Making Her Mark on KC
Brandy McCombs’ favorite song is the country rock ditty, “Tattoos on This Town.”
“It’s about leaving your mark,” McCombs said. “That’s my song, because when I’m gone, my mark will be made.”
The 35-year-old founder and president of International Builders & Consultants (IBC) has already done a great deal to ensure that the work performed by her commercial carpentry contracting company will be around for generations to come in the Kansas City area.
In recent years, high-profile IBC projects have included interior woodwork at Country Club Bank, the chapel at Children’s Mercy Hospital, Hollywood Casino at Kansas Speedway in Kansas City, Kan., and LEGOLAND Discovery Center and Sea Life Aquarium at Crown Center.
Most memorable was last summer’s meticulous refurbishing of the rotting wooden dial atop the 40-foot clock tower rising from the historic Jackson County Courthouse in Independence, where Harry S. Truman once presided as a county judge.
“A hundred years from now, that clock tower is still going to be there and people will still drive by,” McCombs said. “It’s an American icon. And I was part of that. I’ve actually gotten somewhere.”
McCombs’ journey has taken her from a small Ohio town, where her grandfather and father ran their own small businesses, to her own entrepreneurial success in Kansas City. Founded only months before the Great Recession hit with full force in 2008, IBC initially struggled but has grown every year since. In 2013, the company earned $2 million in revenues and is projected to take in $2.5 million to $3 million in 2014.
IBC employs more than 10 full-time carpenters, whose expertise McCombs relies on to install cabinets, countertops, wall paneling and trim, as well as doors, frames and assorted hardware.
Occasionally, additional labor is requested by general contractor clients, as when IBC put in a huge vault door at the Jackson County Courthouse. That project exemplified the teamwork that McCombs strives for in her growing business.
“It was something we’d never done before, and we needed a lot of people to do it,” McCombs said. “I’m the front person. But if it wasn’t for my guys doing such a good job, there would be no me.”
‘I Can Do This’
McCombs grew up in Nelsonville, Ohio, where her grandfather owned the only gas station in town and her father owned an auto parts store. As a child, she took pride in their pride of ownership, and wanted to do the same for herself one day.
“My dream was always to own my own business,” she said. “Was it construction? Well, maybe not. But as I followed through on what I liked to do, that’s when I found that this was the kind of company I wanted.”
At first, McCombs thought the restaurant industry might be calling her name. She had enjoyed waitressing, so after graduating with a business degree from Hocking College in Nelsonville, she took a job managing three restaurants at a beach resort in Fort Myers, Fla.
When she discovered that working into the wee hours in the restaurant game wasn’t her thing, she took a management position in the service department of an air conditioning installation company in Fort Myers. But she wanted more.
“I talked to people on the phone all the time, but I was never in the field,” she said. “I wanted more face-to-face interactions.”
McCombs got the personal interaction she was missing when, in 2005, she went to work as an interior superintendent for a general contractor that specialized in high-rise condominiums. The company put her to work in Fort Myers and then in Miami, where the pieces of her entrepreneurial journey started to come together.
“People bought a unit, and there was nothing in it but drywall and white primer,” she said. “So I worked hand in hand with interior designers and other contractors to get everything ready—all the finishes, floors, cabinets, painting and anything that had to do with getting that condo done. When I saw the finished product, I was like, ‘Oh, this is cool.’
“And that was when I thought, ‘Well, I can do this.’ I see what they do, and I know that I can do it, and I have the resources to do it. I already know the subcontractors that can perform the work. I already have the relationships. I could be the general contractor. That’s what I started out wanting to do.”
But after McCombs ambitiously launched IBC as a general contracting business in the summer of 2008, the Florida economy quickly took
a nosedive, and her fledgling business was in trouble.
“Nothing happened,” she recalled. “That first year in Florida was brutal. I got a couple of little things, but it was not enough to keep me afloat.”
Going to Kansas City
McCombs could have quit right then. Why didn’t she?
“It was my drive and not wanting to fail,” she said. “I was not going to fail.”
After researching other areas of the country where the recession hadn’t slammed the construction industry as badly, McCombs decided to move her business from Florida to Kansas City, where she also had the benefit of cousins to rely on for familial support.
She sought out the help of business counselors at the Kansas City office of SCORE (Service Corps of Retired Executives) and joined the local chapter of Women Construction Owners & Executives. Even so, it took a while for McCombs to get acclimated to the intricacies of running her business in the bistate Kansas City area.
“In Kansas, you have to pay certain remodel taxes—I didn’t know that,” she said. “So a lot of it was trial and error. I hate to say that. But it was like, ‘Oh, I didn’t do that? Oh, I’ve got to do that?’”
McCombs rapidly grew IBC by becoming a subcontractor and working as hard as she could to drum up business from general contractors, which still takes up most of her time today. She receives 100 emails every day from contractors requesting bids on projects.
“I have to pick and choose what we’re going to bid, because you can’t do it all,” she said. “Honestly, in the beginning, I did every one of those suckers that came in—and I didn’t sleep. A lot of times, there’s following up on those bids, too—‘Hey, look, I sent you a bid a week ago. Can you tell me how my numbers stood?’ It’s always, ‘Hello, here I am.’”
She especially looks for projects that are not only well-suited to her employees’ skills, but can enhance her company’s reputation. Take IBC’s installation of wood paneling at the Epic Buffet and Final Cut Steakhouse at Hollywood Casino.
“I thought, ‘That would be a great one,’” McCombs said. “That would be a high-profile job. My name’s going to be on it. Perfect.’”
McCombs would like IBC to thrive enough for it to one day become a successful, full-time general contracting business. Presently, she bids on general contracting jobs in the $100,000-or-less category, which amount to 5 percent of company revenues.
“I’m trying to get my foot in the door on those kinds of projects,” she said, “because they’re just too small for the large general contractors.”
Large and small, good jobs keep coming, including IBC being contracted to supply laborers for the construction of Kansas City’s downtown streetcar line, which is expected to open in mid-2015.
Without the loyalty and dedication of her team, none of IBC’s contracts would be possible, McCombs said.
“It’s not employee and employer,” she said. “We call ourselves Team IBC. We do functions together. We do all kinds of stuff. So it’s all about respect. I think that that’s where it all comes from. They respect me enough that, when I tell them a job needs to get done in a certain time, they make sure it’s done.”
But even as the future looks promising for McCombs, as a woman in the male-dominated construction business, there continue to be challenges.
“There are contractors that would prefer to talk to a man, and I know this,” McCombs said. “I don’t stop. I still keep going. I still call them. I still set up meetings. And I act the way that they act. I’m just like them.”
Ultimately, it’s all part of upholding her family’s legacy of entrepreneurship.
“My grandpa’s not here anymore, but I think he would be very proud,” she said. “My father is very proud of me. He was here in town a few years ago, and I had the business, and things were going pretty good. We were out to dinner together. He told me he was proud of me for being so gutsy.
“After dinner, we drove around town looking at the buildings I’d worked on. And I pointed out the window, saying, ‘We did that.’”
Brian McTavish is the senior writer at Thinking Bigger Business Media.(913) 432-6690 // bmctavish@ith