Ten Minutes With Lifting Leader Jennifer Gabel
New Jersey crane business owner talks about risk, generational changes and future directions for the industry
As a new generation of professionals enters the construction industry, the crane-rental business has a new face: Jennifer Gabel. In September, ENR sat down with the owner of Kenvil, N.J.-based JK Crane. Although in her early 30s, Gabel is no stranger to the crane, rigging and heavy-haul business.
Her father is James Lomma, owner of New York Crane and Equipment Corp. During the interview, Gabel discussed her thoughts on high-risk crane work and her relationship with Lomma, who is appealing a $96-million civil judgment against him related to a 2008 crane collapse on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
Gabel talked about the incredible risks of the crane business, the challenges of being a female company owner in a field dominated by men and why she decided to start up a blog for young working women that she calls “Hauling in Heels,” which you can visit at www.haulinginheels.com.
ENR: How did you get hooked on cranes?
Gabel: I sort of grew up in it. Everybody used to be excited about the new Barbie that was coming out; I used to be excited about the new Hess truck. My interests were different, and I always liked building things. I was fascinated growing up and seeing what my dad did. When I was old enough to start working, I started spending summers working at his office.
ENR: Are you an engineer?
No. I was working for the summers for my dad from the time I was 13 to about 19. By then, I was in college. My friends were starting to get internships, and they were getting paid. My dad would pay for my gas, and I was living at home, so he was feeding me. But I wanted more responsibility, and I was frustrated because he was giving me a lot of office work and not a lot of real, hands-on work. My dad wasn’t necessarily seeing my potential. In fairness, I never really gave him that insight into me. So, I stopped working for my dad and interned at a company on Wall Street—I was a finance major—I thought maybe I would be a stockbroker. But—this sounds so flippant—all they did was make money. Buy low, sell high. I wanted something where there was a product. Money alone just doesn’t drive me. I started interviewing from scratch after I graduated from college, and I found Coty, which is a beauty company. I worked my way up there for eight-and-a-half years. But my dad was bringing me into things more, maybe to gauge whether my interest was to succeed him.
ENR: Have you ever had that conversation with your dad?
Since then, yes. But at the time, I think he was nervous because I was having a very successful career at Coty. Finally, I said to him, “Dad, do you want me to be involved?” And he said, “I don’t want to tell you to quit your job, but if this is something that you want, I think now is the best time.” I had always had this goal of running my own company, but I didn’t want to work for my dad. So I started saving to buy out as much interest that I could afford in this smaller company that he had bought a few years earlier.
ENR: Why didn’t you want to work for your dad?
When I worked for him, it was hard, at times, for me to reconcile my dad as my boss. I also needed to feel like something was my own. I admire so much about him, but our styles are so different. So I think it’s a better way for our relationship, because now when I talk to him, it’s more collaborative.
ENR: The crane business is risky. What is your appetite for risk?
A lot of the accidents that have happened across the country have probably made some people afraid of becoming too big, because the bigger a company gets, the greater it becomes a target. For me, risk is inherent in this industry because of the type of equipment that we are working with and the type of work we are doing. I’ve always been a risk taker and comfortable with risk. That being said, I don’t have desires to be the biggest and the best. I’d rather have the best customer service or the best operators or be the best company to work for.
ENR: As a business owner, is there any lesson to be learned from your dad’s experiences?
This industry has learned a lot of hard lessons. The efficiencies of technology and how people use e-mails to make records of things, that is something that is highly corporate and still less done in construction. A lot of things are still done verbally. I think a lot of owners now feel as though they should get things documented more carefully to protect themselves. Naturally, technology makes most industries more efficient, but it also serves as a record. So much of construction is done on site, and many people in our industry still don’t have e-mail addresses or smartphones—things that other people take for granted. There is a learning curve right now in the industry in how to balance the everyday jobsite decisions and making sure you have created a record that protects you.
ENR: So, in your dad’s situation, if he had a more robust paper trail, you think he would have been better protected?
I can’t really say. Because it is still ongoing, it would be inappropriate for me to do that.
ENR: OK, let’s talk about your blog. What prompted you to start up Hauling in Heels?
I’m a member of the SC&RA—Specialized Carriers & Rigging Association—and they had approached me to be a part of a communications advisory board. The concept behind it is: How can we get younger generations engaged in this industry? We talk a lot about social media. So I thought, here I am leaving this job I’ve had since college and starting this new adventure. And I felt like I was going to be so disconnected from my friends and everybody I had worked with.
ENR: When was this?
This was March 2014; my first blog was about going to CONEXPO. I wanted to engage my friends and stay in touch with them. I also thought it would be cool—because I have a daughter—to keep a diary for her so she could learn about this time in my life. And for other people, too. The feedback I have gotten has been really nice, and I’ve had so many young women reach out to me—some of their dads run construction businesses, too—and say they are inspired to pursue that dream of taking over one day. So that has been really rewarding.
ENR: One of my favorite sections of your blog is called That Happened. Define “that.”
This is going to sound like a generational exchange, but it’s when someone says, “Did that seriously just happen?” And you say, “Yeah, that just happened.” It’s when, in the moment, I can’t believe this is happening, but I can find the humor in it.
ENR: A lot of times, it’s an offensive thing that a man said to you or did to you.
Yeah, and it’s funny, because it is actually quite edited. I’m careful about it. After all, the blog is not just about me; it’s also about my company.
ENR: Why do you think the blog is hitting a nerve?
I came from an industry, the beauty industry, which was more female heavy. Coming into the construction industry, it was a splash of cold water. I went from a corporate, almost politically correct environment, full of a lot of diversity—different genders, sexual orientations and styles—to something that is a lot more homogenous. I hear all the time, “This is what’s always been done, and it’s never going to change.” But it will, and I think it happens as more diversity gets infused into the industry.
ENR: Do you see the industry changing?
I see parts of the industry wanting to change. I think that very visionary people are seeing that. In finance, we learn that the strongest portfolios are the most diversified. When you have too much of one thing, there is no balance. In terms of attracting women to construction, I don’t know if anybody has found the way yet in a broader sense. I’ve heard people say their maternity policy is “don’t get pregnant.” Things like that are not good ways to attract women into your company.