A Woman Made of STEEL

By Jane M. Von Bergen
The Philadelphia Inquirer.

General contractor Emily Bittenbender, 48, who describes herself as a high-end red neck, loves four-wheeling in the Pine Barrens. She also owns “two mean dogs,” made her ex-fiancee her business partner right after they broke up, and gets more than a little annoyed with how the media portray union construction workers.

“That whole skyline was built by union construction workers,” said Bittenbender, founder and managing partner of Bittenbender Construction LP. “There’s a problem in every industry, [but] we get a bad rap and it really pisses me off.

“Let me tell you something,” she said. “We run a really tight crew. They are loyal to the bone. Have the best product ever. They’re safe, responsible, courteous.

“They’ve been well-trained through their apprenticeship programs. Safety is first priority on our job sites,” she said. “I am very, very proud to run a union shop.”

Bittenbender is the first woman to lead the male-dominated General Building Contractors Association of Philadelphia in its 125-year history.

The association, which negotiates master collective bargaining agreements with union carpenters, ironworkers, laborers, and cement masons and operating engineers, helps to market union contractors.

Q:Tough sell?

A: Obviously, the union marketplace is slowly shrinking. I think that GBCA needs to really promote and market the benefits of union construction. What I want to do is create a shift at the GBCA and build a Philadelphia construction community.

Q: Like what?

A: There’s a new group being formed right now that’s bringing together the entire group of associations and business managers from the unions to build a consolidated group to go out and actively market.

Q: Is the situation with the ironworkers and the vandalism a problem?

A: It’s sad for all of us. People need to know that’s not the norm. The norm is people who just want to do a great job and deliver a great product and go home to be with their families.

Q: What’s it like working in a male environment?

A: I have a very masculine mind. I don’t cry. I don’t bitch. I don’t gossip. I don’t complain. I take the bullets just like everybody else. Construction is high risk, tons of conflict. I think I perform very similarly to men in that regard. I will tell you this: I love blue-collar men more than I like the white-collar men.

Q: Why?

A: When there’s a conflict or problems arise, people get hotheaded, but [blue-collar] men don’t take it personally. I think sometimes white-collar people are always worried about their image and their position and how they’re perceived.

Q: Most of your top execs are women. Any advice?

A: I don’t hire emotional women, but I do hire women that can handle themselves appropriately. My intuition is very good. I tell people I can smell it on them.

Q: What are you looking for?

A: I look for women that are good multitaskers, good sense of humor, roll with the punches, get things done, don’t complain. Self-starters.

Q: You were engaged three times, but never married.

A: I loved them all, but it just hasn’t felt right yet. So I’m single and looking for an awesome man.

Q: You work with lots of men.

A: They’re married or they’re married with girlfriends. I can’t do that.

Q: You don’t have children.

A: People ask me if I ever had children. I say, “Yeah, the National Constitution Center” [where she was project manager]. You have an intimate relationship with a building. People don’t understand what a relationship is like with a building.

Q: What is it like?

A: You really feel like you give birth to something. It’s like having a child that started in conception and you get to build something that breathes life and has impact on people.

Q: At the same time you know where every joist is.

A: It’s cool. That’s what I think about when I drive by. The exhibit floor of the Constitution Center is just a whole web and maze of electrical conduit. You know what’s on the roof. You know how the equipment works. You give pulse and a soul to something.

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