For Angelina Perryman, joining the family business was always part of the plan. From helping her father tinker with logos in the basement to typing up contracts after school, she – like many others – has been preparing for the transition to join the family business for as long as she can remember.
While the transition into the formal workplace has not always been easy, Perryman Construction has a history of adaptation, with the very foundation of the business being built on disruption. Through mentorship, the incorporation of technology and a reassessment of the basics, Perryman Construction has overcome every challenge along the way – including the recent global pandemic – to ensure the success of the business for generations to come.
In this episode of Women in Family Business, Ramia El Agamy and Angelina Perryman discuss the transition to a formal role within the family business, the female millennial perspective and how family businesses like Perryman Construction are safeguarding their future.
R: I like to ask people if they remember the first moment they became aware that their family owns a business or that they’re part of a family business legacy. Do you remember when that occurred to you?
A: I was a kid. I don’t think I understood it until later, but I knew it was different.
My dad was working in the basement at the time, and he wanted to show me a logo. He showed m several versions, and he had me look at them about ten times. As a child, I thought they all looked great. However, he wanted to know what I thought of the colours and the content, and I wondered why it was such a big deal.
It hit me that he was looking at little details that I did not understand, and I realised that this was different than just working. He was nit-picking every little detail.
As I got older, he would have me read contracts and type them up. I thought it was just a typing exercise at first. However, when I started reading them, I realised that we had real exposure, and that’s when it became real.
R: In retrospect, do you believe your father was intentional about this conditioning? Do you feel like he engineered that path for you, or was it just his nature to involve you?
A: I really don’t know. Whether he engineered it or not, I don’t think I would have cared later on about most of the business to this level of detail. I wouldn’t have cared about the content, why we use this colour or what it means to my grandfather.
Now, I care about it more than I would have if he had just handed me this opportunity later on.
R: It does matter that you care. It’s a totally different journey towards the family business compared to when you’re forced into it.
There are different perspectives. On the one hand, you have a perspective from the outside, watching your family work in a business. The moment you join, you get a new perspective of what that business is like on the inside.
What was the biggest surprise you experienced when you started working officially with Perryman?
A: I didn’t realise how big it was. I was a child when I first saw a check with six zeros. Holding that much money in your hand is something that just changes your mind forever. It was a real eye-opening experience to see that this was a legitimate business, generating this much revenue.
There’s just something about touching that first multimillion-dollar check – something bigger than you’ve ever touched in your life.
R: Did you join directly after your education, or did you have an outside experience before you joined Perryman Construction?
A: It was pretty much direct. I started in the company as an intern, and then I went to college while still working. Once I graduated, I went more full time.
R: I talk with a lot of people in your position, and my story is exactly like yours. I joined straight out of college but worked for my dad before then, as well.
What’s interesting about that journey is that you don’t have long-term experiences outside of the business. It took me a long time to take myself seriously as a businesswoman. That familiarity of the family circle is encouraging and oppressive at the same time.
What has that been like for you?
A: When I first started, I wanted to wear comfortable clothing. I didn’t realise that my father had visitors coming in.
My dad used to always tell me that I need to be prepared because you never know who you’ll meet. I never really took that seriously until that day a Senator came in, and I was not ready; I had my hoodie on and my comfortable clothes. Not only did he come to visit, but they were also taking pictures.
These are memories for a lifetime, and I will never forget that I always need to be ready, whether I’m at home or in the office.
R: When you’ve been involved in the family business since you were a kid and organically transition into that role, there’s never a moment when someone officially trains you on the job. I always tell my dad that if I hadn’t made up my own job descriptions, I wouldn’t have had one. I also promote myself. It’s a really great tactic.
A lot of people hail family businesses from the outside. That informality is also a huge asset for us. It leads to rapid decision-making, and it leads to us being in it with our blood and soul. We pump everything into these businesses, no questions asked.
What’s been your experience with treading that line between formality and informality? What has been your contribution to formalising and professionalising the family business?
