New Corna Kokosing CEO a rare female boss in the construction industry

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Lori Burgett Gillett

Posted September 5, 2019

Lori Burgett Gillett’s first job with Corna Kokosing Construction Co. was hauling steel panels for a wall the company was building along Interstate 71 near Polaris.

“It was hot, hard work,” Gillett said. “But you just feel proud as a team when you see that wall go up. It just makes you respect what everyone at our company does, and that every role is critical and important.”

She now has a different job with the company, with its own set of challenges.

Gillett has been named chief executive officer of Corna Kokosing. She’s the first woman to serve as CEO in the Westerville company’s 63-year history and a rare female leader in the male-dominated construction industry.

Gillett takes over as part of a new executive team at Corna Kokosing that includes president Jim Negron, who most recently served as executive vice president with the firm.

The team assumes control during a demanding time in the industry, but as the third generation of the Burgett family in the business, Gillett comes to the position naturally.

In 1951, her grandfather, Bill Burgett, founded what became Kokosing Construction Co. in Fredericktown, in Knox County. He named the company after the Kokosing River.

The company specialized in road and bridge construction, but over the decades it grew to include several divisions including industrial construction (Kokosing Industrial); natural gas pipelines (Integrity Kokosing); asphalt (Kokosing Materials); transportation and treatment plants (Corman Kokosing); and an aggregate and gravel company (Olen Corp.). Many of the divisions can be found on a 60-acre campus off Interstate 270 near Westerville.

Including all of its divisions, Kokosing Inc. is the seventh-largest construction company in the Midwest, with 2018 revenue of $1.15 billion, according to the trade publication ENR Midwest.

Bill Burgett died in 2015, but Kokosing remains very much a family affair.

Burgett’s son, Brian, heads the parent company, Kokosing Inc., and another son, Barth, oversees the company’s maintenance operation in Fredericktown. Brian Burgett’s son, Brett, runs Kokosing Industrial and Corman Kokosing, while another son, Bryce, runs Kokosing Materials, Integrity Kokosing and Olen.

To broaden its reach beyond roads and factories, the Burgett family bought Corna & DiCesare general contracting company in 1995 and renamed it Corna Kokosing.

Gillett, Brian Burgett’s daughter, joined Kokosing full time a year later, after receiving a degree in civil engineering from Ohio Northern University.

But in a sense, she has always been part of the company.

“I felt like I was born on a backhoe,” she said. “Our playground was construction equipment and project sites.”

Despite growing up in the industry and working as a laborer for the family company, Gillett wasn’t sure she wanted to enter the business until after graduating from Ohio Northern.

“There was no pressure,” she said. “It really became clear to me after getting into engineering.”

There weren’t a lot of female role models for Gillett. About 10% of workers in the construction industry are women, said Mary Tebeau, executive director of the Builders Exchange of Central Ohio trade association.

While more women are applying for the association’s scholarships than in the past, the industry remains overwhelmingly male, especially at the highest level of companies the size of Corna Kokosing, she said.

“We’ve got other commercial construction companies in central Ohio that are female-run, but it’s extremely rare to be running a company of that magnitude for a female,” she said.

While Gillett and Negron believe that Corna Kokosing is the largest female-run construction company in the state, Gillett says her gender has rarely been an issue.

“It’s never really affected me,” she said. “I’ve been around this my whole life. It’s never been an obstacle.”

Her first engineering project with the company was in 1996, for roadwork at Easton Town Center. The company is now back at Easton, as it oversees construction of two parking garages and a hotel as part of Easton’s expansion to the northeast.

Beyond Easton, Corna Kokosing’s legacy can be found throughout central Ohio. Some of its better known projects are the Columbus Museum of Art addition, the St. Mary’s Catholic Church renovation and the Columbus Commons park and parking.

With revenue of $275 million and 250 employees, Corna Kokosing is one of the five largest construction companies in central Ohio. But Gillett and Negron see opportunities for growth, both within and outside central Ohio.

The company opened an Indianapolis office three years ago and sees opportunity in the boom of mixed-use buildings, in addition to its mainstays of health care, education and warehouses.

“All the markets we’re focusing on are growing,” Negron said. “We think urban, mixed-use (development) will especially be strong for a while.”

Negron joined Kokosing more than 30 years ago, a few years after moving to Columbus from New York to work as a carpenter.

The industry has changed significantly since then, especially in the way technology affects construction.

“We’ve been building with the same techniques for 100 years,” Negron said. “But change has really come the last 20, even 10 years, with technology.”

Buildings are now laid out with robots, and clients can receive a virtual 3D walk through a building, even seeing into walls, Negron said.

A more immediate change is the challenge to find workers, said Negron and Gillett.

“Workforce development is hands-down our No. 1 issue,” Gillett said.

Gillett and Negron have been active in efforts to draw young people into the field. Gillett also helped launch WISE — Women’s Ideas & Strategies Exchange — at Kokosing, to help nurture the careers of women at the company.

“It’s all about getting people in love with construction,” she said.

Source: dispatch.com