Miami Maker: Patricia Bonilla Looks Back on Her Career in Construction
Many years ago, Patricia Bonilla, the head of Lunacon Construction Group, was in Iowa on her way to a business meeting when the police pulled her over.
She was suspected of drug dealing.
Apparently, for the cops who stopped her, being a criminal was a more plausible vocation than being the female CEO of a construction company.
It was quite the experience. But there have been others. Like the time a prison building she was working on was shut down with firearm-wielding government officials due to a dispute over the development’s timeline.
Bonilla is philosophical about it. Every experience has led her to where she is today, and provided a good training ground for business, as well as life.
As a young woman growing up in the Dominican Republic, she knew from an early age that a career in construction was calling, although her father — who also worked in the field — didn’t necessarily agree at the time. Since then, Bonilla has amassed more than 30 years of experience in construction, leading more than $500 million in projects across the country.
Bonilla’s career — which includes heading up the City of Fort Lauderdale’s construction authority — ultimately led Bonilla to start her own company, Lunacon Construction, in Miami in 2007.
Today, Lunacon’s portfolio runs the gamut, from local schools to large government projects with the Army Corps of Engineers and USDA. She was also the lead on the Larcenia J. Bullard Plaza project, a Miami-Dade County business incubator that serves as a catalyst for entrepreneurship.
Bonilla has a podcast, “Thriving in Construction” where she delves into the nuances of the industry, exchanges stories, and offers advice to other entrepreneurs finding their feet in the development world.
Hispanic, women-owned construction companies are few and far between, and Bonilla talked Commercial Observer through her path to carving out her own path to success in a competitive, white male-dominated industry.
The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
How did you get started in construction?
I was born in the Dominican Republic, and, when it was time to decide what I was going to study, I had some choices — law, engineering or medicine — but I chose engineering, and I’m sure it had a lot to do with the fact that my father was an engineer, and in construction. I think we always have one parent that we try to please, or whose approval we try to obtain, and for me it was definitely my father.
But, he didn’t want me to be an engineer. He said, “That’s not a job for women.” I was the eldest of four and I think his idea was that my brothers would enter the field. This was 30-plus years ago, so at the time it was a very dominant opinion, but I still did it anyway [laughs]. I think I probably have a lot of his personality.
What was your initial experience starting out, given your father’s concerns?
Well, what’s interesting is that as I was going through university I worked with my father a little bit and then my mother as my father actually died when I was halfway into my civil engineering degree [in 1987], so I was helping finish what he had started on a part-time basis.
I then came to the U.S. because I felt I needed more knowledge, and I wanted to really understand construction. You can go through a civil engineering education and not know how to put it into practice — this is actually one of the problems I’m trying to solve now with a construction academy that I started — so, I came here to get a master’s degree in construction management [at Florida International University] and also started working for a company here in the U.S. I started my degree with one pregnancy, and I finished with a second pregnancy within two years, and I was also working full-time, but, when you’re committed to something, you go through whatever you need to go through. I then started as a project engineer in Miami, working with the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and that was a very interesting project.
So you were working on a prison project?
Yes, it was a [1,000-bed] prison building in Miami. I worked for the contractor [Cogefar-Impresit USA of Miami] and we’d only just started the job when the government terminated the project [due to the contractor allegedly not meeting the construction schedule for the building]. They showed up with firearms — the really big ones — and said, “This is the federal government, and we’re taking over this building.” What had happened was there were columns that were collapsing, the design was poor, and the contractor was being blamed for everything. I then became part of the team that was working on the contractor’s [appeal against the termination]. I didn’t realize it at the time, but looking back I realize I thrive on challenges.
What was the reception to you being a woman in construction at that time?
During that particular project I was working with a European company so the mentality was a little different — although every huge decision was made by a man, and there were not a lot of people who looked like me. At that time — this was 1992 — I was in the [appeal] area of that project and it was way more than an administrative role, but even then I could tell that there was no intention of advancing me to a management role as a woman.
After that role, I actually went back to the Dominican Republic for a while because I felt I needed to help my mom, who had become a widow at 45. I was working a lot and helping her there when my now-ex-husband was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, so I returned to the U.S.
