NEWPORT BEACH — Julie Newcomb is probably the only chief executive of a public building company who can get away with wearing shiny gold high heels to work.
That's because, according to the National Assn. of Home Builders, she is the only woman to hold such a job.
Newcomb, age 45, was elevated in January from her position as vice president of sales and marketing at Costain Homes in Newport Beach, which is part of a $3-billion British-owned mining and construction conglomerate, Costain Group PLC.
Her promotion sends a fissure through the glass ceiling of the building industry.
"She may be a trend-setter," said real estate consultant Ken Agid of the Marketing Department. "It's not unusual for a meeting to be made up of 50% women, but it's not 50% sitting at the head of the table."
In Orange County, which is headquarters for more than 200 home builders, just one other such firm is run by a woman. Kathryn Thompson founded Thompson Development Co. more than 20 years ago.
Newcomb took over at Costain from predecessor Dale Dowers, who had tried to buy the Newport Beach operation, which builds middle-market homes in Riverside and San Bernardino counties.
Originally, Costain liked Dowers' offer because the company was trying to raise cash to fight a takeover bid. But then Costain withdrew from the deal suddenly, alleging that Dowers could not get financing. Dowers, who said Costain withdrew because the takeover threat disappeared, was fired.
Dowers said in a recent interview that Newcomb was not the obvious pick for chief executive, but she may have been the one to give the company's owners across the Atlantic the clearest picture of the troubled local real estate market.
In 1989, Costain sold 259 homes for $60 million. But last year, when the market slumped sharply, it sold just 168 homes for $31.5 million.
"I think she told it like it was, and they were looking for someone to tell them the truth," Dowers said. "If someone is playing politics and trying to give sugarcoated answers, they're dead.
"I'm quite pleased to see that Costain had the courage to put a person of that caliber in the position," he said. "A lot of public companies take the easy road, (which is) to run with the sheep."
Also working for Newcomb was a shift in focus in the industry--from an emphasis on construction and finance to marketing the glut of homes already for sale. Larry Webb, another executive who moved up through marketing, was named president of A-M Homes' Southland division in April.
An obstacle for Newcomb was the culture of Costain's home office, said British-born Tim Hamilton, a housing industry consultant. "It is very tough for a lady to make division president, particularly in a British organization," he said. "She's a strong person."
Newcomb's manner is direct and her appearance quintessentially Southern California: Dressed in a tailored linen suit, she is blue-eyed, blond and deeply tanned. She grew up in Colton in San Bernardino County, where her guidance counselor warned her away from working in business.
She studied English at UCLA and worked as a teacher, sales representative and in an ad agency before deciding that her high school instinct was right: She wanted to move into business management. She studied marketing at the University of Georgia and was graduated with a master of arts degree in 1975--just in time to job-hunt during a recession.
"At the time, the Atlanta Journal was running ads with inch-thick black borders, announcing that lenders were taking back properties," Newcomb said. She formed her own company and helped those lenders identify new buyers for foreclosed properties. "It was a chance to test those (graduate school) theories in a down market," she said.
Since then, she has worked as general manager of Mobil Land Marketing, a housing development subsidiary of Mobil Oil, and as vice president of marketing for J.M. Peters Co., the Newport Beach-based home builder. She joined Costain in 1988.
While Newcomb was making her career moves, she married; the couple have a 6-year-old son. For more than four years, she worked at home two days a week to be with the boy, even though the Newcombs have live-in help.
Newcomb shares the guilt many working mothers feel. "I do think women feel more conflicted than men," she said. "In the '70s, women leaped into the work force, and (child-care has) been left as an individual issue for women to work out."
She said gaining a top position has given her a new perspective on business: "There was a shift for me. The next car, the next house, the next dress I could cram in my closet--that became secondary. Helping people along the way, giving back, sharing my experiences with other women became more important.
"Women haven't used each other as allies the way we should. We've said, 'There's only one slot on that shelf for a woman, and it's gotta be me,' instead of saying, 'Let's expand the shelf.' "