys here at A-Core right now, we’ve got snow on the ground and it’s about 19 degrees outside. They’re out on the freeway, on the highway, cutting. We’re working right now on the Salt Lake Temple. Our guys are out there in the elements doing the seismic upgrade. It’s hard labor truthfully. So, you know, the challenge for construction companies is going to be looking at their labor force and making adjustments to attract [a] new labor force — but also keep their existing labor force.
With everybody that I talk to, labor is definitely the key issue that’s going around.
Yep. Even in the office staff, we’re finding here it’s hard to find even somebody like a receptionist. It’s very difficult to find somebody post-COVID that is willing to come in and work in an office full-time and not decide within two weeks that, you know, it’s not for them.
So labor obviously is an issue, but as a woman, what do you think is the biggest challenge for women in the construction industry?
Well, I can only speak from my perspective, working in Utah —women still are not granted a seat at the table as I call it. We are more seen as a more advisory capacity. I’m sure that there are women out there in construction that are owners of the company and they run the company. But for the most part, women are more of the middle, maybe lower senior management — more of an advisory capacity, not the person that makes the final decision.
Why do you think they are like that right now?
I think basically it’s because unfortunately construction is still, for lack of better terminology, the old boy network. Where it’s not that women are not seen as valuable — but they’re not given the same opportunity. They’re not given the same voice. And until the culture changes around that, and until the mindset switches and says, “You know this lady over here knows her stuff. We need to listen to her more, and take her word more, and act on that.” It’s gonna be a difficult change. I see changes every day in different areas. So there is progress being made, but there’s still so much room to make up.
Do you have any advice for anybody that’s just gonna get started in a construction career or that is currently in one, but may be struggling to be heard?
Build your network. Plain and simple. That’s the first start — build your network, find your people, find your tribe. Whether it be through Levelset or an ECM, or maybe there’s a group of people that are in a like industry that for whatever reason, you’ve had previous relationships with.
[But] always be mindful of, you know, antitrust violations. You don’t wanna go spill the beans, but finding somebody that you can go to and, and vent, if you need to search for advice — to know that there’s somebody in your corner that you can pick up the phone or send an email or text to and say, “Hey, I need five minutes. You got five minutes?” “…I have a question I need answered,” and know that if they don’t have that answer, they know somebody who does. So that you’re supported. That’s the key right there. That’s what got me through a lot early on in my career because unfortunately, I joined construction in 2008 when the housing market crashed.
Tough time to start.
Yeah, there were many, many, many days where I would sit in my car and think, “What have I gotten myself in?” You know? You start questioning your sanity. So to have people in your network that you can reach out to and say, I got your back, we’re in the same boat. We’ll get through this together. That’s the most important thing.
And then, just be kind to yourself. You know if you’re new, you’re just starting out. We’re human, we make mistakes. We can’t be perfect all the time. Don’t beat yourself up over it. It’s a learning experience. Use every mistake as an opportunity to learn.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited and condensed. To see the full version, watch the video above.