From Marketing to Construction Management

In her field, McMillen, LLC president Mara McMillen is a rarity; most engineering-construction firms are run by men. Her position could be considered an accomplishment in and of itself, but what’s truly remarkable is that Mara’s background is in marketing, a disparate field she has still managed to find a solid place for in her work. Her strategic efforts and promotional savvy have helped her firm—a women-owned 8(a) small business concentrating on water-based projects—win clients such as the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), and here she chats with American Builders Quarterly about the business’s beginnings, its latest initiatives, and it’s recognition as one of the best places to work in Idaho.

Mara McMillen

At a Glance

Locations
Boise, ID; Portland, OR; Seattle; Bellingham, WA; and Kelowna, BC

Founded
2004

Employees
110

Specialties
Design and construction of hydropower facilities, fisheries, and other water-based projects

You’ve accomplished quite a bit in a male-dominated field, and you’ve done it without the typical background. So tell us, please, what’s the story?
Mara McMillen: My partner and I were raised in a rural environment, so we learned early on to have an incredibly hard work ethic. We’ve been fortunate to hire extremely smart, ethical, and kind people that share that same attribute.

What prompted you and your husband, Mort, to go out on your own?
MM: We wanted to have an engineering division work hand-in-hand with a construction division to get the best ideas on the table early. While others are successful with a different model, philosophically we believe our design-build approach provides clients with the value. We studied various business models but were really impressed with the entrepreneurial spirit and model of Morrison-Knudsen. The founders took a strong work ethic and plenty of integrity and built an amazing company.

Were you integrated at the start?
MM: We actually built a client base first by performing well on engineering jobs. Later, because we had a track record, we were extremely grateful that some of those same clients—i.e., USFWS and USACE—gave us a shot at their construction projects.

Obviously, its worked out well for you two.
MM: Yes, it has. Mort is an “engineer’s engineer” who loves digging into project details. I focus on the marketing and operational aspects. We both solve problems but with different approaches. It’s a nice balance, and I think it’s helped the firm grow.

McMillen’s niche is water-related projects. Why did you choose that field?
MM: We have a passion for the highly technical, interesting projects that are associated with water—particularly fisheries, hydropower, and dams. We still concentrate on those types of projects, but we’ll also take on other projects, depending on the needs of our key clients. We are definitely client-focused first, followed by project second.

Let’s hear an example.
MM: USFWS has believed in us since we were five people, and we have shown them over time that our guys will work hard and put [the client’s] interest first. Therefore, if they have a refuge that needs a building repair, concrete sidewalk, etc., we are excited that they would call us, and hopefully [they] know that we would jump on it immediately.

Do you work with any preferred vendors or subcontractors?
MM: Yes. One is Northwest Underwater Construction; they share our concern for getting the job done. For instance, in order to meet a tight deadline, Northwest has brought in backup workers and paid their overtime wages itself. That shows we can trust [the company] to do whatever’s required to make a job successful.

You’re a woman who’s in a leadership position in a male-dominated industry. Have you run into any obstacles because of it?
MM: No, there have been many successful women that have paved the way for the opportunity for me to be doing what we’re doing. If integrity is put first, your gender always comes second.

McMillen was named one of the best places to work in Idaho a couple of years ago. How did that come about?
MM: Idaho Business Review has an annual competition, and one of our employees nominated us. IBR checked us out, and we won. I have a lot of respect for our staff, and I show it. For example, one of our male staffers had child-care concerns. We adjusted his schedule to accommodate them. Another time, I closed the office and took everyone to the movies. We all need a little break from time to time, don’t you agree? Expenses like that come out of the bottom line, sure, but it’s not always about money. We’re as successful as we are because of our employees. ABQ

McMillen works on a USACE water-treatment facility, one of many projects the firm has earned because of its good record.