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April 2006
Running With The Big Dogs
By Ellison Clary

After years of building a general contracting business, success looks different to Katie Tyler these days. She wants rapid growth, but there’s a bigger goal for this top dog of one of the Carolina’s foremost construction companies.

“I want to be a non-essential element at Tyler 2 Construction,” says the attractive vibrant company president with a passion for animals, especially canines.

She relates a story from a strategy session for the Humane Society of Charlotte, whose board she chairs. A facilitator asked what the Humane Society wanted to be and one reply was incisive: The Humane Society should not need to exist, because animals would have happy, non-abusive homes.

“That’s my goal,” says Tyler. “I want Tyler 2 Construction to grow and thrive without Katie Tyler’s daily involvement.”

That’s not to say the 54-year-old Tyler is ready to quit. Her goal is to grow the firm that specializes in interior construction from its $30 million in revenue last year to at least $70 million by 2011.

That’s heady territory for the former executive secretary of George Ivey, scion of the Ivey’s department stores that ultimately were folded into Dillard’s. And it’s a far cry from her company’s reincarnation in 1986 as a five-person firm operating in 900 square feet on Tyvola Road.

She’s confident the company can perform, because she’s learned hard lessons in hiring good people and listening to their ideas.

“While I own the business,” she says. “I know I can and do learn something from everyone in the company. Anybody is free to come into my office at any time and give me advice.”

Tyler praises her accountant, Donna Chinnis, who toils daily crunching numbers. During an annual review, she asked Chinnis what she wanted, besides money. Chinnis’ answer was that she’d like a new puppy, but she didn’t want to leave the dog alone at home all day.

“I want to bring my dog to work,” Chinnis told Tyler. Chinnis relates that her boss said okay before she’d finished asking. That was easy for Tyler, who prepares various breeds to be guide dogs and whose company logo features a dog’s head prominently.

Recently, Chinnis’ German shepherd Gypsy celebrated her third anniversary with Tyler 2. Gypsy enjoys plenty of four-legged friends because Tyler routinely brings in at least one of her litter that includes  a guide dog  in training.

“The working environment is very open, friendly and supportive,” says Chinnis, who’s been with the firm five years longer than her pet. “People are very relaxed and supportive. Everybody’s  a team.”

With the 26 employees in the 9,000 square feet on Old Pineville Road where Tyler 2 recently expanded (August 2005), the dogs seem to fit right in. The building  is dog friendly and includes lobby chairs covered in dog-print fabric and a meditation room and water feature at the rear of the property.

To get where she is, Tyler had to follow much the same path of a guide dog. She slowly learned her trade. She had to scratch and dig for success, but she learned from people she trusted.


‘This Is What I Want To Do’

A graduate of Rutgers University with  a bachelor’s in Studio Art, Tyler moved to Charlotte in 1974 to join her parents. Her father was an executive with the Boy Scouts of America.

In a job market tightened by an oil crisis, she signed on in the Ivey’s executive offices, reporting to the vice president of real estate, who worked with designers and contractors to build stores in the Carolinas and Florida. When her boss required heart surgery, Tyler jumped in on a new store construction project in Cary, an addition to the Asheville Ivey’s and a renovation of an acquired store in Greensboro. She regularly visited the projects and made decisions on carpet, paint, fixtures and accessory issues as they arose during construction.

“I thought ‘Wow, this is what I want to do’,” Tyler remembers. She also recalls the let-down of resuming her assistant duties when her boss returned.

But Tyler had made an impression on the architect who designed a renovation of the Tulip Terrace, the center city Ivey’s restaurant. The firm hired Tyler in 1982 to help develop its retail design business.

At first, Tyler felt under-qualified and was miserable. Her mother stepped in. “She sat me down and said, ‘Katie, you’re unhappy. You cry when you go to work and you cry when you get home. What do you like doing?’”

“I said I really liked those Ivey’s construction sites,” Tyler recalls. “It was solving problems, managing time and managing people. It was working with subcontractors. In my mind, that was construction.”

She was ready in mid-1983 when she got an opportunity to help a Dallas, Texas-based developer start a general contracting firm concentrating on interior construction. She won the day with her interview.

The executive who was establishing the J.D. Sims contracting entity in Charlotte told her he didn’t think a woman could do the job they had in mind, that of managing construction sites.

He posed a scenario: “You’re on a job site and a painter shows up drunk. What would you do?”

“I looked him straight in the eye,” the straight-talking Tyler smiles. “I said, ‘I’d throw his ass off the job.’”

He laughed and they brought her on board. She concentrated on design and found a general contractor to build what she drew, teaching her the business. Officially, she owned 51 percent of Inside Moves, Inc., the company she helped start.

The savings and loan crisis clamped tight on her Dallas partners, and Tyler bought them out of the Charlotte operation. Tyler moved herself and four employees from Class A office space near Billy Graham Parkway into a tiny spot on Tyvola Road.

