by Hampton Williams Hofer
photographs by Ben McKeown
When Shelley McPhatter was 16, her high school math teacher recommended that she never take a math class again. Today, at 46, McPhatter is an engineer and the founder and president of three construction companies, BridgePoint Construction Services, BridgePoint General Contracting, and BridgePoint Civil, whose combined revenue this year is projected at $32 million. She isn’t much for adhering to what other people think she should do. “This whole journey has been about paying attention to the moment when the door opens,” McPhatter says, “And being just scared enough to walk through it.” Since her first temp job at Research Triangle Park, McPhatter has moved constantly and carefully up the ladder; she now employs some 80 people across her three companies, with no plans to slow down.
In the small western Pennsylvania town where McPhatter grew up, “someone might have enclosed their porch, or maybe renovated a bathroom,” she says, but that was about as much construction as she’d seen. Excavators and power grinders certainly weren’t on her radar.
McPhatter followed her older sister to college at Florida Institute of Technology; McPhatter’s father insisted both of his daughters study engineering, despite that high school teacher’s caution. While earning a degree in ocean engineering, McPhatter was fascinated by the new condos shooting up around her: “I would find myself driving down the street rubbernecking to look at the cranes.”
Construction caught her attention again at her first job working as an administrative assistant to the director of construction and commissioning at Glaxo Wellcome. McPhatter had again followed her sister, who was living in Raleigh, and landed the short-term job at RTP; she was just looking for work, without much care for what it was. But she liked what she saw. McPhatter would schedule 15-minute intervals on her boss’s calendar to talk to him about construction, and within a few months, she was sure it was her intended field.
Soon after, she was working as a project engineer in a trailer a few miles away on the construction site of the Environmental Protection Agency’s 1.2 million-square-foot campus at RTP. McPhatter would pull on her boots and hard hat just like all the other construction managers, but she admits there weren’t many women around. Once, when she was walking that job site at the EPA campus, the workers pouring the footings kept stopping to watch her. “It was weird for them that there was a woman walking around,” McPhatter says, but she took it with good nature. “My senior project manager nudged me and said, ‘Shelley, if this makes you uncomfortable, I’ll say something to them,’ and I said, ‘Are you kidding? They better stop working when I walk by! That’s rude if they don’t.’”
McPhatter is good at taking things in stride. And she likes to keep striding. She worked for three different construction companies before breaking off to found her own. At one early job, when she had worked hard for several months, she spoke to her superiors about a raise, to which one replied that a good way to get a raise is to spend less. “It was the first time I ever thought, Would you have said that to a man?” McPhatter recalls. She knew when to leave certain workplaces, and when to pounce on opportunities at others, because if construction has taught her anything, it is how to make a swift and sure decision. “I used to get hung up on making decisions,” she says, “And then a supervisor on a job site told me that you can’t get tied in knots over what-ifs, because your project will never get done. Nobody can fault you for making a sound decision with the information you have available. And, at a young age, early in my career, that really kind of set me free.”
One such decision was to call her contact at Skanska USA, the fifth-largest construction company in the world, and ask, “Are you going to hire me or not?” They did in 1999, and McPhatter went to work on projects like office buildings in Chapel Hill’s Meadowmont, the Cary Elementary School renovation, and two $90 million projects for Duke University.
‘Keep it moving’
Several years into construction management, she realized that if she was going to work her way to a corner office, she needed to get out of the trailers and over to the other side as a contractor. But she had to put in her time in the trailers first. There was a lot to learn, and by then, McPhatter was living in Wake Forest and had children – three of them, then ages 3 and under. “I’d be the first one standing outside the door of the day care at 7 a.m. waiting, then I’d hightail it to Durham,” McPhatter says, “but in a construction trailer, everyone gets there early.” She would rush in to find colleagues tapping their watches.
McPhatter got really good at overseeing her scope of work, managing things like interior details and lab case work, depending on the job. “Nobody would want me to pick up a tool,” McPhatter says, “I won’t even tell workers what tool to use – I just tell them what they need to do and how it needs to look, and I tell them to keep it moving.”
In 2007, McPhatter founded BridgePoint Construction Services, her own construction firm that provides owner’s representation for all types of building projects – new construction, campuses and facilities, interior fit-ups. McPhatter wasn’t daunted by the logistics of starting a business: She filed the necessary paperwork with the Secretary of State and turned to Raleigh design boutique Momentum 18 to come up with the name BridgePoint and a logo. Never one to fuss over details, she rolled with their ideas. And she rolled on through that first year, pioneering the company on her own. Then she added another person, and then another sister company, BridgePoint General Contracting, an unlimited licensed general contractor apt to handle challenging commercial renovations and additions, office build-outs, and facility projects. “Her concept of starting her own GC was, in my mind, a no-brainer,” says Michael Goodmon, vice president of real estate for Capitol Broadcasting Company. Goodmon has collaborated with McPhatter on numerous projects, including the American Underground campuses in Durham and Raleigh. “Shelley has always been a tenacious, driven, and committed person.”