A: When you’re in school, you learn about structure. I couldn’t reconcile that disconnect between the family business and what I was being taught. For an entrepreneur who isn’t guided by rules, it’s difficult to come into that environment.
I had to figure out a balance. I listened to the historical context of the “why,” as well as the structure. That way, I don’t lose the entrepreneurial spirit, but the structure is still there.
That’s something that’s really important to me. When we talk about the next generation and the business’s next steps, that “why” is critical, and that flexibility is still needed. When you start teaching a team, they also have to understand that.
Your team needs to be on board with the degree to which the business is structured and the degree to which it’s entrepreneurial and free-flowing. During my early days, that’s what I spent most of my time trying to reconcile.
R: You reconcile it by going for the “why” first. You find the origin of a certain behaviour, and you decide to what extent that behaviour should be corrected or formalised.
A: Some companies have been so far removed from their “why” that the decision-making doesn’t align. Considering how principled our business is in its founding, that was something I wanted to keep.
R: You are the third generation of this family business, though what your dad did with the company could be considered as a second founding stage. He grew it to a certain scale and set it up.
When we had the interview with him, he did talk about his father’s role in pioneering the consciousness that this was even a possibility – that owning a business and building a legacy for your family was something that you could do in an industry about which you’re passionate.
When you look back at those origin moments, you can clearly compare what your grandfather and father have achieved. Do you have ambitions with regards to what you and your brother should contribute as the third generation of the business?
A: Some of it comes from knowing the “why” – why my granddad started and why my dad pushed it to this point. I think about that “why” not just from my perspective but from the perspective of the future team that we want to build and grow. We want to drive their “why.”
I’ve always been fascinated by ESOPs and how companies maintain their culture with so many voices. That has always been really important to me from the next generation’s perspective and even from a millennial perspective. How are people motivated? What makes them intrigued to stay?
Most employees don’t stay longer than three to five years. In an industry like ours where most people stay for life, how can we create that motivational environment?
R: We start to talk about employer branding. How attractive are you as an employer? That’s a big question for a lot of family businesses that are not used to putting in that effort.
It’s fascinating to see how that attraction is linked to this industry. Construction is not exactly like joining Google in Silicon Valley. This is a challenge. What does an interesting career in construction look like? What does it encompass? I know that it’s actually much more exciting than the outside perspective perceives it.
If you look at your industry as a sector, what is it that you are most excited about for the company and the industry?
A: I’ve always been fascinated by tech, especially in this industry, which is traditionally not known to incorporate tech. There are a lot of great things that are coming out in the industry, though it’s slow to evolve.
I think that the tech side is still reconciling with another generation that hasn’t been able to use it and understand how it can benefit companies and employees. That part of the construction industry will be interesting to watch.
We’re starting to incorporate robotics and coding, and e there’s going to be something else that comes with that. Whoever gets on board first might be able to survive a little longer than the last one.
R: Do you feel like it’s an advantage or a disadvantage to face the age of disruption as an established company? Do you feel like you might destroy the company’s legacy when you look at this disruption, or do you always feel like it is an advantage that you’re already a certain size?
A: I think it’s an advantage to able to adapt quickly, whether it’s construction or whether we grow into some other aspect of the business. However, I am concerned with the stability of pairing names, though everything else can grow and expand. You never know which way that’s going to go, and I’d never want our business to be singularly focused. I think that there’s a lot of opportunities out there.
Disruption is how we survived. When I think about how the company was founded, it was because of disruption. That’s something our business has always embraced, and I think we’ll continue to embrace that.
R: Disruption was incorporated in the founding, so it’s not scary to you guys. The Perryman way has a method behind the madness.
The Perryman way has been a male way for two generations – your granddad and then your father. You are the first female family member that has officially joined the company. For your family, that might have come very naturally. However, there’s no denying that it might not have come naturally to the environment, especially not in a male-dominated industry, like construction.
Was there a point where you were being treated like a woman and no longer s a member of the team? Were you prepared from the get-go to get attention?
