CLEARWATER – Ever since she was a little girl building furniture with her dad, Doreen Caudell has loved making and building things.
From there, she paved a path of leadership, from a mechanical engineering work director at Honeywell, to owner of D-Mar General Contracting & Development, to Clearwater City Councilmember, to member of countless boards and foundations.
“In my childhood, I used to build cars with my father,” Caudell said. “I was probably the only kid at Oak Grove Middle School with a wooden notebook because we would tinker in the garage and make things like cabinetry or furniture, that kind of stuff. So I was always building and making things. So the next step seemed to go to work at Honeywell, so I started in the machine shop. I worked on guidance systems.”
Caudell received her associate degree at St. Petersburg College and then went to work on making beryllium components for B-52 aircraft. She had to use special equipment – many that she learned to use as a child – to shape the parts into a very specific size.
From the machine shop, she moved into production and eventually mastered each level of production, from the beginning to the final assembly. This expertise launched her into the work director position, which she loved. She particularly enjoyed working with ERIS (exoatmospheric re-entry interceptor subsystem) test missiles, because they were partnered with Lockheed.
“Because of the director position that I had, I had the opportunity to work with both companies, so when the quality engineer groups and the buyers of Lockheed would come in, I was the one who would present the units, which was really fascinating,” Caudell said. “I was able to negotiate with higher ups, and if there was something that needed to be repaired out in the field, they would send me to the actual location. For instance, like going over to MacDill and climbing in the F-16 and repairing a piece of a guidance system was really a lot of fun.”
In her 10 years at the company, she worked on space guidance and navigation equipment.
She managed 100 test systems engineers, and there was a balance of men and women in the various areas of the company, she said. In fact, Caudell said the manufacturing industry can be a good career for women. In a lot of the positions, one must be strong at multitasking, which often comes easy for women, she said.
In 2001, Caudell’s career path drastically changed. Her daughters’ grandfather died, and his widow asked Caudell if she would step in and help save his business, D-Mar General Contracting & Development. Along with that came the understanding that she would also help take care of a special needs family member who had been a part of her life since she was a young teenager.
When Caudell took over the company, it was struggling. It was a difficult transition because after her children’s grandfather died, the family and company were in disarray, and it was up to her to save it – along with caring for the special needs son, raising her two girls on her own, and studying to earn her certified general contractor’s license.
Just earning the contractor’s license alone is not an easy task. She studied for about 18 months (often in her sleep) before she took the 14-hour test. But that still doesn’t get someone the license. Many hours of fieldwork are required, as is a significant amount of capital and insurance. Only then, is a license awarded. Caudell accomplished all of this while learning to run her new business and raising her girls.
Just five years after she took over the struggling construction company, Caudell was awarded Clearwater Business of the Year in 2006 from the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce.
“From 2001 to 2008, I grew the company every year by 20 percent,” Caudell said. “And then, when the economy started to fail and the BP oil spill happened, we went with it. But what was really amazing and worth doing was I was very conservative, and because of growing the company and having that much capital, I was able to manage to survive and not close the doors. Most of my peers that were around me in those days have had to close, where I managed to stay open. It was a struggle; ’09, ’10 were okay. In ’11, we almost closed; ’12 we rebounded to where we were in ’08. Like almost instantly. This year is a little different, but we’re steady and strong, but we’re changing the ways that we do business here.”
Before the crash, D-Mar was more of a maintenance and remodeling company, but now it is more of a management company, she said. It manages projects and hires subcontractors to do a lot of the work. It has a smaller staff of people, but it has survived the recession.
Even though she works long hours, Caudell says that since she has come to D-Mar, it feels like she hasn’t worked a day. She loves the business and she loves being the boss.
“It’s not work. It’s life,” she said. “The difference working for a corporation is that at the end of the day, somebody else creates my paycheck. Here, I create everybody’s paycheck. So I always have to be conscious of that. It’s just a different way of life. And it’s also very interesting.”
However, whereas there was a mix of men and women at Honeywell, the contracting and construction business is still significantly male-dominated, which can be challenging. At Honeywell and in other corporate settings, there are HR departments that ensure there is no discrimination and that they are trying to break the glass ceiling.
“Women have a fair opportunity in a corporate setting,” Caudell said. “I’m not necessarily in a corporate setting now. What I can say is that in the private side of my industry, it’s much more different than my corporate side. In other words, Hess is one of our customers, and because they have a human resources format, they’re less likely to push back on me, whereas let’s say a smaller franchise that has only six restaurants. They don’t have quite the structured human resources department, so they’re going to push back on women. It’s not like really obvious, but it’s things like they may not give me all the notes that they may give their guy friend who’s standing there bidding the job. And men, quite frankly, sometimes they look at a women – especially if I show up looking like this, in a skirt – when we’re in a meeting, they’ll go, ‘How is she going to pull that off?’”
Recently, Caudell attended an event in Clearwater as part of Gov. Rick Scott’s Get to Work Program, and she asked the governor how the program and the state will help ensure that women in the construction industry get a fair chance. He replied that he is working on that and asked her to write to him to help keep him accountable to that.