By 2016, McPhatter had added a third company to her fleet, BridgePoint Civil, which provides earthwork, underground site utilities (think sewers and water), paving, and site concrete. “The industry itself has no shortage of great builders,” says Goodmon, “but Shelley offers something more: a focus and deep care for what her clients want and for their dollars, that gives her a competitive advantage.” Before long, McPhatter had gained a loyal following. “Shelley is a star,” says Scott Selig, associate vice president of corporate real estate for Duke University, who worked with BridgePoint at the American Tobacco Campus over many years. “BridgePoint excels at customer service and attention to detail.”
Nowadays, McPhatter traverses the Triangle in her white BMW X5, from her home in Wake Forest to her office in Durham, on Thursdays to Goldsboro, and to project sites all over the region: Cary, Raleigh, Greenville. She spends a lot of time in the car. “Usually, I call my mom,” she says of how she fills the commute time, but otherwise she relishes the silence, which is welcome after leaving a house of three now-teenaged children, twin daughters Morgan and Sydney, 16, and son Andrew, 13. Wake Forest is a small town, where plenty of people know and admire McPhatter, but her children didn’t realize their mom was cool until one of their teachers referred to McPhatter as a “badass,” she says.
Daughter Morgan McPhatter, a sophomore at Wake Forest High School, says her mother’s determination inspires her. “She’ll work well into the night just to get something done, and then she’s up and at it the next day to do it all over again,” says Morgan McPhatter, who hopes to follow in her mother’s footsteps by going to work at BridgePoint one day. “I always worried that I was going to miss out,” McPhatter says of parenting children and companies at the same time. “But in the end, I think I’ve taught them a lot. It’s not always convenient, but I think they’re proud of where I am.” Case in point: The children have BridgePoint stickers on the backs of their iPhones. Her daughter Sydney McPhatter, also a sophomore at Wake Forest High School, wants to be a surgeon, and says that seeing her mother do well in a field that has more men than women has made her believe she can do the same. “I didn’t realize how my mom’s companies had grown until she made the TBJ Fast 50 and the INC 500 list,” Sydney McPhatter says. “That was a pretty big deal.”
McPhatter has navigated her share of bumps in the road, personally and professionally, but “I’m a firm believer that life is too short to be angry.” And so, true to form, she keeps pushing forward. “All you have in this business is your name and reputation, which you build from your integrity and your work ethic.” For McPhatter, relationships are everything, and she runs her companies with the notion that people come first. “As a leader, Shelley lives the mission that everything begins and ends with the client, and she fosters this culture throughout her company,” says Chad Parker, managing director and principal at the Raleigh office of the international architecture firm Gensler, who has collaborated with McPhatter to work with clients like Duke Clinical Research Institute (DCRI), Bayer, and WRAL/CBC.
Even McPhatter’s divorced relationship is a good one. In 2013, her ex-husband, who had years of construction experience, had an employer who wanted him to move out of the state. “We were standing outside one day during a kid drop-off and I said, ‘Look, I need a project manager, and you need a job here. Just come work for BridgePoint for six months.’” He did, and when the six months were up, he stayed. BridgePoint is thriving, with plenty of prominent projects, one being the renovation and addition to the Capitol Broadcasting Company headquarters on Western Boulevard. McPhatter and her fiancé, Dave White, a software developer at Duke University, plan to get married this August at the Mayton Inn in Cary. It’s a lovely venue, and McPhatter should know – BridgePoint General Contracting constructed it.
The Mayton Inn, a 37,000-square-foot luxury boutique hotel, is highly energy efficient, like many of BridgePoint’s projects, with features such as solar thermal panels and a 20,000-gallon rainwater cistern. Green projects have been a natural fit for McPhatter’s overall workplace ethos, White says, which is one that demands excellence, but is underscored by his fiancée’s caring nature. “Shelley’s focus on making BridgePoint a great place to work and keeping her clients happy has propelled her to continued success and growth.”
Moving forward, McPhatter doesn’t have a five-year plan, because, she says, “If I’d had a five-year plan five years ago, it would’ve been long destroyed, not even close to where I am. Now, I just want our companies to do good work, treating our employees well so that they want to be at BridgePoint. If they’re happy, then the clients are happy – it’s a cycle.”
And McPhatter’s employees are happy. Louise Phipps, a senior project manager who describes her five years at BridgePoint as “amazing,” says that BridgePoint has achieved so much in part because “Shelley allows her team to use their management skills in the style that has made them successful leaders.” Jeremy Smith, co-founder of BridgePoint Civil, says it’s all about McPhatter’s outlook, which inspires the whole team. “She has a great attitude, and she doesn’t back down from challenges,” Smith says.
McPhatter is remarkable not only as a self-made success, but also as a commanding female in a male-dominated industry. In considering the people around her, she focuses on those who lift others up, who share her ideas of success; when she stops to think about it, she realizes most of the people around her are men. That’s the reality of the construction world. “A fair amount of time I get asked to speak at functions, and people always want to know, What’s it like being a woman at the table?” she says, but McPhatter doesn’t have time for questions like those, because she’s got meetings with architects, and sites to oversee. “Not belonging at the table? It never crossed my mind.”