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Illinois construction firm builds off two decades of success

Laura Pager

Ask Gale Construction owner Laura Pager what she’s most proud of, and the answer is simple: “That we’re still standing after 20 years.”

But success didn’t happen overnight. As with so many of the projects the firm has tackled over its history, Gale Construction was built one brick at a time. 

The Joliet, Illinois-based company specializes in highway construction and heavy and civil construction projects for local, state, and federal agencies, as well as commercial customers. Since becoming certified in the Small Business Administration’s 8(a) program, which provides assistance to socially and economically disadvantaged business owners, it has also gained a foothold in the world of government contracting.

Pager was working in the investment world in 1996 when she got a call from an old high school friend, Mike Gale, with a plan to go into business together. She had experience within finance and money management, and Gale was knowledgeable about on-the-ground operations. The pair had a good synergy, and within four months, she’d quit her old job and the company incorporated.

Some of their first projects were driveways and sidewalks, and local bond referendums also provided lots of opportunities. 

“We cut our teeth doing pedestrian bridges and bike paths,” Pager said. “We got really good at them.”

As Gale Construction grew, so did Pager’s share of the company, and by 2010 she owned 100 percent. (Her partner, Gale, has stayed on as Director of Operations.) Soon thereafter, the recession hit. It was a challenging time for the company, and Pager also took time off to deal with health issues. As she began to return to work, she saw a newspaper article about a federal construction project in Lockport, Illinois. She remembers her boyfriend asking, “Hey, why aren’t you guys doing this project?” The comment inspired her to investigate further.

Gale Construction ended up working as a subcontractor on the Lockport project, which put it on the path to 8(a) certification. Within three months of becoming certified, the company got its first sole-source contract for materials and supplies. In the years since, it has completed projects with the Federal Aviation Administration and U.S. Department of Agriculture, among others.

With the growth spurt came a few HR problems – for a time, Gale Construction tried both an in-house accountant and accounting software – but the bumps in the road brought valuable lessons, as well. “Quality control is the most important thing,” Pager said. “Keep that in house, and you can outsource your bookkeeping.”

Overall, the 8(a) program changed the company’s capacity. In 2016, it had nearly $7 million in work, and not all with the private sector. “I’m not relying on sole-source work,” Pager said. “I’m happy to take it, and I do look for it. You kind of have to strike while you can. Diversity is possible while still targeting the federal market.”

The biggest challenge for Gale Construction has been cash flow and bonding – and the two go hand-in-hand. Pager says women-owned and small businesses face higher barriers to getting increases to their credit lines. It was only within the last year that her company got a $200,000 line of credit. She didn’t need to use it, but having it allowed greater bonding capability, which affected the types of projects she could take on. She also advises other small business owners to get some legal help when incorporating their businesses; Pager opted to do her own documents online but doesn’t recommend that strategy.

Looking ahead, Pager is aiming for five federal projects a year while continuing to grow the commercial and private side of the business. “With the 8(a) program, if you hit it hard and build your capacity, you can graduate healthy and diversified,” she said.

It’s a blueprint that could bring years of success to other entrepreneurs, as well.

Company Name: 
Gale Construction
Joliet, Illinois