‘If I can do it, you can do it’: A former physical therapist finds her calling as a construction boss

By Faye Penn

Minutes before Ana Lavdas’s wedding, her fiancé, Steven Smith, whispered in her ear that he had just signed an agreement to assume a $65 million debt to transform a 28-acre landfill in the South Bronx into a business hub.

There were millions of tons of trash piled five and six stories high – and once married, they’d both be responsible for removing it.

“That was my wedding gift!” Lavdas recalls, bursting into laughter.

Fast forward: Lavdas and Smith are about to celebrate their 19th anniversary. The 28-acre site at Hunts Point, now cleared, is home to several businesses that employ hundreds. And Lavdas is president of AAL Construction, a civil site company based in the Bronx.  “We go into a job and do the excavation,” Lavdas explains. “We’re the first guys on the job.”

Recently, Lavdas sat down to talk about how the city’s Construct NYC program and its M/WBE Certification (Minority- and Woman-owned Business Enterprise) helped her transition into a construction bossand why other women should join the industry, too.

Did you have any prior connection to construction?

I never in my wildest dreams thought I’d do something in the construction field. But I’m the kind of person who’s like, “Let’s try something new. I’m not afraid.” Diners—food—was my first career. My parents came from Greece and settled in New York City. They had nothing, but I grew up with a strong work ethic. I remember when I was 8, trying to wash pots. My father died when I was 10; my brothers were 8 and 6. At 9, my brother started cutting lawns. It was about survival and keeping the family together. But my father—even with a third-grade education—was all about school. My mother always told me, “If you work hard, there’s nothing you can’t do.” So I went to college and got a bachelor’s degree in biology, then a doctor of chiropractic. I did physical therapy and radiology. Later, I became a spokesperson for a bedding line on QVC.

Women are beginning to find out they’re going to make good money right off the bat in construction.

Physical therapy, selling bedding and construction: why change your career so radically?

The site that my husband acquired was a C&D (construction and development) site dating back to the 1970s. It required significant remediation. It had millions of tons of trash on it, five and six stories high. But I loved restoring the shoreline at the site. We created the largest wetlands in the five boroughs and immediately saw birds that hadn’t been there for 50 years. I have pictures of seals that came on the rocks after we cleaned out the muck. After years of working the land, I gained an appreciation and interest for construction. I formalized AAL Construction in 2015, and since then, we’ve provided site services for some of New York’s most visible projects.

How does being certified as a M/WBE affect how you run your company?

You need to be in business for a year to become certified as a M/WBE and gain access to programs. Once I got the certification, ConstructNYC opened many doors that helped us. For example, the EDC [Economic Development Corp., which runs the program] helped me learn about construction management, how to negotiate the beginning of a contract—what to look for and what to stay away from. As a startup, you need jobs. You go for all the bids, and as an M/WBE, the EDC helps you along that process. And what’s great is, once you get through the program, you’re prequalified to work with the large construction companies.

You’ve said that more women need to join construction. Why?

The construction industry is losing tradesman each year, and men aren’t going into the field. In my business, I’m asking women, “Have you ever considered this?” Most say no, but I think that’s changing, especially in New York City. New York is ahead of the curve. I hired two women who were former security officers—single moms with families to feed. Now one is an apprentice for the electrical union to become an electrician and the other one is doing masonry. Women are beginning to find out they’re going to make good money right off the bat in construction.

Running large pieces of equipment—a crane, a skid steer—it’s just knowing how to use a joystick. I learned by watching people, but I’m not the type of person who’s scared to get on the machine and ask, “How do I turn this thing on?” I’m not scared of a lot. I know that’s not always the case. Women need to show women how to get on the machine, how to turn it on. You need women to say, “If I can do it, you can do it.”

Ana Lavdas
© Julienne Schaer

What’s it like to be a woman boss in construction?

It’s gotten easier as a woman, but is there a stigma? Sure. You’ve got to have tough skin. I’ve gone to look at jobs where 99% of the time my business developer and myself are the only women in the room. You hear things like “women quota.” So do you have to prove yourself? Absolutely. I tell my guys, “We have to do it better and work harder than anyone else and get the paperwork in before anyone asks.” We focus on the work: the goal is to grow the company.

Women need to show women how to get on the machine, how to turn it on. You need women to say, ‘If I can do it, you can do it.’

You’re a big advocate for New York City’s M/WBE programs. What do you want women to know about them?

Women in this city—they’re willing to put themselves out there and start businesses. They go to classes to learn how to something different. Many of them are raising two or three kids, some on their own. They’re saying, “There’s got to be a better way.” Women are the backbone, so that’s when you say, “What can I do to help other women?” They’re already starting ad hoc businesses that have the potential to scale up. Being a M/WBE can give them the know-how to do that.

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