“He wants to make sure that he follows through with how we are going to go about getting women into the industry,” Caudell said. “Fairly. Because they are in the industry, but the good ol’ boys are not documenting legitimate women in the industry. They’re just thinking that they can put somebody in an office position and then have the woman in the industry, and that is not what this program was designed to do.”
Things are getting better in regards to this, but there is still work to do, she said. Recently, she attended a meeting at the Tampa International Airport for building the car care center and transportation arm of the airport. There were 40 men and only 10 women.
“In meetings, unless you’re powerful enough or strong enough, you’re going to be kind of pushed away,” she said. “It’s difficult. It’s a difficult place to be. I think for young women, there should be some sort of training, like a power course, so women don’t cower. So women don’t stand in the back of the room. That they don’t raise their hand. There needs to be training so that more women raise their hand first. It’s a big deal. A really big deal.”
The funny thing is that if the men would calm down and just let everyone do their jobs, regardless of gender, Caudell said she thinks everyone would be asking everyone else for input and teamwork, and there is no reason to be threatened.
“The battle really needs to be over, and we all just need to get to work,” she said. “And I hope that the next generation is starting to realize that.”
The construction industry is a great field, she said, but she would tell women to be prepared, if she plans on going into the business.
“The thing is, the construction industry is not easy,” Caudell said. “And the reason it’s not easy is a lot of times, guys are making deals. They’re dealing. We have a little saying: ‘It’s a tough business because it’s the closest thing to organized crime.’ And I don’t play that game. I won’t. We like to give a number to our customer that’s a real number. We’re not going to give you a low number so we can change-order you to death. And that happens a lot. A lot of times guys are trying to get jobs so they low-bid and then once they get the job and get in there, they take the customer for a ride, and I really, really don’t like that game.”
But at the end of the day, there is nothing like seeing something get built and knowing that it is her and her company that did that.
As much as she loves her job and building her own life and one for her daughters, Caudell wanted to serve her community as well. When Clearwater City Councilmember John Doran reached his term limit, Caudell ran unopposed for his seat and has been on the council ever since. She has enjoyed serving the city and said it has been fascinating and she has learned a lot.
“You think that you’re taking on a role of a leader in public service, but what you’re taking on is a person that makes the final decisions for an entire city,” Caudell said. “So it’s a pressure that makes you really slow down and think about what those decisions are. When it’s budget time, the documents for the budget to review and the briefings that we go over, it would blow your mind. It’s a lot. It is very beneficial to be a business owner and to be on the council because you understand how that money works.”
Going into her position as councilmember, her main goal was to get the community involved. But now, her goals are plural and far more regional and larger, she said. Part of that is because she is on many city boards, including the Pension Advisory Board, the Metropolitan Planning Organization Board, the Pinellas Planning Council, and the Advisory Council for Public Transportation. Being in all of these has especially given her a much better understanding of transportation and those needs of the area.
“My goals now are regional, and they’re transportation,” Caudell said. “They’re for the young people and economic development and making it happen here in our region because it’s just so fabulous. There’s just so much about this community in Pinellas County that’s really on fire. We have USA Today’s Best Beach. CMA. The biggest thing now is transportation, and that’s my focus big time. I’d like to see some of our parks here in Clearwater renovated.”
Her vision for transportation includes first building a monorail from Clearwater Beach to downtown Clearwater. From there, she would extend it down Drew Street to Bright House Field, so people would have easy access to the Phillies’ spring training games and other events. Finally, she would extend the monorail to the Tampa International Airport, as well as adding more busses to PSTA to be able to provide rapid bus transit.
As much as she loves her cars, she agrees that people in the area need to move away from their love affair with cars.
“I think we can pull it off. Some people think we can’t, that we’re too spread out, that we’re not a condensed enough place, but I think we can pull it off,” Caudell said. “There are different types of business that would really benefit (from better public transportation): your technological business, your IT businesses. You pump everyone into those areas with public transportation, and that’s amazing. For everybody. The environment, everything.”
In addition to everything else she does, Caudell is also on countless boards including UPARC, AdvoCare, the Clearwater Jazz Holiday Foundation Education board, AchieveHERS and the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce. Additionally, she is involved in the Rotary Club, is certified with the State of Florida Minority Women Business Owners group, certified with the Women and Minority Business Enterprise Program and Office of Supplier Diversity, part of Belleair Women Republicans, and in her spare time, she supports U.S. Rep. Bill Young’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program. She is also an alumni of Leadership of Pinellas, used to be on the Lighthouse of Pinellas board of directors, and was on the community development board for Clearwater. She also donates to numerous foundations and causes, including Ruth Eckerd Hall, the Clearwater Free Clinic, the Clearwater Dental Clinic, and various golf tournaments.
“I believe in giving back. It’s very important.”
Caudell wants to encourage the younger generation to become leaders in business and their community. Mentors are key, she said.
“It’s extremely important to have mentor and role models,” she said. “… I can’t stress enough that young women need mentors. AchieveHERS is a great thing. And whatever your party is, if you’re a democrat, the Young Democrat Club – join it. Young Republican Club – join it.”