Written by Patty Rasmussen Wednesday, December 21 2011
Snapshot: Marjorie Perry, president/CEO, MZM Construction & Management
Marjorie Perry did everything she was supposed to do. She did well in school, attended college, and graduated with a degree in a good, stable field – teaching. Unfortunately, in 1975 for the first time in Newark (N.J.) school system history, teachers were laid off – starting with the last ones hired. Perry was out of work, and she had just started her career.
It might have been the best thing that ever happened to her.
She shifted her focus to a lifelong interest: business and marketing, working with Fortune 500 companies – 3M, Johnson & Johnson, and United Airlines. She started her own public relations firm in 1985. She bought out the founders of one of her clients, MZM Construction & Management, and restructured the company. Now Perry is the sole principal.
Perry is a speaker, writer, and a board member of the New Jersey Economic Development Authority.
Womenetics: As president and CEO of MZM, what’s your day-to-day routine like?
Marjorie Perry: I’m the visionary of the company. I’m always planning, evolving, looking at what’s next, asking whether we are still meeting the needs of what people need today. I’m also always looking at the financials. I’m deeply involved in what’s going on day to day. I still sign all my checks and make all the decisions on all the hiring that goes on because we’re still a business of fewer than 50 to 60 employees. We don’t have the HR department or a huge marketing department. I’m probably 50 to 60 percent looking at the business, analyzing it, and the other 40 percent making sure the operations go smoothly.
Womenetics: You’re actually a construction company, right, not engineering or architects?
Perry: Yes, we are the builders. We take the designs from the architects, the engineers, and we implement them. We might question them or offer our insight, but it’s their job to make sure you’re safe in the building you go into, and it’s my job to build it exactly the way they tell me to.
Womenetics: Can you tell me about a time when you failed at something, but learned a valuable lesson that helped you later?
Perry: 1998, I lost a million dollars. That will do it to you. Here’s a good example of my naiveté, the non-calculated risk. I got caught up in emotion because I got involved with a group that was building the first African-American charter school in Newark. I wanted to do it. No. 1, it was a church, and I was trying to live the good girl life. No. 2, you couldn’t fail on a church because it’s a church. No. 3, it was African-American, and I’m African-American, and No. 4, they need me.
I went in totally on emotion, but the guys who were running the job weren’t good boys. But my boundaries weren’t that well developed. I couldn’t read the signals. They knew I didn’t have a clue, an education in that level of work. They offered me mentoring. They said all the right buzzwords. They promised me the world and pushed every needy button I had. I walked right in and kept building, thinking I was going to get paid. Eventually I had 22 lawsuits against me totaling $1.3 million.
They walked away, and I was left there holding everything. Even my lawyer gave up on me. On paper, I was dead. That brought me to my knees. My self-esteem was in the toilet. I almost lost my home. Every cell of my body was eaten with fear. It was one of the most horrific things you could imagine happening to someone’s psyche. And I had been raised to meet my obligations so I was paying everyone back. Every day I got up and came in, and with every dime I made I paid off a bill. That was one of the worst and best moments in my life because now there’s nothing I can be hit with that will knock me down forever. That’s when you become an elite business thinker. You learn how to think, calculate risk, and be really strong because of your experience.
Womenetics: Which high profile project was your company involved in that you’re most proud of?
Perry: There are two, the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, N.J., and, in 2008-2009, the New Meadowlands Stadium (MetLife Stadium) where the New York Giants and New York Jets play.
Womenetics: You came to the construction business a different way. You were originally a teacher.
Perry: Right, I graduated with my first degree in 1974 as an educator. I taught in the Newark and Piscataway school systems and was certified to teach kindergarten through high school. But I only taught one year. We were some of the first teachers to be caught up in layoffs in 1975 and 1976.
Womenetics: What did you do next?
Perry: I grew up watching movies about people in business and was interested in wealth building. I don’t know where that comes from; maybe because we lived in the projects and grew up on the margins of the margins. But one day I said, “I’m going to be one of the richest women in the world.” I was fascinated by how wealthy people lived and what they contributed to the world. I didn’t know (business) would be the direction I would go in, but when I was laid off I said, “Why not try going into business.”
Womenetics: Based on some of the things you’ve done in your career, it looks like you’re a risktaker. Do you see yourself that way or are they calculated risks?
Perry: I would say that now I’m a calculated risktaker. In the beginning I didn’t have a clue when I was taking a risk, and that’s just telling the truth. I didn’t know how crazy construction could be. I just saw a golden opportunity. I didn’t know when I went into corporate America, being one of the first women to go into some of these large companies in the late 1970s, early 1980s, that my skin hue was still an issue.
The lighter you were the better positions you might find yourself in. That meant, for me, Johnson & Johnson put me in Harrisburg, Pa. That was like wilderness territory. And Harrisburg today is nothing like it is was in the late ʼ70s. I did a lot of things because they sounded good, but as I evolved over the past 20 or so years, I became much more calculated. I had to learn the ropes. I had a teacher mentality, then a manager mentality. Manager/leaders become more calculated, thinking through all the elements involved in a move.