As soon as I returned, I was hired by a large company in Miami and was in charge of a takeover contract — meaning the previous contractor had been terminated — where the project owner was the City of Fort Lauderdale. The commissioner and city manager asked me to complete the project ahead of schedule. I agreed to do my best and I actually finished five months ahead of schedule and received a certificate of recognition from the commissioner and city manager.
I had told them before I started “If you want me to finish quickly, remove all these inspectors that are making my life difficult.” I influenced whoever I needed to influence, and I got it done. Then the city hired me. This was 2004, and I worked for the city for three years. Working for the government was probably one of the hardest jobs I’ve done. I made a lot of impact, but not as much as I would have wanted, as I was always fighting the bureaucracy.
I’ll bet it was a great training ground, though?
It was. I can now empathize with government contracting officers now that I have my own business, and that role gave me courage to start my own company, which I started in 2007. I jumped ship, and I said, “I’m going to start my company to be with my kids more,” because I had a 50-mile commute from Miami to Fort Lauderdale each day. Through all this I was also going through my then-husband’s bipolar diagnosis, but everything I have gone through in my life helps me be more empathetic. Everything has a purpose, and there are such high suicide rates in construction from mental illness, which now draws my attention and compassion.
Why was it the right time to launch Lunacon in 2007?
As I mentioned, it allowed me to have a certain level of freedom to take care of my kids, as they were my priority. It wasn’t a great economic time, though, because we were about to go through a recession. Still, I took a leap of faith, left my regular job, and started the company from my house. I feel I’m guided in life, and sometimes I had fear, but I never looked back. I received a phone call two days after I left my job from someone I’d worked with five years previously saying, “I need to hire a subcontractor to be the owner representative on this $23 million project for the USDA,” and that project got extended through the worst part of the recession.
So, that’s when I started marketing [my company to] the federal government. I started traveling and marketing and connecting with contracting people. In Miami, there was very little construction work at the time, so this was a very powerful realization and opportunity to grow my company. And, so, I went after it.
How key have government contractual opportunities been in Lunacon’s growth?
It’s been very key. American Express has a program called Contract Connections, which is basically a matchmaking program held at business events around the country, connecting small business suppliers with procurement professionals and government buyers to discuss business opportunities. I’ve been part of the program for nearly a decade — I actually won an award for Government Contractor of the Year in 2015 — and now share my experience with other women-owned businesses so I can be a mentor for aspiring entrepreneurs.
Any initial challenges while you were launching your business?
Well, there was an incident in Iowa, where I got stopped by the cops. We were on the highway and traveling five miles above the speed limit. So I was thinking, “OK, OK, give me a ticket.” But instead of that, they go, come back with dogs, and they search our car. They check my luggage, everything, and ask me what I’m doing, and I say “I’m working. I’m marketing,” and the cops said, “You have a construction company? What, you inherited this company?” It didn’t compute for them.
They brought in a woman cop at the end, and I’m very proud of the emotional intelligence that I’ve acquired, because I was basically being accused of being a drug dealer that day. She asked me how I deal with a male-dominated industry, and I said, “I just don’t focus on that.” Then I said to her, “How about you? You’re a policewoman and in a male-dominated industry, so how do you do it?” And she said, “I became tough.” And I guess that’s the same answer in a way. I said to her nicely, “The most interesting part is not about the male or the white male dominance, it’s that a woman asked me ‘Is it possible that you own a company?’”
A woman often believes that another woman is limited because of their own limitations, and so they limit that other woman in turn. That’s something that we as women must overcome.
Have you seen an improvement in the construction industry over the years, in terms of women in senior leadership positions?
I think there’s a little bit of progress but it depends a lot on the individual company. Some companies will claim that they lean more towards diversity and inclusion than they actually do, but, if you look at most companies, leadership roles at the board level are filled by white men.
How do we encourage more diversity in construction?
To me, it’s the question of how do we market the industry and let people know what this industry is really about. Sometimes women don’t join our industry, because they don’t know what the options are within it, so I believe we have a lot of work to do marketing-wise.
I started a podcast to show people the diverse range of possibilities that our industry has to offer. Some people hear I’m in construction and think I’m just laying bricks or concrete. I show people my hands and say “Look, no calluses!” [laughs]. You have several avenues in this industry, from marketing, accounting and finance, construction law, the management side, estimating, purchasing. There’s so much you can be doing while making good money and being very successful.