A: Because it transitioned from my grandfather to my father to me, my father could only prepare me to a point. Women as mentors outside of the industry have played in that preparation, not so much internally in the company but for how the rest of the world adapts to the decision that our family has made. That was probably more challenging than the internal preparation that I had.
There were some things I knew I would experience, and I could see that there was a difference in tone and approach. However, as people start getting to know what you’re about, that starts to evolve.
For me, most of the challenges come from a millennial woman perspective rather than it is just the woman perspective. When you’re younger in your industry, how can you be seen and heard? Those external women mentors that I’ve had over time have been really helpful in adjusting to that.
R: Traditionally, women don’t take advantage of mentorship as quickly as men do.
Men have a longer tradition of mentorship amongst themselves. It’s much more innate to men. For women, mentorship is such a powerful thing to access from men and from women.
Many women need the encouragement to understand that they’re allowed to look for mentors to use as an outside sounding board for their own development and to take themselves more seriously in their career as it evolves. When you’re part of a family business, I think that tends to get neglected.
What prompted you to seek mentorship, and how did you go about it?
A: I didn’t call it mentorship. I looked at it as evolving as a person, and I wanted to know who I could talk to or trust the most. As I started telling my mentors some of my personal experiences, they started sharing with me their business experiences.
That’s when I realised that mentorship needs to be dual fold. Especially as a woman, it should incorporate business mentorship as well as the personal aspect of your growth and evolution. As your decision-making evolves and matures, that business mentorship becomes even more important.
That’s evolved over time. I’ve participated in programs, but I started learning what I needed the most when I started mentoring younger women, which is not something that I never expected. I started early in my development by coaching high school girls and leading camps. That helped me to figure out what I was missing in my mentoring.
R: By lifting others up, you discovered that you needed lifting up, as well. This is a huge thing that we can do for each other.
Unlocking that potential as women in the workplace and in life in general holds enormous potential for a lot of the challenges that we face.
A: It’s not talked about in that light. It’s always looked at so singularly. You need multiple people, not just one mentor. As you have children and get married, the evolution of how you think about those aspects changes, and you need to have somebody that you could talk to from those perspectives.
I had never thought about that way. I just thought that I would find one mentor that I would take on for the rest of my life.
R: Mentorship helps you realise that you’re not alone with these challenges. One of the biggest aspects in overcoming any hurdle as a woman balancing your career and private life is to understand that we all face similar obstacles and challenges, no matter how easy anyone makes it look on the outside. We’re all confronted with difficult situations, and to share that with someone has a huge impact for a lot of people.
When did your brother join the business?
A: Not long after me.
R: Did you feel like his experience in joining the business was different than your experience?
A: My first thought was that his experience was definitely different from mine. I expected him to prepare as I did, but we don’t approach things in the same way. We are not the same person, and I appreciate the fact that he went on a completely different track than I did. He focused on the field side, while I focused on the office side. As we talk and learn about each other’s experience today, we can compare notes.
When you figure out the personality of the person with whom you’re working, you can determine if they are in the right spot to succeed. There are parts of the business in which my brother would not be interested.
I don’t think anybody wants to have an employee in a position they don’t like or in which they won’t perform well. It doesn’t help. You want to get the best out of your talent, and I think that’s our objective. How do we make a long-lasting business and get the most out of the talent we’ve placed?
R: It is said that many family businesses do not outlast the third generation. There’s the cliché that the first generation builds it, the second grows it and the third destroys it.
My argument is that by the time you reach the third generation, you have outlasted the average business lifespan by about four or five times. The third generation doesn’t necessarily have to be blamed for a business ending at that particular time. That business might have just been beaten by the odds.
However, the family business field claims that the third generation faces a particular challenge. You’re building on what is already a considerable legacy.
Do you and your brother talk about being the third generation?
A: We don’t really address it in that way, but we do talk about if people value our business’s legacy.
It seems like people’s values are evolving. In my father’s generation, being a family-owned, multigenerational business had a lot of meaning.
