Karen Say-Valadez

ABC helps founder wear 12 hats

KAREN SAY-VALADEZ - Saybr Contractors

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Karen Say-Valadez is the president and founder of Saybr Contractors, based out of Tacoma. Karen entered the industry as a “floater” at a construction company during college, where she got her start filling in as a receptionist. Eventually, Karen had been through every imaginable job at the company – from working in the accounting department, estimating and project management to branch manager. After the company went under, Karen and some of her coworkers decided to go at it on their own, starting Saybr Contractors in 1997 out of her 400 square foot home.

We recently caught up with Karen to see how she’s been doing, where Saybr is today and what it’s like to – in her words – “wear 12 hats.”

Tell us about your involvement with ABC of Western Washington (ABCWW). At first you were reluctant to participate, but that’s no longer true. What changed?

I heard about ABCWW through someone else, I was told they had a program where you could get some of your L&I premiums back, called Retro, and that was a no brainer to me. I pay for a membership, I get double that back every year. But I just had no interest in participation – at first.

Kathleen Garrity [founding president of ABCWW] was the leader at the time and she kept pushing me and asking me to participate in things and eventually said, ‘I really need you on the Diversity Committee… we'd like you to participate because if we're going to have any diversity we need to have people that look different.’ Because of her insistence, I participated and what I found immediately is that ABCWW is like a family and the big contractors, the icons of the industry, would be sitting at the table talking to me like one of their peers. It just blew me away.

That is the magic of ABCWW. It’s just like a family and everyone is there to help. If you have a question or you need a resource, there’s someone there – if the person who you asked doesn't, they’ll often point you to someone else who can help.

Did these experiences help you grow as a business leader?

ABCWW became my go-to advisor. No matter what I needed, the resources were found through ABCWW and thanks to the relationships that I built there. Serving on one committee led to being elected to the board and eventually to serving as chair of the board. It was honestly transformational for me in terms of leadership skills because I didn't have that much life experience, let alone business experience when I started Saybr. Being around such a well-run organization with highly motivated people that were inclusive allowed me to really witness leadership styles that I admired and that I wanted to model myself on. It helped me run my business and become the head of an organization that is much larger than what I had ever dreamt.

One of the other things is, sometimes it's a lonely place to be the one at the top and to be the one that has to make the tough decisions. Sometimes it's nice to hear you're not alone and talk to people that have had to make similar tough decisions and how they're going through it or the results of their experiences. Having that kind of candor is not something I think happens – in my experience – with other trade associations, but at ABCWW it exists.

As a business leader, you have to wear many hats. How does ABCWW ease that burden?

ABCWW has absolutely helped grow Saybr. Surprisingly though, it wasn't necessarily what I thought it would be. Many people go to trade associations to try and find business. Instead, what I found were all of the resources needed to run my business. When you're a construction business owner, you have to wear 12 hats, you need to know about insurance, legal matters, personnel issues, HR, safety, and what's going on with political community… I get all of that from ABCWW. If I want more than just webinar training or an in-person meeting, there are people that are always willing to help solve problems or lend an ear. I get support in all areas of owning and running my business.

Especially with the safety element, if I had to go hire an independent third-party safety consultant to help me develop my safety plan and improve it over the years, it would cost me a fortune. ABCWW is not only willing to share their knowledge, it's also a way to train our people cost effectively. The safety element was always something that was paramount in my mind, as we were growing our business, because there's no dollar worth a human being going home hurt, sick or injured. I take that very seriously. Every safety resource I've received has been through ABCWW and I'm so grateful.

ABCWW is a training ground for all of my people on leadership as well. All of the great things that I love about ABCWW, my employees experience it firsthand too. We’ve had six to eight employees go through the ABCWW’s Rising Stars program, and now as I'm thinking about my succession plan, the people that are involved and going to be taking over some of my duties in the future have without exception been involved.

Is there a Saybr project that you believe has made an impact or made you proud? We are a unique animal in that we started as a petroleum contractor, so we built gas stations and fuel systems, backup generator systems, things like that. But one of the awards that we won through ABCWW was for the first biodiesel plant in the state of Washington. The owner was a former pilot that wanted to change the world and help not only our economy but create sustainable methods to make petroleum fuel. We built this biodiesel plant on a shoestring budget and it became the first commercial facility for biodiesel in the state of Washington, so I'm proud of that.

What does leaving a mark on the built environment mean to you?

It's a legacy. It's one of those things, as a mother of two sons, that I'll be driving around and pointing out work we’ve done – they're probably sick of it now because they’ve been listening to it their entire life, but I'm extremely proud of it. It’s something tangible that is there and when you are done with a project, you can feel good about that. Looking around and saying ‘I built that’ or just knowing I had some role in bring into about. So many of the projects that we've completed, decades later, are still there.