By Teri Saylor
Heather Denny didn’t land in the corner office at McDonald York Building Co. by accident. She started working at the Raleigh-based general contractor in 1996 after graduating from N.C. State University with a degree in civil engineering. She was named chief operating officer in 2004, charged with growing the business after a client, drugmaker Synthon, scrapped plans to build a $60 million plant in Alamance County. Denny was named president in 2010 and CEO in 2013.
For more than a century, presidents of McDonald York had been male and a member of the McDonald or York families. Founded in 1908 as Greenville-based York and Cobb Construction Co., the company relocated to Raleigh in 1910. In 1992, a contract with drugmaker Glaxo (now GlaxoSmithKline) provided the company entry into life-sciences construction. In 2003, partners Smedes York and Jack McDonald bought 100% of the company shares to form McDonald York Building.
The conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
How did you find your way to a career in construction and engineering?
I grew up thinking I was going to be a teacher. Then in the 11th grade, I took a math test and the teacher told me if I did well, I should be an engineer. I did well, but I had no idea what an engineer was. My teacher had a pamphlet for a nuclear-engineering camp at N.C. State that summer, so I went and realized I didn’t want to do nuclear engineering. But right across the street was the civil engineering department — I walked in and saw pictures of buildings, equipment and dirt, and I thought, “This is it.” And I never looked back.
What was the turning point when you realized you could be successful?
I started as an estimator, and about six months in, Glaxo was going through the Wellcome merger. We needed an estimator on site. I got up the gumption to walk into [co-owner] Jack McDonald’s office and say, “Let me go. I’ve met the client; I know the client.” I got the great opportunity to go inside and learn what was important for that client. After about six months, I went into my boss’ office and asked to be a project manager. He let me run a project, and I got to do the next one and just continued to grow that way.
We have to ask you the “woman” question. In a predominantly male profession, how did you navigate your way to CEO?
I didn’t even think of myself as a girl. Those first eight years, I was just doing work, evidently in a bubble. As a project manager, I asked a lot of questions. I watched my male counterparts. They thought they knew everything. They didn’t need to ask for help, but I asked for help. And I listened. I really tried to understand what drives people — not in general, but each person. It’s about building that relationship with each person and learning how to help each one be their best self.
What do you see as the biggest challenge in the building industry?
We’ve lost a lot of people, whether they left during the recession or as we were telling everybody to go get a four-year degree. We are losing plumbers, mechanics, electricians and drywall technicians, and those are all such important jobs that pay well. As a society and a community, we should say, “These are great jobs where workers are going to be recognized and supported.” If we don’t, we’re all going to be sitting here in about 10 years wondering how we’re going to get buildings built. There’s only so much a computer can do.
Are you at the point in your career where you feel successful?
I try to celebrate the little successes. We meet a goal, and immediately my brain goes to, “What’s the next challenge?”
If you could travel back in time, what advice would you give to your younger self?
Don’t opt out. It’s funny. I still learn this every day. Don’t self-select. Don’t take yourself out before somebody else does. I would say don’t worry if you fail. Failure will not kill you. If you fail, you will realize it’s not the end of the world, so you get up and go back after it.