Meet Direct Steel’s President

Direct Steel and Construction is a woman-owned small business (WOSB) headquartered in Crystal Lake, Ill.

The road to success is rarely straightforward and can take unexpected detours. Ms. Rosemary Swierk started a construction business after she decided to renovate a commercial building. After remodeling several buildings, she founded Direct Steel and Construction, a general contractor. The Great Recession drove a lot of construction companies out of business, but Direct Steel beat the odds by pursuing and wining contracts with the federal government.

Today, Direct Steel is a growing business that has executed construction projects for the Air Force, Army Corps of Engineers, Naval Facilities Engineering Command and Veterans Administration.

We spoke to Ms. Swierk to learn how she navigated her path to success. We hope her story inspires more women to become entrepreneurs.

How did you end up in the construction industry?

In 1991 while pregnant with my first child, I kept driving past a dilapidated building that had been on the market for a couple of years. I decided to buy the building and rehab it. My first tenant was a bank.

The first building Ms. Swierk remodeled.

I kept buying buildings and remodeling them. I would rent them or sell them. The projects got larger. Eventually, I was building shopping centers. The work was very rewarding. In 2004 I was asked to general contract for other developers and clients. That was the beginning of Direct Steel.

In 2005, I sold most of my buildings. I was lucky because it was just before the real-estate market crashed.

Did you seek out a mentor in the construction industry?

What’s the best advice you received from your mentor?

Why did you decide to pursue contracts with the federal government?

I learned that getting federal-government work is kind of like getting your first job. You can get the work as long as you have the experience, but you can’t get the experience until you get the work. Winning your first prime contract or subcontract is difficult.

How did you win your first federal-government contract?

The federal procurement system is complex. How did you learn the rules?

I also received valuable support from my local Women’s Business Development Center (WBDC) and Small Business Development Center (SBDC). They are terrific resources.

How did you increase your win rate to 58 percent?

In 2008 and 2009, the economy was terrible and our close rate was 5 percent. In 2010, we improved it to 10 percent. Last year, our close rate was 58 percent. We were able to improve our close rate by identifying our value proposition and articulating it better. That really opened up a large market for us. For years, I was articulating our value proposition, but people were not hearing it the way I thought I was articulating it.

Articulating Direct Steel’s value proposition in a manner that potential customers understood was a game-changer.

In construction projects, there are four pillars: scope, budget, schedule and quality. In the vast majority of construction projects, there is a “bust” in one of those pillars. For example, it’s not uncommon for construction projects to exceed budgeted costs. In the commercial world, those busts create a tension between architects and general contractors. We’re very proud that we have developed a system that minimizes those tensions.

Architects tend to be great with vision and design requirements, but their strengths are typically not with constructability, budget and schedule. When an architect is forced to work in one silo and a general contractor in the others, I almost guarantee that one of those pillars will bust. We minimize change orders and cost-overruns by collaborating with architects before any plans are drawn. Our clients recognize the value of bringing us to the table early, even before a site has been selected.

Ms. Swierk and Direct Steel employees in a meeting.

There are a lot of client testimonials on our website. There aren’t a lot of general contractors that can provide customer testimonials. We can because we truly deliver value to our clients.

How did Goldman Sachs’s 10,000 Small Businesses program help you?

As a result of the program, I continue to have quarterly process meetings with my team. No company is perfect, but you want to make sure that you’re always striving for it.

What advice do you have for small businesses interested in competing for federal-government contracts?

The federal government is the world’s largest purchaser, but it’s difficult to become a vendor. It costs a lot to pursue federal-government contracts and, when you get them, it’s high risk.

What advice do you have for women interested in starting their own business?

Everyone I meet is dealing with something. That something may not have anything to do with construction. Someone may be facing health issues or work struggles. I meet with a lot of people each week and, as result, I’m very fortunate to have an excellent network of people I know, like and trust. I get a great sense of satisfaction introducing people to others who may be able to help them.

Several professionals in my network introduced me to clients or provided advice that helped my family. For example, my daughter suffered debilitating effects from Lyme Disease for many years. My family and I sought several types and modalities of care; most of which were minimally effective. A series of introductions led to a miraculous improvement in my daughter’s health.

Have you won any contacts set aside for WOSBs?

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We maximize opportunities for small businesses to compete for DoD prime contracts and subcontracts.

We maximize opportunities for small businesses to compete for DoD prime contracts and subcontracts.