At the height of the Great Recession, Debora “Deb” Poteet realised the company she’d founded 20 years earlier might not survive.
Her office manager-bookkeeper bailed, expecting to lose the job soon anyway. By 2008, the worst part of the economic calamity, when the price of oil peaked at $147 a barrel, it cost an unworkable $8 per mile to move tarmac recycling and other heavy equipment to projects across Montana and the West, where her business is based. Deb knew her company was sliding into bankruptcy.
Yet with remarkable grit and determination, Deb kept moving forwards — and made some painful decisions. She sold the heavy equipment, laid off many employees and narrowed her focus to the work she knows best: temporary work zone traffic control for road construction. She also took several accounting classes to better understand her company’s finances.
Those measures, along with a slowly recovering economy, kickstarted a dramatic turnaround. By 2015, Deb was named Small Business Person of the Year for companies in Montana with more than 50 employees.
Laying the groundwork
Although originally from Indiana, Deb earned a degree in geography and land use planning from the University of Montana and made the state her home. A love of being outdoors propelled her into jobs unusual for women in the 1980s, including work as a concrete labourer and surveyor.
“I love having a project where you can see it changing day to day,” Deb said of surveying. But she wasn’t eligible for prevailing wages under the Davis-Bacon Act, and the pay difference was substantial. That riled her.
Deb began a three-year heavy equipment training programme through the Operating Engineers, while also working for Washington Corporation. The company recognised her two-fold value — someone who could both survey and operate heavy equipment. Unwilling to move from Montana, Deb left when the job would have sent her out of state.
That led to a turning point on a project in Great Falls. “One of my site managers said, ‘You could do this, Deb. You could start your own business.’”
Deb took that to heart, forming Poteet Construction in 1987 with a $1,000 tax refund. “Over the years, the economy would change and I would have to adapt,” she said. “But all the while Poteet Construction was morphing into this business I love.”
Making a leap
In 2013, one of Poteet Construction’s competitors went out of business, leaving scores of employees without jobs. Although many asked Deb to hire them, she didn’t have the necessary project volume. Then several prime contractors contacted her, promising ample work to keep a large crew busy.
“On May 19, they told me Yellowstone National Park’s roads had to be open in a week,” Deb said. “They FedExed a contract for $1.8 million and we went from 0 to 60 in about 48 hours. No one on the management team slept for six months. It’s been crazy ever since.”
The company now has 150 people and as many as 100 vehicles in the summer. In addition to the core traffic control services, Deb has added structural concrete and guardrail installation. Projects extend across Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks and throughout Montana and Idaho.
Park projects require the diplomacy to work with the Federal Highway Administration, the Park Service, the prime contractor and the travelling public. “You need individuals who are almost PR people to answer questions from tourists and maneuver drivers through these construction sites,” Deb said. Supervisors on the park projects are typically women, who Deb finds well-suited to handling the stress of communications along with all the other tasks required.
Building opportunities for women
Women are scarce in construction, making up only 9% of the workforce, according to OSHA. From the start, Deb was encouraged to list Poteet Construction as a woman-owned Disadvantaged Business Enterprise. Still, that wasn’t enough to win contracts.
“I definitely received a lot of help with learning accounting and making connections,” Deb said. “But getting contracts is more about trust, integrity and the quality of work.” The rapid growth since 2013 was based on established relationships with companies like HK Contractors out of Idaho Falls, Idaho. “They said, ‘If you’re telling me you’re going to do this, Deb, we know we can count on you,” she recalled.
Deb said women have many opportunities to break into construction and explore the field. She’d hire more women for her team if she could. Still, it’s hard for anyone to be away from home for months. Women on road construction projects often struggle with childcare unless they have a supportive partner.
Making family the centre
Deb understands the challenges of working in construction and raising a family from her own experience. Deb and her wife, Lara Dorman, have been together more than 20 years and are parents to Isabelle, 14, and Isaac, 12. Away from work, Deb enjoys cross-country skiing, both ice and fly fishing, and boating. The family has travelled around the globe, particularly in winter months when it’s easier for Deb to get away. But since the COVID-19 pandemic started, they’ve been camping and rediscovering Montana.
Deb thinks of her company as family, too — despite how much it’s grown.
“It’s really rewarding to me to provide good-paying jobs for Montanans,” Deb said. “I like knowing my employees will be able to buy homes and rely on medical insurance and vacation and pension funds.” Poteet Construction has one of the largest payrolls in Montana, Deb said, and supervisors and managers receive bonuses in profitable years.
Giving back to the community
Deb has also supported the construction community by serving on the board of the Montana Contractors Association; in 2013, she served as president. “That’s kind of a huge accomplishment in a good old boy system,” she chuckled.
Deb has other aspirations as well, many of which stem from the challenges she’s faced in her career as an entrepreneur and small business owner.
In addition to navigating the 2008 recession, another serious obstacle was getting financing in the company’s early days. Even though Deb had contracts coming in, loan officers initially refused to meet with her, she said. Finally, Verna Welch, a bank president in Missoula, helped Poteet get established.
“In the future, I hope I can help other people who want to start businesses navigate financing and borrow money to make their payrolls,” she said.
Deb gives credit to her entire team for Poteet Construction’s achievements. But the major determinant of her success may simply be a can-do, won’t-stop attitude.
“I’m kind of like the little engine that could,” Deb said. “I just know things are going to get better.”