I’m still trying to wrap my head around how people view that now, especially when you see established businesses that have been there for so long disappearing. It would be interesting to see how people value those businesses. Unfortunately, some of them haven’t been able to survive the next generation.
R: We need to contextualise this conversation and assess what people are facing in present-day America and even the world.
We are in the throes of what is a devastating pandemic. Especially in the States, it’s horrific to see what’s happening. However, it’s also been extremely revealing as a society. A lot of things have come up, and historical notions are being challenged.
The way in which we are conditioned to value certain historical premises is being challenged, as are our identities. As a consequence, our businesses are being challenged.
When the pandemic hit, what was your first reaction as a family? Did you switch into crisis mode, or did you just want to buckle down and outlast it?
A: Our response was how we’ve always responded through the generations. The first thing we did was determine if we were set up okay. Luckily, we have always been a tech-savvy construction firm, so pivoting wasn’t a big move.
It was more chaotic around our business than for us specifically. Operationally, we didn’t really miss much of a beat. Some of that came because we looked a little bit further ahead in trying to stay ahead.
I think other businesses have struggled in trying to self-identify first and operate. That hasn’t been our struggle. Understanding our “why” definitely enhanced the things that we knew we were foundationally still doing.
I’ve seen so many businesses now trying to figure out which way to pivot and get a hint of where things are going.
R: In a crisis like this, you can’t fake authenticity, and you can’t fake caring about these things when you don’t. You get called out in an atmosphere like this.
So many of the companies that we were taught to admire, particularly from America, are being challenged. When faced with a crisis of this magnitude, their response has not been what we would have desired.
This strength that comes from being a business with authentic values has put you at an advantage that you probably wouldn’t have been able to communicate as successfully had it not been for this situation.
A: I look at the competition and how they have had to pivot and adjust. You can’t make up who you are, and you can’t make up for what you could have been doing in the past. You either are or are going to be.
We have always been clear about who we were. We haven’t been rocked to the core like some other businesses have been. Our foundation, our purpose and the businesses that are growing because of our impact are generally unchanged. We’ve always looked at who we are impacting with our business. We didn’t just start looking at that.
I feel like everything’s going back to the basics.
R: It feels like a lot of the nonsense is being called out, and the flab is being caught in many places. It seems to have been necessary. There’s also a remnant from the baby boomer generation, our parents.
It’s important to realise that one of the reasons why millennials have played such a controversial role in recent years’ discussions is that we are the children of baby boomers. The contrast couldn’t be bigger in terms of the opportunities our parents had and the surroundings they faced.
It’s not to take away from their achievements, but many of us graduated into a financial crisis with severely reduced possibilities and shrunken economies. However, that’s not to paint us as the victims. We had the internet and technology on our side to the extent that our parents never did. It’s an interesting household as a family when you have baby boomer parents and millennial kids.
From an industry perspective and as a family business, how are you planning ahead? Is it clear in your mind where you’re going, or do you have to re-evaluate?
A: We’re just double-checking. We’re going back to the basics and looking at it again. Is it tight? Do we have the right people? Is it creating the impact we want? We’re going back to the Xs and Os.
Years ago, I asked someone how their business was doing. Most people will say that it’s good or it’s growing. But he said that they had stopped and were going back to the basics. I just thought that was the most profound thing anybody had ever said to me. I had never heard someone say that they’re stopping their business to relook at the inside of its structure.
That’s what we’re focusing on.
R: It takes courage. It would be nice to just keep going.
Do you feel that it helps to be a woman when it comes to looking inwards? Do you think it comes more easily to us as women than it comes to men?
A: It probably does. I think it’s easier for people who are focused on self-improvement. Most women tend to constantly look back and evaluate. What could you have done? I think that it probably comes a little more naturally.
But are those the women who are in charge of leading the change? I don’t know. I think the full list would have a re-evaluation if they were in charge.
R: History will prove us right. Angelina, we’ll have a talk again in thirty years to see.