If you want to know how to boost the Rhode Island economy, talk to Carol O'Donnell, who has thrived in a tough business sector, the construction industry.
O'Donnell is president and owner of a diversified construction business triad: CRM Modular Homes, Emerald Re-Construction LLC and Emmy LLC – all managed out of Johnston. CRM builds modular homes, apartments and other buildings. Emerald estimates insurance claims on damaged properties and reconstructs them. Emmy buys properties and reconstructs them for rent or sale.
O'Donnell decided in the 1980s to become a contractor when, in her mid-20s, she built her own 3,000-foot house in Richmond.
"I liked the work, so I took continuing-education courses … to learn about the construction and real estate businesses," she said. "Then I founded CRM in 1989 in Johnston to build modular homes."
O'Donnell was attracted to specializing in modular homes because she could build a customized modular home for 10-20 percent less than it would cost to "stick-build on-site" the same home – a major selling point.
"Stick-build on-site can take months and you have to fight bad weather and other problems," she said. "I can install a modular home on piers in one day and finish the job in two to four weeks."
CRM builds a wide range of modular housing, from seasonal beach cottages to substantial private residences. Currently, CRM is replacing hurricane-wrecked beach cottages in Narragansett, for an approximate average of $140,000 each and is building a modular home in Charleston, for approximately $600,000.
O'Donnell began diversifying in 2002 when she and a minority partner, Thomas Marandola, founded Emerald to handle damage estimates and damage reconstruction. The same year, she founded Emmy to handle her purchases of real estate in Rhode Island that CRM could reconstruct for sale or rent.
CRM and its sister companies are tightly managed by O'Donnell and three employees who oversee numerous subcontractors.
"We believe in smart, hands-on management and keeping overhead to a minimum," O'Donnell said. "We'll probably add a few more people in the future to handle growth.
"We do see future continuing growth: more homes, different modular buildings. We've already built an apartment house and a rec center."
CRM's entry into the construction industry had to deal with all of the usual startup challenges, plus the additional challenge of being a business run by a woman in a highly male-dominated business sector.
"Working in a nontraditional field [such as] construction, women are not always taken seriously," O'Donnell said. "There is a tendency to infer that you do not have the right skills and knowledge because you are not a man. Women need to have the strength both physically and emotionally to get past being stereotyped.
"Accordingly, when I started my business, my biggest challenges were not only obtaining financing but also convincing people that I was competent in the construction field."
With success, O'Donnell has felt compelled to encourage other women to enter the construction business and to guide them to success.
She helped create at the Rhode Island YWCA Rosie's Girls, a unique summer program training 11-13-year-old girls in construction trades, including use of power tools and encouraging STEM studies. She is a regional director of the National Association of Women in Construction, which promotes education of women in construction work. As a director of the Rhode Island Builders Association, she has taught classes on all phases of owning a construction business.
O'Donnell is also an active participant in advancing the construction sector in Rhode Island. She is one of four women on the R.I. Contractors Registration and Licensing Board. And she is the first woman to be elected treasurer of the R.I. Builders Association since its founding 62 years ago.
As a native of Rhode Island who has built a business in the state while raising her three children, she is keenly aware of difficulties in Rhode Island's troubled economic environment – particularly difficulties facing the construction business.
"We are crippled by a nightmare of rules and regulations in every city and town and the slow-motion bureaucrats who administer them," she said. "They cause endless delays, infuriating our customers and forcing harmful increases in the cost of doing business.
"Every city and town has different rules and regulations, and too often permits are improperly used to increase local government revenue," she said. "The administrators in only a few places, [such as] Narragansett, try to help builders by cutting through the maze."
O'Donnell says state and local governments need to realize that the construction business is key to Rhode Island development.
"It touches every aspect of the economy," she said. "They should help it – not hobble it." •