A successful woman-owned highway construction company, while not unheard of, isn’t something you read about every day. In fact, only eight percent of construction businesses in the United States are currently owned by women.
Kari Karst, owner and president of BX Civil & Construction, is proud to be part of that eight percent.
“The company was founded in 1962 by the Buskerud family. They founded the company and ran the company for 20 years. Then the company was sold in 1982 to a company in Sioux Falls called Sweetman Construction. It was run as a wholly-owned subsidiary,” Karst tells Better Roads.
“In 1992 I was approached about purchasing the company. The reason I had the opportunity to do that is because I had a civil engineering background and I have a family history in highway construction. My father was actually the president of Sweetman Construction,” she says. “He was not an owner, but he was the president. He knew they were looking to potentially sell the company off to compete in the minority business enterprise world.”
At the time Karst was living in California working for Ingersoll Rand, a large industrial equipment manufacturer. The company she would soon acquire was small at the time, doing just $1.5 – $2 million worth of highway work as a subcontractor.
Under Karst’s leadership, the company has grown substantially. Since buying the company in 1992, it now has four times the workers and six times the revenue.
The administrative and project management staff at BX Civil & Construction does have more female workers than most highway construction companies, but Karst says that’s not on purpose.
“I have a lot of great males on my team too,” Karst says. “My vice president of field operations and vice president of internal operations are both young men who have come up through the ranks.”
Male or female, Karst wants her company to have the best workers possible. She would like to find a way to get more women interested in the industry though.
“My next goal is to figure out how to make that happen amongst the ranks because that’s not the case at all when you get into field supervision and below. In fact, right now we don’t have any women on the payroll who are field supervisors, laborers, truck drivers, etc.,” she says. “I want to figure out how to make road construction more favorable to women workers.”
Karst does see some advantages to being a woman in the industry. She says, in general, women are “more people oriented.” As the industry evolves, the ideal skillset for workers is starting to evolve as well.
“From a leadership standpoint they tend to empathize with employees and have those skills the workforce seems to look for today more than 20 years ago,” Karst says.
Karst does not like to focus on the fact that she’s a woman. Ideally, she would just like to be seen as a successful construction business owner, regardless of gender. She is extremely passionate about the industry and wants to see it continue to grow.
She shares the same concerns about the industry as anyone, including male construction business owners.
“A lot of people, not just woman, see highway construction as a temporary landing point,” Karst says, expressing her concern for the future of the industry. “They see it as something they can do temporary, but there’s a point they won’t be able to do it anymore because it’s physically too demanding. Not necessarily because of the physical strength standpoint but the time commitment and not being able to have another balanced life. We have to figure it out.”
Karst’s passion for the industry isn’t something she tries to hide. She loves her job and believes more people would fall in love with the industry too if they just gave it a chance.
“This is a really fun industry to be involved in,” she says. “It’s hard work and it has challenges just like any other industry does, but the rewards – and I don’t mean financial rewards, I mean the intangible rewards of building something that is going to have a legacy – is really a rare opportunity today. “
[gtblockquote type=”right” quote_text_size=”22″ quote_text_style=”normal” quote_text_color=”#9F0226″]”The industry has to have the ability to change and to adapt to new cultures.”[/gtblockquote]Unfortunately, the highway construction workforce is losing numbers, which isn’t a good sign for things to come. Karst doesn’t claim to have all the answers, but she does think it’s time for the industry to make some changes.
“The industry has to have the ability to change and to adapt to new cultures in the workforce, whether that be the Hispanic culture or males and females, it’s a big challenge and we have to be willing to step up to the plate,” Karst says.
As for the future BX Civil & Construction, Karst is hesitant to think too far ahead. Right now she’s focused on continuing to grow the company. She does have two boys though, one who is currently studying construction management in college.
She’d be lying if she said she hasn’t thought about her boys one day taking over the company, but she wants them to work their way up the ladder first.
“I want them to experience working for somebody else first. I think it’s essential they learn to succeed somewhere else first.”