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Smith Relishes Challenges of Construction Industry

Colorado Real Estate Journal — July 15-August 4, 2015

by Jennifer Hayes

Donna Smith

Donna Smith admits she always has been drawn to male-dominated industries—not for the challenge of being one of a small number of women within them but the challenge they presented to her.

“It’s always been an environment I’ve been comfortable in and a world that suits me, so I don’t even think about being one of the only women,” said Smith, vice president of business development at The Neenan Co., who as a self-admitted tomboy grew up working in the garage at her father’s Chevrolet dealership.

“I’ve always been bent on a male-dominated career,” laughed Smith.

An East Coast native, Smith visited Colorado as a junior in high school and fell in love with the ecology of the Rocky Mountains—so much so she decided to attend Colorado State University to study forestry before switching her major and graduating with a bachelor’s degree in agriculture and a minor in economics, and a master’s degree in land use economics.

In her 17 years in economic development, Smith worked for a variety of municipalities and counties in Colorado, including Adams County, Broomfield, Brighton and Loveland. It
was also during this time she met and became friends with Ray Pigg, vice president of business development at Neenan, who insisted she should try the construction industry.

“He always said I should do this and I kept on saying that I don’t know anything about construction,” recalled Smith, who, in 2004, took the plunge and embarked on a career in construction with Neenan. “But really, what I still do, is work with businesses and economic development, just from the private side.”

“It has been fantastic for me,” added Smith, who relishes the chance to find a physical solution to help companies support their business goals.

“It’s all about supporting their business, them hiring more people, paying a better wage. It all starts with a plan. I love that side,” said Smith.

“My favorite days are the days we do work sessions with clients, when we flesh out things; the energy and interactions we get to be a part of,” she continued. “I love that we help clients figure out and see how a building can help achieve their goals.”

It is these work sessions, Smith admits, that are some of the most challenging aspects of her role at Neenan, in being open and honest with clients and their wish lists. “These sessions are most like economic development in that you don’t want to provide incentives, in other words build their project, if it’s not going to succeed, and ultimately, be the demise of the business.”

Smith’s honest approach to clients comes from her father’s lessons of teaching her not to sweat the small stuff, she noted.

“He taught me to control what you can, treat others the way you want to be treated and everyone can teach you; you just have to be open to that kind of learning. You never know it all, no matter how successful you are,” she added.

Over her career, Smith has worked on a variety of projects and multiple situations from meeting with 15 attorneys from Kmart during her economic development days to at Neenan helping transform the YMCA of the Rockies to the development of the LEED Platinum Powerhouse Energy Institute at CSU.

Her two careers also have afforded Smith the introduction to “the best individuals in the business,” whom she considers family, including Holli Riebel, Becky Hogan and Debbie Tuttle of the economic development world as well as her mentor, David Shigekane of Neenan.

“David has been an amazing picture of leadership. He supports you, is very patient, thoughtful and honest. He is a great leader by example.”

Smith also hopes to expand her leadership role at Neenan, to support and mentor the youth of the company. But she doesn’t plan on making a third career switch.

“I just love what I do,” said Smith.

Smith also relishes the “work” she does outside the office, including participating with Habitat for Humanity, Humane Society, United Way, American Cancer Society, NAIOP, Downtown Denver Partnership and Denver Chamber of Commerce.

Like the dichotomy of being a woman in a male-dominated industry, her hobbies too reflect a similar contrast. Smith enjoys making jewelry as well as being a DIY’er handling tile and plumbing projects. She also enjoys hiking, camping, biking, traveling, spending time with her family, friends and yellow lab.

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