By Len Boselovic
Marcy Johnson says it was probably her older brother who told her the University of Pittsburgh’s engineering program was recruiting female students.
It was the mid-1970s, and engineering was not a traditional career for women.
Nevertheless, Ms. Johnson, then a junior studying biology and mathematics, decided to pursue civil engineering because what little she knew about the field made her feel that was the right choice.
“I was not very girly-girly. I liked playing with my brother’s trucks,” said Ms. Johnson, 59, who grew up in Donora and went to Ringgold High School with Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Montana.
More than three decades later, she owns Rhea Engineers & Consultants, a Hampton firm that did the environmental assessment for Consol Energy’s wells at Pittsburgh International Airport.
Rhea’s 33 employees’ other projects include soil engineering work for land developers, storm water management systems, and environmental assessments and clean-ups.
Ms. Johnson said Rhea’s success would not have been possible without two government programs that supported the firm in its early years: a state program that allowed her to collect unemployment benefits while starting the business when she was laid off after 9/11; and a federal program that supports women- and minority-owned firms as long as they prove they are able to find new business on their own.
Although Ms. Johnson tends to think like a Republican, her views on the role of government and taxes differ from many party members because of how government programs helped Rhea.
“I’m supporting 30 families,” she said. “I wouldn’t be where I am today if they didn’t help me.”
After graduating from Pitt in 1977, Ms. Johnson worked for West Virginia’s highway department. The state agency wanted to hire women, but it didn’t want to pay them much and was not inclined to let them work on construction projects, she said.
“I told them: ‘Don’t even offer me a job if you don’t offer me one in construction,’ ” she recalled. Her first project was the I-470 Bypass around Wheeling.
She later returned to Pittsburgh where she worked for the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, Paul Rizzo Associates and a firm that changed hands four times.
That’s where she was in October 2001, managing the Pittsburgh office of that firm, then known as J.A. Jones. Ms. Johnson had built up a $3 million backlog of business.
She suspected nothing when officials from the firm’s Charlotte headquarters told her they were coming in for a meeting and to make sure every Pittsburgh employee would be there.
Thinking they were going to congratulate the office for doing good work, Ms. Johnson was stunned when the visitors announced everyone was being laid off and their work transferred to North Carolina.
That led her to the unemployment office, where Ms. Johnson was told about a state program that would allow her to collect unemployment benefits and start her own business.
The program required her to write a business plan and go to Duquesne University’s small business development center for assistance.
“That’s how I was able to pay my bills,” she said.
Ms. Johnson and two female colleagues incorporated Rhea, named for the Greek goddess known as the mother of gods, in December 2001. Their first projects were for clients of their former firm.
A year or so later, Rhea joined the U.S. Small Business Administration’s 8(a) program. The nine-year program gives women- and minority-owned businesses an inside track on government contracts for four years, then an additional five years for them to develop other sources of business in the private sector.
Small businesses that don’t do that can be dropped from the program.
Rhea graduated from the program two years ago, but Ms. Johnson serves as a mentor to another female entrepreneur who is in it.
One of her two co-founders moved out of town when her husband was transferred but still does part-time work for Rhea.
The other left to start her own firm and is a subcontractor for Rhea on some projects. That leaves Ms. Johnson to oversee the firm’s offices in Hampton; Coraopolis; Woodbridge, Va.; and Wilmington, N.C.
She said the firm’s revenue is on track to hit $4 million this year, up from $3.7 million a year ago. Government contracts account for about 70 percent of the business, and the private sector provides the rest.
Although she likes being president, Ms. Johnson is still an engineer at heart. Rhea’s size gives her the opportunity to be one from time to time.
“When you’re an engineer, it bothers you when you can’t do engineering,” she said. “I like this size because I’m still doing some projects here and there.”