During her college years, construction manager Christine Keville went to Harvard—but not the way most people do. To help pay tuition at North Adams State University, she joined Laborers Union Local 151, and an early job was on the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s Red Line extension to Harvard Square.
Her father, Francis Keville, director of construction for MBTA at the time, had taken her to visit construction sites with her sisters when she was growing up, and he knew how much she loved the field. When she didn’t like the cooking part of her job at a local golf club, he mentioned that the union was looking for women. “All he had to do was tell me what the rate of pay was!” Keville says.
Fast forward to 2020, Keville, now CEO of her own construction management firm Keville Enterprises, is on stage in front of nearly 2,000 construction industry professionals as the first woman president of The Moles, a heavy construction association that did not even admit women members until 1992. Keville says she followed other women into the ranks of the group in 2006, but thinks she was the “first Mole inducted while pregnant.” Daughter Thérèse is now 13. Keville’s firm, with 165 employees, is one of the largest women-owned construction managers in the country.
Like working in a union, rising to leadership in a traditionally male organization takes a skill set that comes naturally to Keville. Jeffrey M. Levy, longtime industry executive and Moles trustee, observes that “Christine deals with the issues, not the rhetoric or the prejudices. She is always professional and never backs down. She likes the business.” In the union, Keville points out, “I learned not to overthink it.”
This wasn’t the first time that Keville headed a major construction industry group as its first woman leader. In 2003, after years of service in the New England chapter of the Construction Management Association of America as well as on its national board, she became the first woman to chair the national group. “Christine really cares about CM as a professionally delivered service,” says Andrea Rutledge, CMAA president and CEO, pointing to her continuing leadership on the group’s foundation board and in its College of Fellows.
Also active in the National Academy of Construction, the Women’s Transportation Seminar and the International Bridge, Tunnel & Turnpike Association, Keville believes association service is critical to making the industry stronger and more resilient. “There’s no better feeling,” Keville says, than mentoring the next generation, “and these associations award scholarships, provide internships, sponsor career connection programs and offer service projects.”
Sam Sleiman, Massachusetts Port Authority director of capital programs and environmental affairs, who is both client and association colleague, calls Keville “an incredible human being.” Anyone who knows her, he says, is aware of her passion for helping others. “I am always amazed by Christine’s generosity in helping small and minority-owned firms succeed even if they are her competition. If you are Christine’s friend, you have a whole community as your friends.”
Keville’s 86-year-old mother, Bernadette, suspected early on that Christine would follow in her father’s footsteps. But she says Christine got “the gift of gab” from her and “has made it work for her. Having an outgoing personality helps in any situation.” Rutledge adds, “Christine understands that CM is a people business, a relationship business. She lives and breathes that. She understands that networking is not linear, it’s three-dimensional.”
Growing up in Marshfield along the coast south of Boston, Keville competed in gymnastics, working out five days a week, three hours a day, and picked up skills beyond excellence in floor exercises and uneven parallel bars. “It gave me stamina, perseverance and lessons in teamwork,” Keville says. Gymnastics led to her being recruited and accepted to attend the U.S. Air Force Academy, but she decided on a closer school, already feeling the lure of a construction career. Her degree in math from North Adams State was followed by one in construction management from Northeastern University.
Keville’s first post-graduation job was as an office manager for general contractor J.F. White, where CEO Tom White became a mentor and role model in philanthropy. She had dreams of starting a business with her father, but he died from cancer in 1988. Still, Keville pursued that goal. A chance remark from a contractor gave her an idea: “If only the project photographer knew something about construction!” She bought a great camera, took a photography class and talked to contractors about taking project photos. She remembers Jay Cashman, now board chair of the contractor-developer of the same name, saying, “I’ll give you the first job, but you have to earn your second.”
Keville began to build clients, add services and dated now-husband Martin McCormack, a district chief in the Boston Fire Dept. A client called one day to ask, “Do you do aerial photography?” She answered, “Yes we do,” but hung up the phone thinking, “What have I done ... I’ve never even been in a helicopter!” But at the beginning of Boston’s Central Artery and Tunnel project, it was a job that could lead to a lot of business, and she was determined to figure it out.
Keville invited her mother along for moral support on a trial flight. “My mother loves to go out for lunch, and I invited her to go up in the helicopter with me and then out to lunch—but I don’t think she heard the helicopter part,” Keville says. In those days, an aerial shoot meant taking the doors off the helicopter and hanging out to take photos—secured by duct tape and a seat belt. Keville got the hang of it, but her mom said after the flight, “I never want to know what you do, and I never want to go in a helicopter again!”
Aerial photography led to building condition assessment, and after hiring a professional engineer she added welding and metals inspection. It became a family firm, with Keville’s sister Bernadette Carroll becoming CFO and sister Mary Doherty working in contract administration in the Marshfield, Mass., office that is Christine’s base. It was the height of work on the Central Artery, also known as the Big Dig, and with her experience and her firm a certified women-owned business enterprise, one service sold the next.
By 1998, Keville had more than 30 employees working on the project as inspectors, claims analysts, cost estimators and schedulers. She brought in D.J. Mason from the Navy Civil Engineer Corps to “help her grow the company off the Big Dig,” Mason says. It was not a hard sell, he adds, with Christine’s personality: “She is the most engaging, optimistic and high energy person I know.” Mason calls her leadership style “empowering: She gives clear marching orders and lets you get the job done without micromanaging.”
After the broad experience the firm gained on the Big Dig, the client base began to diversify. Mason points to some of the largest jobs: project controls for the Massachusetts Dept. of Transportation’s 250-bridge, $3-billion statewide accelerated bridge construction program; construction support and CM services for the Massachusetts Port Authority’s agency-wide program; and program management services on $2.5 billion of work for the Massachusetts School Building Authority. The firm has grown to eight offices.
Making a Difference in Lives
In working to raise money for cancer prevention after her father’s death, Keville helped fund a radiation center in nearby Plymouth so that others would not have to drive all the way to Boston for treatment like he had done. She and her family set up the Francis Keville Trust Fund, which supports scholarships at Marshfield High School, Northeastern and Wentworth Institute of Technology as well as other initiatives, such as helping cancer patients with expenses that insurance doesn’t cover. Keville sees much in common between association service and philanthropy: “It’s about working collectively as a group to make a difference in other people’s lives.”