Emily Kay, an Extraordinary Leader and Pioneer in Our Industry
Every year, the Los Angeles Business Journal releases a special issue dedicated to honoring LA’s most influential women in construction and design. The Journal states "According to labor force statistics, the share of women in the construction industry is only at about 10%, so the women who become standouts in that industry are truly pioneers." Congratulations to Vice President, Emily Kay, for being recognized by Los Angeles Business Journal as one of 2020's Outstanding Women in Construction Management and Design!
Building Her Legacy
Emily Kay’s collection of hardhats hangs proudly on display along a wall in her father’s home. The collection, which documents her 25 years in the construction industry, tracks her career path, from concrete laborer to her role today as Vice President of Operations with Balfour Beatty. It’s a story that exemplifies a willingness to try new things, a focus on learning and development, and above all, an overarching passion for working with people and building enduring relationships.
In 1994, Emily Kay was pursuing an advertising major at the University of Kansas. In order to earn enough funds to pay for college tuition, she took a position as a laborer on a concrete crew, that was part of an enormous effort to build a $200M Cargill 600-acre corn-processing plant. Despite the environment, which included being the only woman among hundreds of workers, waking up every morning at 4 am with fingers so swollen from the day’s labor that they couldn’t bend, she had a positive awakening to what her future would hold. She realized her teammates in the field represented the best elements of society, salt of the earth humans that had built the world around us and she decided that in this industry she would be able to build a career that could leave an impact. Five-and a half years later she would graduate from the University of Nebraska with a B.S. in Construction Management.
With the field experience and construction knowledge, Emily earned through her internships and summer jobs held consistently through those 5 years, she worked her way up the ladder; from laborer, to field layout engineer, to Project Engineer, to Assistant Superintendent, to the sole female Project Executive overseeing construction in Los Angeles County for one of the largest construction companies nationwide and internationally, Balfour Beatty, to finally Vice President of Operations. From humble schedules, built with post-it notes on butcher-block paper, Emily has crafted her career by doing a little bit of everything to gain experience, familiarity, the trust of her team, and to prove to herself she could. “I never wanted to ask someone to do something that I hadn’t already done myself, so my intent was to get out there and try it all, running every piece of equipment I could get my hands on, spending time in every job role” says Emily.
In her twenty-five years in the construction industry, Emily has developed a noticeable habit: She does whatever it takes. “You don’t blend in, you don’t fly under the radar. You’re out there proving to your team - and yourself - that you can and will do it. Asking yourself ‘what can I do to make everyone else’s’ job easier’ and then doing just that.” This approach to construction, and to working with teams in general, was born that first rainy season in 1994 when flooding threatened her project. As heavy rains filled previously excavated foundations full of reinforcing steel cages with mud, with a frame smaller than many of her peers on the field, she jumped into the rebar cage and “mucked out” the footings and grade beams by the bucket-full. “I like to focus on what the successful outcome looks like, then do whatever it takes to get there - and be willing to perform” reflects Emily.
In 2014, Emily was welcomed to Balfour Beatty as a Senior Project Manager and quickly excelled to become Project Executive where she was trusted with three of Balfour Beatty’s long-standing legacy clients; the Torrance Unified School District, Culver City Unified School District and Redondo Beach Unified School District (USD). Over the past five years, Emily and her team have overseen the successful completion of new additions, summer modernization, upgrades, and new construction with a value well over $400 Million for the Torrance, Culver City, and Redondo Beach communities. And while she and her teams still oversee Balfour Beatty’s most senior clients, she’s also been trusted with building first impressions with Manhattan Beach USD and Wiseburn USD. Her continued success and achievements with Balfour Beatty have led her to become the sole female Vice President in Balfour Beatty’s California Division.
It was at Wiseburn High School that Emily and the team would provide construction of a ground-breaking building type that would revolutionize the educational industry, a concept known as MindShift: changing the way we educate by approaching education with the idea of “labs over lectures.” This revolutionary idea not only involves innovation in school curriculum, but evolution in building design and construction. As the Project’s Executive it was Emily who was responsible for managing and building the $100 M, four-story state-of-the-art high school campus. The adaptive reuse high school, originally an office building for Northrop Grumman, was the largest conversion of commercial space to school building to make it through Division of the State Architect’s approval process. Upon its completion in 2018, Wiseburn HS served as the backdrop for the 2018 EdShift Conference, which brings stakeholders together for an interactive discussion about transforming the face of K-12 education into high impact learning environments. The project also received the 2019 “Commercial Real Estate Silver Award” by the Los Angeles Business Journal. Through Emily’s leadership and guidance the team delivered one of LA County’s premier award-winning educational facilities, which now serves as a leading example for other innovators in education.
In Manhattan Beach USD, Emily and her team oversee two bond programs valued at over $100 M. Active and completed projects include district-wide security fencing, HVAC upgrades throughout the District, the modernization of five elementary schools and one middle school, new 2-story classroom buildings and Multipurpose Room/Admin buildings at 2 elementary schools, and new construction of an impressive Athletic Complex at Mira Costa High School. Dr. Michael D. Matthews, Superintendent, had the following to say with regards to the management of the projects: “Emily Kay is an extraordinary leader. She brings experience, technical knowledge, high expectations, strong support, and insightful practice to the team. She is also skilled at building highly effective construction teams.”
And while she erects structures that shape skylines and enhance communities, it’s building those highly effective teams that gives her the most gratification. “As a person in a leadership role, an individual’s growth and satisfaction is what’s most important to me. I want to make sure not only my team, but all staff members, are headed in the right direction, not just filling seats on the bus.” As a result of her people-first focus she has been helping with hiring and staffing for the entire Division – from San Francisco, CA to Scottsdale, AZ. And despite living in Los Angeles, she travels monthly to Newport Beach and San Diego to meet with her mentees, and stays in touch frequently with other Balfour Beatty staff from Seattle to Dallas. Emily is an active member of Balfour Beatty’s employee resource group ‘Connecting Women,’ a group that is committed to empowering employees through fostering alliances and networking.
At any time during the year you can find Emily devoting her time to support local schools and organizations. Each holiday season she participates in ‘Adopt a Family.’ Since its inception, Emily and her coworkers have helped raise over $35,000 to adopt more than 60 families in need. The families are recommended from Districts serviced by Project Executives, like Emily, and the program serves to provide a true holiday experience for those families. “We’re so fortunate to be living in Southern California, to have amazing jobs and careers, and to be able to make ends meet – I feel that those of us who are this fortunate have a responsibility to help support those that may not have the resources that we do. The holidays are a time of family and hope and happiness, and this is one small way that we can help to give back.” This fall, she and her family joined celebrities and community members in the Hermosa Beach area for the “Pier to Pier Friendship Walk” a local event that has raised over $2M annually for children with special needs. Each spring, Emily participates in the Sharefest Workday and Sharefest Golf Tournament. On average, the Golf Tournament raises over $150,000 for Los Angeles county students and school districts. During the Sharefest Workday Emily, along with dozens of coworkers and approximately 150 volunteers, dedicate their time by construction of small projects at up to 10 school sites. Fundraising is one thing, but committing time and energy on nights and weekends to ensure the job gets done is a hallmark of volunteers like Emily Kay.
Emily has overseen the creation of community buildings, rehabilitation institutions, educational facilities and hospitals. But perhaps her greatest contribution has been to the men and women who work beside her. Emily has earned the type of influence where people will follow her, with or without a direct line of authority. “At the end of the day, what I love most about this industry is that it truly is all about building relationships and establishing trust.” That takes personal focus, dedication, transparency and communication.