Elisabeth Kenaston is the Director of Finance at Pence Construction, a commercial general contractor located in Lake Oswego, Oregon. I spoke with Elisabeth this week about transitioning her career in finance into the construction sphere — and the importance of having a supportive community of women around you to be fearless and take advantage of amazing career opportunities.
Dawn: How long have you been working in the construction industry?
Elisabeth: Just over a decade. Every job I’ve had in my adult career has been involved with the construction industry, always in an accounting role.
Describe what you do. What’s your day-to-day work like?
I’m responsible for the accounting department for the Pence Construction Group, which consists of three companies: a general contractor, a concrete subcontractor, and an equipment rental company. I assist with the day-to-day accounting duties, but also bigger picture financial reporting and analysis, maintaining relationships with our banking partners, surety partners, etc.
We think of the accounting department along with other groups as a part of the construction support team, and we exist to help support our operations team. We do that by paying bills on time, payroll, all of those things, but also being data stewards and being able to provide good, timely, accurate information to project teams, to management, etc., so that everybody can make good decisions to make the whole organization more successful.
Where did you start and how did you get to the position you’re in today?
I started out while I was in college working with a construction equipment company. It was just somebody knew somebody, and I ended up there helping out with some basic administrative tasks and basic accounting. I stayed there for about two years and that was my first foray into the construction industry.
Then I joined a CPA firm and specialized in serving construction clients, providing auditing, financial, and consulting services. I was there for about nine years. I was a senior manager and spent my time working exclusively with construction companies, really getting to know the nuances of construction accounting, and also all the different types of construction. I really enjoyed the variety, the people, and the satisfaction of building something real that you can drive around town and see.
I came to work for Pence this last year. Pence was one of my clients, so I had the privilege of knowing them well for a number of years and then made the change. Now I get to be on the inside and really focus all my efforts on growing one construction company instead of supporting many. So that’s been a fun and exciting change.
I didn’t grow up with construction. I never had it in mind that I would end up in construction, but one thing led to another and I feel really fortunate. It’s always been a really great community for me. I find a lot of challenges and interest and reward in it and I’m grateful for all the people I’ve met; the support I’ve had over the years.
Is there a person or a group who has been a source of support in your career?
Firstly, of course, my family. In the beginning stages, my parents were always very encouraging, and then more recently my husband. He has a lot of patience as I love to work and he’s been really supportive through that all.
Beyond that, the professors from Corban provided a lot of direction in my initial job when I made the move to public accounting and then within public accounting itself. I had the privilege of working with so many really smart, strong, generous partners, including some really fantastic female partners that were just great role models.
Organizationally, before I moved, I really enjoyed being a part of the Salem Chapter of NAWIC. Providing great education and fun opportunities, involved in the community, just a really great community and support of women. I think I probably joined that eight years ago. I feel like that group has seen me through a lot of career growth. It has been a really great source of encouragement and support.
How has networking with other women in the industry helped you in your career?
Big picture, humans are meant for community and having a community of people in the same industry. Being around women who understand the challenges you’re facing or what you’re going after provides a huge source of confidence and extra support. Having cheerleaders and people to relate to and people to bounce ideas off of has been really helpful and provides confidence.
It’s important to know that you’re not alone and you can try new things and do hard things, and it has been done before and is being done. And there’s a community supporting you.
What advice would you give to other women who are just starting out in this industry?
I’d say go for it, be fearless. I think that there is so much opportunity in the construction industry that’s often overlooked or that people don’t think about, whether you want to be out in the field actually building things or doing project management or anything on the support side, whether it’s legal or contracts or accounting or HR.
There’s just so many opportunities in this really robust, exciting dynamic industry. Being able to drive around town 10 years from now and point to a building and know that I was a part of building it is something that’s pretty remarkable. I think there’s a lot of room to grow and new things to try. I’ve really encouraged any women or people that are starting out in the industry to really go for it full force, because I think there’s a lot to be offered.
How do you think the construction industry will change in the next 10 years?
I think that technology is going to be huge, even thinking back 10 years ago, how far our cell phones have come, it’s wild. I think that there’s going to be a lot more automation and robotics, different technologies to help make the work we do safer and more efficient. It’ll be pretty revolutionary.
I also think that the proportion of women in the industry is going to continue to grow. I think probably if we look back 10, 20 years, it’s already changed a lot, but there’s certainly a lot of room to grow. And I think that we’re going to see that happen and I want to start seeing half the project managers in every company as women. Let’s get some more female superintendents. And I think that’s all something that could happen here in the next decade. And I’m excited for it.