WHEN MAXINE RANSOM-VON PHUL shows up at a construction site, the crew frequently assumes that she's the company secretary. It's a mistake they're not likely to make more than once.
"I'm always called the secretary," she says, "until they find out who I am and that I sign the checks. Then, you immediately gain the respect of everybody out there"
As a general contractor and president of Winmax Construction Corp., Ransom-Von Phul, 43, is part of the swelling tide of American women in the '80s who have chosen to work in such non-traditional fields as construction, mining and manufacturing. Not that she set out to be a maverick when she applied for her general contractor's license 14 years ago and became the first black female contractor in California. It's just that when the construction firm she'd been working for as administrative assistant stopped operating in the early '70s, Ransom-Von Phul was faced with a tough choice: Work for somebody else or strike out on her own.
"That's when I decided, well, I can do this myself," she says. "Everybody was accustomed to me being out there in the construction industry, so when I started my own business, it wasn't like I'd gone out there cold."
Today, Winmax specializes in commercial construction, which Ransom-Von Phul oversees for such clients as Security Pacific Bank, McDonald's and Burger King from her company's spacious offices in the Crenshaw district of Los Angeles. She has helped build the Vermont /Slauson, Willowbrook and Watts Shopping Centers, is currently working on the new Baldwin Hills /Crenshaw Plaza, and at any one time may be supervising as many as 30 subcontractors at various job sites across the city.
This year's revenues are expected to be more than $1 million. What's more, Ransom-Von Phul's success is gaining notice: In October, she was named the state's Outstanding Businesswoman of the Year, a 4-year-old award presented by Gov. George Deukmejian.
But the road to becoming a successful contractor and entrepreneur was anything but predestined for Ransom-Von Phul. Growing up in Houston, her major influence was her father, a high school chemistry teacher who urged his children to pursue a higher education and get involved in whatever interested them.
For Ransom-Von Phul, that interest was business from the moment she got her first typewriter as a sixth-grader to her graduation from college with a business administration degree. "I knew I'd go into a business," she says now, "but I had no idea it'd be anything quite so non-traditional (for women) as construction."
In the early '70s, Ransom-Von Phul came out to Los Angeles on a two-week, post-graduation vacation, and never went back. Disappointed with her first job as an assistant buyer at Bullock's, where she says she ended up as a glorified salesperson, Ransom-Von Phul worked successively as an office manager at an engineering firm and then at the construction firm that later went under.
That's when she was hit by the entrepreneurial bug. "I said I'd give this (construction) five years to work, and if this didn't work, I was moving into something else," she recalls. Rich with on-the-job experience, but without company assets, Ransom-Von Phul started with no initial capital. She used project bids to gain credit at the bank and signed personally for bank loans in order to get the company started. All that changed, however, as Winmax developed a track record.
She was the only woman in her contractor's course at Los Angeles Trade Tech College. After getting her license, she was the only woman contractor bidding on construction jobs. "I've been the only one for a very long time," she notes.
But despite her expertise, Ransom-Von Phul has frequently found herself facing skepticism from an industry that has always been almost exclusively a male domain. "I'm certain people felt, 'Hey, give her a couple of years and she'll fall on her face.' But it's 18 years later, and I'm still here!" she says, clearly relishing her own survival.
And even though women in "men's jobs" aren't a big deal these days, Ransom-Von Phul says people still assume that she's the firm's secretary when she answers the phone or visits one of her job sites. In one case, she says, she'd visit a site with a male project superintendent, and her client "would talk to him and not look at me, which was fine with me."
In general, she copes with the difficulty of working in a male-dominated field by stressing that everybody work together as a team. "The main point is to get the job done--get the building built," she points out. "Everybody has a part to play and you play it as a team."
Yet it's not always that simple. In one instance, a client discovered that Ransom-Von Phul was a woman and told her he'd been burned by a woman in another business venture and thus preferred not "dealing with" women at all. She wasn't much bothered by the remark, apparently. "I felt like he had the problem and I didn't," she says succinctly.