Womenetics: You said in an interview that women should behave less emotionally and have more confidence in their own self-worth. Do you think that’s why you’ve succeeded in the predominantly man’s world of construction/management? Also, there are plenty of men who behave emotionally, display anger for example, that are successful. Is there a double standard with regard to emotion?
Perry: Men are just as emotional as women, but what they do is get on it and get off it. That’s the big difference. They’ll yell, scream, jump up and down, and two minutes later go for a beer with you. Women may internalize their emotions. They’ll really beat themselves up.
Womenetics: That’s an important distinction, that women are more likely to not just feel their emotions but examine them.
Perry: Right. Most men aren’t going to take the time to examine their emotions. They’re moving on, saying, “Yeah, I cussed him out, now get that job right.”
Womenetics: So is there a double standard when it comes to expressing emotions in business?
Perry: Absolutely. Women are perceived as emotional. If I did the same yelling and screaming a man did, I’d be (negatively) labeled as emotional. So there are three things a woman needs to realize: one – there is a double standard; two –we can’t internalize the emotion; get in and get out; and three – at the end of the day, it’s just business. As long as you don’t give up your integrity, you don’t sell your soul, remember, these aren’t people you’re taking home, but they are people you need to learn to respect and possibly work with next week. If the relationship is ended you try to walk away with as much grace as you can. Sometimes that works sometimes it doesn’t, but when you’re done you’re done.
Womenetics: You have two degrees, a bachelor’s from Kean University and an MBA in finance from the New Jersey Institute of Technology. How did your respect for the value of education develop?
Perry: I was fortunate growing up in an urban city, back in the 1960s when most of the teachers in my school were Jewish women. I was a curly headed little girl with lots of dimples, and they would take me places. My teachers would always tell me, “Education got us here.” This is what I was hearing at 5, 6, 7 years of age. There were kids who didn’t know what Carnegie Hall was, and I was going there at 7 and 8 years old because my teachers would take me.
Back then there weren’t a lot of African-American teachers in the Newark school system, but my teachers influenced me. I wanted to do what they did because teachers back then were role models. Education framed my mind to think outside the box early on. I learned that education was about problem solving. You had to live in the library; there was no “googling.” I developed critical thinking skills through school and was able to meet the real world with more zest. Even when I failed, I knew how to research and study to learn how to move on to the next thing. It gave me the tools to keep thinking. I think that’s missing with a lot of young people these days; they aren’t thinking. Education plants the seed to always be in the thinking mode.
Womenetics: Where did your fearlessness come from?
Perry: I’ve had a lot of failure, and my failure built my fearlessness. Like most people, my initial fear was fear of failure. But I learned that the minute you fail is the minute you become fearless because you came through it. I didn’t realize the gift of failure; I had to fail in order to become who I am. Without it, I wouldn’t have been able to rise to the heights I’ve been able to rise.
Womenetics: What do you enjoy most – building, teaching, leading, speaking?
Perry: I enjoy all of what I am today. I think everything I do has become integrated; the things I didn’t like and the things I love have all become one. I stand powerfully in the whole piece now. I love that I’ve been able to take all the good, bad, ugly, the joy, the passion, and it’s all come together as a circular phenomenon that I can share with others and put people to work as an entrepreneur.
Womenetics: What's the most important thing a woman can do to position herself for success, in any field?
Perry: Life has flattened out a lot. Women can compete as well as men today, in most areas, but some of the best, most powerful women I’ve met are so clear on their purpose. That clarity leads to a level of success most of us just dream about. Women need to hold onto their purpose, no matter what their distractions are, no matter what they do or don’t have. When women’s backs are up against the wall and they know they have to get something done, you can’t beat them. But why not do that in a positive vein before it gets to the desperate and “have to” vein? Also, this is a time when a lot of people are starting their own businesses, and I would say, make sure you check your metrics for risk. If you start a business, make sure you have a lot of knowledge so you can recognize the pitfalls. Not everyone has what it takes to be an entrepreneur.
Womenetics: How do you relax?
Perry: I’m a movie person. I’m a Scrabble and card-playing person. I like to travel and go to spas. I do me. I make sure to take down time; if that means coming in at 10 a.m. then that’s what I’ll do. I stay in the best hotels when I travel because I want the extra service. Putting myself first is key because when I’m back (in the office) I’m able to do what I need to do.
If you would like to be in the company of other fabulous and flourishing women, join us at our Entrepreneurs 2012: The Millennial Moneymakers event on June 20.
Patty Rasmussen is an Atlanta-based freelance writer. She spent 12 years covering the Atlanta Braves for ChopTalk Magazine and has written for Major League Baseball publications, Georgia Trend magazine, WebMD, and Blue Ridge Country.