It was a struggle. “My revenue went from $2 million to less than a million that first year,” she says, “and I really didn’t know how we were going to do.”

Then she lost a potentially lucrative contract when a large company opening   a Charlotte presence backed away from her because the Chamber sent them to another firm.

A Chamber member herself, Tyler fumed. “Finally, I realized the problem was that nobody at the Chamber knew who we were,” she says.


New Name, Big Ad Campaign

That’s when Tyler hired Elaine Lyerly of Charlotte’s Lyerly Agency, who advised her to change the company name. Tyler was still using Inside Moves, which sounded like a moving company or movie-maker, but not a construction company. “Call it Tyler Construction,” Lyerly advised.

Tyler Construction was already taken, but Tyler was used to correcting people who wanted to call her Taylor. She’d say, “It’s Tyler, like Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too,” the 19th century political slogan. So she decided to call her company Tyler II Construction, with Roman numerals that Lyerly designed like columns.

Then Lyerly devised a print advertisement with Tyler in a silk blouse and pearls, lipstick and makeup, but wearing a hard hat – with a great big grin “like you know everything.” The tag line read: “BAD GIRL,” with BAD being an acronym for Tyler’s specialty, Building And Design.

Tyler laughs, “I got hundreds of letters and phone calls of congratulations.” She also received an invitation from the Chamber to chair its small business division.

That 1990 name change – she subsequently altered it to the current Tyler 2 – boosted annual revenue to $2.5 million. When her firm got stuck at that level, Tyler brought in a business coaching team, the first of four she’s used.

The coaches peppered her with questions: Who does this and who does that? Tyler’s unchanging answer was “me.”

“You’re still doing everything,” they told her. “That’s why you can’t grow.”


Delegation Sparks Growth

Tyler listened. Through friends, she found accountant Wendy Laxton and hired her in 1991 to take over the Tyler 2 accounting, finance, insurance management and human relations, and to help with training.

“The thing that I admire most about Katie,” Laxton says, “is her willingness to step back, evaluate not only her company but herself, and make changes that some leaders find difficult. She looks at what she’s doing first,” adds Laxton, who doesn’t bring her two dogs to work but enjoys playing with those in the office.

Shortly after hiring Laxton, Tyler saw that the company’s projects   were growing more complex. She realized the need for someone with more construction knowledge to  manage jobs. She brought in Ben Biggers from FN Thompson Construction. Almost like magic, annual revenue shot to $7 million.

Delegating to Biggers and subsequent managers paid off. In 1998, Tyler 2 got 10 floors to upfit in the 19-story tower Bank of America put up at 525 North Tryon Street. Though revenue zoomed to $20 million, Tyler knew the pace wasn’t sustainable. She dropped back a bit before gradually growing to the 2006 projection of $35 million.

Big projects for Tyler 2 include the Carolina Neurosurgery and Spine headquarters on East Third Street and the Johnson & Wales University residence halls for its Charlotte campus in Gateway Village. Tyler 2 is now building a medical office for Mecklenburg Medical Group in the new Museum Medical Plaza on Randolph Road near the Mint Museum. And the firm is helping Wachovia rearrange space in one of its center city towers.

With business booming, Tyler looks harder for chances to get away with husband Scott Tyler, who owns Lead Dog Realty. With no children, the Tylers covet time with their yellow lab, two giant schnauzers and two “goldadors” (golden retriever/Labrador retriever mix) – Elphaba, a guide puppy they’re training, and Phoebe, a former guide in training who was released from the program with hip  problems. They volunteer Phoebe for therapy dog duty in assisted living centers because she misses her work.

Still big in the Chamber, Tyler is helping it offer more to small businesses. She’s heavily involved in civic work and,   besides the Humane Society, especially enjoys time with the Hornets’ Nest Council of the Girl Scouts.

“Young women get so many mixed messages. If they can see role models, if they can see another woman doing something successful, fun and productive, they’ll know they can do it,” Tyler says. “That’s important to me.”

Also valuable is working on her list of 100 things she wants to do in her life. It reflects whatever tasks or goals she’s considering at the moment while keeping attention on important things such as spending more time with family and friends.

Learning golf has been a priority and her instructor is Dana Rader of Dana Rader Golf School. Rader thinks Tyler could be a good golfer with more frequent practice.

Rader and Tyler have teamed up in Atlanta and Boston, leading seminars for females hosted by Golf for Women magazine. Rader explains the sport’s rules and etiquette and Tyler talks about using golf in business as well as good business practices.

“Katie is very driven,” says Rader. “She’s the person you want to have on your team.” But probably  not for golf, yet.

High on Tyler’s “100 Things” list is building her team – Tyler 2.

“I’ve spent a lot of years growing Katie Tyler and now I’ve realized I need to grow Tyler 2, and I’ve got just the team to do it,” she says steadfastly.

While for Tyler “letting go the short leash” might be the most difficult task yet, she’s confident her team will perform superbly. “For me,” she adds, “it’s all about achievement.”

Ellison Clary is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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