In 1971, Barbara Wilson drove into downtown Chattanooga for her first day at a job for which she had never interviewed.
Her friend, also named Barbara, landed an administrative assistant position at a local general contractor’s office, but was uncomfortable driving in the congested, flourishing downtown area.
“The day before, she said, ‘Why don’t you go down there tomorrow and tell them I’m not coming. I sent you instead,’” Barbara Wilson recalled, laughing. “So, I did. A week later, I got a job offer from an insurance company and I told Barbara. She went to work for them and ended up retiring with that company.”
At first, it just seemed like an amusing story, but it was more than that – it was kismet. That first job would lead Wilson into a lifelong career in construction.
She worked for the general contractor until the owner – who was elderly at the time – passed away. Then she was back on the hunt. In 1975, there was an opening as a temporary administrative assistant at a Robins Engineering’s Chattanooga office and she went in for an interview.
She first met Lead Estimator, Earl Johnson, and he gave her the highlights of the opportunity. It was a part time job – from 9 a.m. to 2 p,m. – which suited Wilson well since she still had to care for her young children. However, before they gave her the job, a Vice President wanted to test her skills and asked that she type up a letter as he dictated its contents to her.
“I told him I hadn’t used shorthand since I was in school, but that I’d do my best,” Wilson said. “Then he pulled out a brand-new electric typewriter. I didn’t even know where to turn that thing on.”
He began speaking and she began taking notes. Wilson said that she didn’t catch half of what he was saying, but finished the assignment anyway, frustrated that she didn’t do as well as she knew she could. Regardless, a week later, they offered her the job.
“The main reason I went back and took the job is because I knew I could do better,” Wilson said. “I had to show them.”
And she did.
Wilson went on to have a nearly 30-year career with the company that would later become Robins & Morton, retiring in 2004. Although she began in a temporary administrative role, she became an indispensable part of the Robins Engineering team, working in multiple roles from estimating to accounting, project management, sales and marketing, and more. At one time or another, Wilson touched just about every part of the company’s operations, leaving a lasting mark on the business and its people.
The Early Years
It’s no secret that in the early days of Wilson’s career, it wasn’t common to see women on the jobsite, in estimating, or in the midst of delivering bids to win a construction project.
In fact, one particular bid opening stands out in her memory.
“In those days, we had to bid against everyone else; it was a big deal. We’d go to wherever the job was going to be, and they had a big conference room set up where you’d have to turn the bid in,” Wilson said. “It was before cell phones so we had to use pay phones. For this job, I was waiting in the lobby, on a pay phone to see if [estimating] would have a price change, so I could adjust our bid before we turned it in. All of our competitors were there at the same time, so when you talked to the office, you couldn’t go into detail, you just had to say, ‘we’re up’ or ‘we’re down.’”
In this specific memory, Wilson was turning in a bid on a healthcare project and while she was waiting, one of her competitors walked up to the same pay phone bank. Not realizing or thinking that she would be there to submit the bid, he began talking freely about his company’s plan and strategy.
“You wouldn’t believe the look on his face when we both walked in to turn in our bid at the same time.”
These reactions wouldn’t be unusual throughout Wilson’s career, as she climbed the ladder, shattering traditional notions about women in the industry.
Later, Wilson became a project manager, and she explained how earning the respect of the field team members was critical to doing her job.
“When I started a new job, I’d have the superintendent go out into the field with me and introduce me to everyone,” she said. “I’d meet the team and give them a nod to begin with. It was important that I didn’t just go out there making demands, either. Every time I walked the project, I showed interest in what they were doing. You earn respect by giving it.”
Over time, she explained, they learned to accept her and along with that, they’d accept what she said. When she reached that level of camaraderie with her team, it allowed her to further support the superintendent.
“I never let the fact that I was a woman become a part of my job,” Wilson said. “My mind was never in that place. Sure, some people made remarks, but you don’t let it affect you.”
She was a critical part of the team and she loved those days on the jobsite, watching the building rise from the ground. She also has fond memories of loading up as many people as she could fit into her Volkswagen Bus and heading out to lunch together.
But it was between those projects where she learned so many other areas of the business. She’d do everything from answering the phones to sorting the mail, and found her niche in sales and marketing, eventually earning the title of Vice President of Marketing.
“Never say, ‘That’s not my job,’” Wilson said. “I learned so much from being willing to help or do things that weren’t necessarily in my job description.’”
“To mentor, you have to first be mentored”
Throughout her time at Robins & Morton, Wilson credits the co-workers who invested in her and challenged her for helping her to progress in her career.
At one point, she enrolled in night school classes at Chattanooga State to strengthen her skill in estimating and reading blueprints. Once the Robins Engineering team found out, she was getting quizzed at every turn.
“Earl [Johnson] would give me things to do that I didn’t know how to do,” Wilson said. “He’d say, ‘Take off these concrete columns.’ So, I’d go get my textbooks: Where’s the formula for volume? Where’s this and that? I’d get it worked up for him. I’d say, ‘Here it is.’ He’d say, ‘Where’s your formwork, your labor, et cetera?’ and just have all these things that I’d missed.”
It was how she learned, and Wilson said that the many helped along the way, but she is especially grateful for the mentorship of Johnson, as well as Chairman Emeritus Barry Morton and former CEO Wayne Gordon. As she grew in her many roles, she also worked to pass along her knowledge and skills to others throughout her career.
“To be a mentor, you have to first be mentored,” she said.
Wilson’s legacy: The Barbara Wilson Mentoring Program and Supporting Women in Construction
In 2020, Robins & Morton launched a career progression program and named it after Wilson.
The program supports team members who are in an administrative support role and wish to grow into new areas of the company.
While she said she often didn’t consider her relationships with others to be formal mentorship, she said she believes that your passion for what you do and your work ethic can serve as an important testimony to others.
Throughout Wilson’s career, she believed in the power of relationships. It was a strong driver for her involvement and leadership in the National Association for Women in Construction (NAWIC) – she even served in various officer roles in her chapter and as president of her region.
Wilson’s career was a result of hard work at every turn: she was no stranger to adversity. From a young age, she fought to finish her high school education with money saved from math tutoring and working at a Birmingham cotton mill. After getting married at a young age, she found ways to bring income to her family through government work, substitute teaching, selling Avon, and teaching a kindergarten class.
“I believe women should be independent and that they should be able to earn a living wage,” Wilson said. “I have three daughters and I raised them to be that way.”
In never accepting the status quo, pushing herself to be the best and breaking through tradition, Wilson became an inspiration to many who have come after her.
“I got into construction because I was interested in it,” she said. “I didn’t see it as a man’s job, but I did the same work that men did. I was blessed to have worked with Robins & Morton. God gave me instruction, guidance and precious mentors throughout my time there.”