The hard hat, company t-shirt and work boots are standard-issue on a construction site. The impeccably polished nails are the surprise.
Licensed general contractor Robin Rue (Fennell) is making a site visit to a building at 313 Custer Ave., one of the three construction projects she is currently overseeing. As a woman in a male-dominated field and the sole owner of Signature Construction Services, Ms. Rue is still a rarity.
Being an exception has helped her snag enough jobs to keep six employees and six subcontractors busy in these tough economic times. But launching her venture tested her mettle and determination.
Ms. Rue is one beneficiary of a federal program that is helping her hometown in several ways. She is one of the local builders to have been awarded contracts through the federal Neighborhood Stabilization Program 2, known as NSP2. Funded under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, NSP2 was meant to shore up neighborhoods blighted and demoralized by a high concentration of foreclosed and abandoned properties. NSP2 was also intended to boost the economy by providing work for local companies located in the target areas.
In 2009 Evanston received $18.15 million in NSP2 funds – the most of any community in Illinois – to purchase and rehab 100 bank-owned housing units in designated areas of west and south Evanston. Once rehabbed, the properties are to be sold or rented at prices deemed affordable under Housing and Urban Development (HUD) guidelines.
The grant specifies that at least 25 percent of the work must go to contracting companies owned by minorities or women and another percentage to Evanston-based companies.
Ms. Rue qualifies in all three categories. She is an Evanston native who attended Faith Christian Academy and graduated from King Lab School and Evanston Township High School and works out of her Evanston home. She is African American and a woman. Her company’s status as a “Woman-Owned Enterprise” was one factor in her landing enough jobs to spur a 30 percent growth in her company since last year.
Six years after founding Signature Construction, she can say, “Everyone treats me nicely.” But in the beginning, her decision to put on a contractor’s hard hat met with a lack of enthusiasm. Even the man closest to her was “hesitant” to endorse her, she says.
Robin Rue was raised by her grandmother and her grandfather, the Dave (Jackson) of Dave’s Painting. She learned construction at his side, tagging along on jobs and sitting in on planning meetings with his crew. She worked part-time for him for years, rising to become his project manager and administrator after college.
But she says it was his sons that her grandfather anticipated following in his footsteps. He “wanted something a little more glamorous for me. The first time he saw me in boots, I [think I] hurt his feelings,” she says. She says she “got a lot of resistance from him” at first. But by now, she says with a smile, “he’s adjusted.”
She pursued other interests in the meantime. “I have always been an entrepreneur,” she says. She worked as a realtor in Michigan before returning to Evanston. Here, she owned and operated Grace and Truth Christian Book and Gift Store on Emerson Street from 2003-06.
When she realized she was making more money working part-time for her grandfather than she did at the store, she yielded to the inevitable. Still, she says, “It was a sad day when I closed the store.”
Then one day, she says, she “just showed up and said [to her grandfather], ‘I’m going to do this [contracting] full-time.’” He gave her his support. Continuing her part-time work and education as a subcontractor for him also put her in contact with the North Shore women contractors she says inspired her.
She passed the rigorous test for an Evanston contractor’s license, the most difficult in the area to obtain, she says. Other towns, including Chicago, she notes, do not test and are content to extract a fee and “look at my Evanston credential.”
Hearing about the Evanston NSP2 funds, she submitted several bids. To date her company has been awarded six contracts by the City’s private partner and general contractor for the overall project, BCM, an affiliate of Brinshore Development. Some involved finish and trim work only; others were gut rehabs where she acted as general contractor.
Besides using her skills to build community – literally – she has exceeded the grant requirements on hiring locals. A 1994 ETHS grad herself, she is using only ETHS graduates as subcontractors on NSP2 projects. She connected with all six (HVAC, electrician, etc.) through the Evanston Black Business Association.
Ms. Rue has turned one of the potential liabilities of the government program into a positive learning experience. For most jobs, she says, the client makes a down payment and pays the remainder in three installments at regular intervals. HUD payments do not arrive for 30 to 45 days after billing, which can create a cash flow problem for a small business like hers with a payroll to meet every Friday.
Rather than defeating her, NSP2 has taught her discipline, she says. She says she has learned not to waste, preserving reusable materials by deconstructing rather than demolishing, and to “schedule work properly and spend money where it counts.”
But discipline also characterizes the rest of her life. She works from her home office, beginning each day with a call to her project manager to ensure everyone has the materials they need. She visits each work site in the morning and again before the end of the day.
Then this single mother heads home to cook dinner, attend school events and oversee the homework of her 15-year-old son, an ETHS varsity basketball player, and her 13-year-old daughter, a Haven Middle School student.
That flexibility is one of the things she likes about her work. She says she also enjoys the “opportunity to create employment for tradesmen.” But most of all, she says, being a contractor gives her a chance “to turn nothing into something wonderful for a family.”
The two-flat at 313 Custer Avenue is almost finished – and almost brand new. Completed, it will boast shiny wood floors, new mechanicals, new baths with tile floors and new fixtures, a new kitchen, an expansive living-dining room and new windows. Signature Construction is responsible for drywall and painting. Robin Rue counts the project as another of her good experiences with NSP2.