Trump Tower is a globally recognized 68-story landmark skyscraper in Midtown Manhattan. When it opened for business in 1983, it was arguably the most famous skyscraper in the world. It was also known for something else.
“I was part of that, I built that,” Barbara Res says today.
Res was a young, driven engineer, and the Executive Vice President of the Trump Organization when her boss, Donald Trump, saw in her something he could use to get the monumental project done right; deep skills, ambition, and a refusal to stand down when confronted. At 31 years old, Barbara Res was placed in charge of the construction of Trump Tower, and the rest is history. Or perhaps more accurately, her story.
Barbara Res will be a featured speaker at Procore’s annual flagship construction conference Groundbreak 2017 this coming March in Austin, Texas. She’ll also be participating in a panel discussion on the theme of Women in Construction; a topic in which she has had some notable experience. The Jobsite caught up with Ms. Res and asked her about the construction business, her ascent into its upper reaches, the landmark projects with which she has been associated, and the role of women in the industry’s future.
JS: I understand you were one of only three women in your graduating class with an electrical engineering degree. What brought you to electrical engineering and construction in the first place?
BR: Yeah, that’s a funny thing. I had originally wanted to be a lawyer, so I enrolled in political science. Soon, though, I became interested in taking computer science. My sister talked me into going to City College of New York (CCNY), which at that time had the reputation of being like the free Harvard.
JS: Quite a reputation for a public college.
BR: At CCNY I discovered that they had engineering. I thought, “Maybe I should study engineering.” The only program I’d completed prerequisites for was the electrical engineering program. So I ended up in electrical engineering!
JS: Once you entered the field you rose pretty quickly. At one point, prior to the Trump Tower Project, you’d been placed in charge of critically important renovations to the world famous Plaza Hotel there in New York City. Can you recall a particularly stressful moment or episode in the Plaza renovation that tested your mettle?
BR: The greatest stress at The Plaza Hotel came from the fact that I worked for both Donald Trump and Ivana Trump at the same time. They were constantly at each other.
BR: If he would say black, she would say white. Technically she was the President of the hotel and I was doing the renovations for her, but Donald was my boss, and he was the owner of the hotel. So I worked for him. That was very, very difficult.
JS: I can imagine!
BR: It was a particularly stressful situation because we were doing renovations all over the hotel. We kept the hotel open while we did that, which was next to impossible, but that’s how they wanted it. The idea was to make it kind of an adventure for the people who came to the hotel. It was exciting for visitors to be part of the construction, the renovation of this historic place.
JS: That’s a clever way to spin a necessary renovation if the doors have to remain open.
BR: The Plaza had a ballroom and somebody had rented it out for a Bar Mitzvah on that coming weekend. There was also a room adjacent to the ballroom, a sort of pre-function area. The head of Plaza leasing services came to me and said, “I need this room finished by the weekend.” And I said, “I don’t know how we’re going to do that.” And he says, “No, I have to have it, because this woman is having her big party and she needs this room.” So I said, “Okay, I’ll get this done for you, but get off my back. It will get done.”
JS: High stakes…
BR: So I’m working in this room and it’s a Thursday. I get a call from this head of leasing on my walkie-talkie, “Come to the room immediately! Come to the room immediately!” In the room there is this woman. She’s in tears. She’s the one having this big bar mitzvah party in the ballroom on the weekend, and this is her pre-function area where she’s going to have all the games and the things for the kids. And what does the room look like? It’s an open room filled with scaffolding. The ceiling is unfinished, there’s nothing on the floor but the beat up old wood planks with chipped paint. She’s crying her eyes out and I’m just repeating to her, “I’m going to have it done. I’m going to have it done.” “How are you going to have it done?” she asks. I simply promised her I would get it done.
So we worked that night, and we worked the next day and all the next night, and I got the ceiling finished. Then I brought in painters and they just painted everything white. I went out and got inexpensive carpet, and we covered the floor with this pinkish carpet—and I’ve got to tell you, the room was fabulous. By the time they were ready to come in with their stuff—they had all these games and ice cream stands and things like that—it was just perfect!
BR: She was so happy. She was beside herself. She gave the head of leasing a tremendous tip as a thank you. It was that kind of thing where we constantly were under pressure to get things done and it looked like it wasn’t going to happen; constant pressure. We made it happen.
JS: When you were made the construction boss on the Trump Tower project, you were, in plain language, the first woman to be put in charge of building a skyscraper. Did you know at the time that you were occupying a special place in construction history?
BR: I was aware of it. I couldn’t not be. People reminded me of it constantly. And Donald talked about it a lot. He would try to get press. I was aware that I was a pioneer and I had gone through a tremendous amount of harassment and intimidation throughout my career to get there. By the time I got to the point where I was in charge of Trump Tower and I was now an executive and everything else, I thought it was a real beginning, that you would see a lot of women behind me. But it never happened.
JS: Why do you think that might have been?
BR: It’s an interesting thing. At that time in the ’70s, women were not going into engineering. They weren’t going into construction. The president at the time, Jimmy Carter, signed an executive order that said that a certain percentage of the construction jobs on federal sites would be given to women. That was signed. Nobody ever followed it. It was as if didn’t exist.
JS: Would you tell a young lady today who expressed interest in a construction or engineering career that this is a good time to enter the profession?
BR: Absolutely. Whenever I see a woman with a hard hat, I go over to her and ask her what she does and I encourage her, because that’s not the kind of thing that I ever got. There’s no such thing on a job now as the level of obvious sexual harassment that I endured. You don’t have that today. The Supreme Court has now defined harassment as a matter of law.
JS: Gender discrimination still exists, but it’s a different time.
BR: The good news is these are lucrative jobs. Not everyone is going to be a college graduate. All this nonsense about “go to college, get a degree”. And then what do you do with your English degree? You go out and learn how to be a plumber or an electrician. You will make a lot of money and you will be so proud of what you do. Construction is such rewarding work! You see the results of your labor…forever! There are few professional achievements that have the public permanence of a building.
JS: You’re a certificated construction mediator and arbitrator, and member of the American Arbitration Association.
Is mediation as important a tool as ever in the building business?
BR: Mediation is a very important tool in any business, but especially in construction where disputes get extremely complex and litigation costs often exceed the value of the matter in dispute. I was often put in the position to mediate matters between the contractors and the consultants, and even in the position of trying to resolve disputes between the professionals and my boss. I truly learned my skills on the site, and followed with formal training.
JS: Say a young woman comes to you and says she really wants to enter the construction industry, but is hesitating. What exactly is your counsel?
BR: Don’t let your work define you. You define your work. People that go into construction, all of a sudden you’re put in a box. “This is what you are”. It’s not true. You can be the girliest girl and still be hauling pipe all day long. Don’t let people tell you that you’re doing a man’s job. That’s nonsense. You are a person first; and then a woman, and then you’re a laborer, and then you’re a carpenter. Many women end up dropping out of construction because they start losing their sense of self. That would be my biggest piece of advice. Remember, ALWAYS, that you’re doing a job and it’s not who you are, it’s what you do.