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Women builders forged success from 2008 tough times

Jean Sorensen
Women builders forged success from 2008 tough times
COURTESY RYAN MURPHY CONSTRUCTION — Lara Murphy (shown) and Karen Ryan built success out of lean times.

When two Calgary, Alta. builders Karen Ryan and Lara Murphy started their company Ryan Murphy Construction, it was on the cusp of the severe tumble in the U.S. economy in 2008 and client expansion plans virtually disintegrated overnight.

“We went from wonderful plans to being ground zero,” said Murphy.

But, looking back, she feels, it was not a bad thing for the two entrepreneurs starting out because of lessons learned. Margins were tight, new contracts hard to find and there was no funds to hire anyone.

 “We became the boots on the ground,” she said.

The experience allowed the two business partners to define their strengths. Murphy is more the extrovert, enjoying talking to clients, architects, tradespeople and strategizing, while Ryan is low profile taking the lead on a project and working on the operations inside.

Murphy believes those early hardships set the company up to handle the larger contracts that came along as the economy rebounded and the pair moved back into management.

Ryan Murphy is a general contracting firm that manages a diverse project mix ranging from construction and renovation to and maintenance services. The firm, which now has a track-record spanning over 15 years (in September), has worked in B.C., Alberta, Ontario and Nova Scotia with revenues in 2021 of approximately $10 million.

The company has renovated the interior and exterior of historical properties such as Shoppes at the Devenish and the Customs House, worked on building interiors for Canada Goose and Royal Doulton in Toronto, and carried out unique builds such as the Undrcard Boxing Studio.

Telus has been a repeat client in Alberta with recent tenant improvements carried out to the Telus Spark Infinity Dome in 2022. That year, the company also carried out a revamp of Calgary’s First Street Market, another historical building.    

“We are basically a team of project managers and office staff and we’re fortunate to work with hundreds of subtrades,” Murphy said.

Over the past 15 years, the company has collaborated with over 550 trade partners and has executed over 900 contracts in the office, retail, commercial and medical industries.

While the company is in construction, the success is built upon relationships.

“We have great relationships with our clients,” she said.  

Networking, perseverance, and strong community ties are the elements that keep a business growing, said Murphy.

They root back to her earlier years, growing up in the Maritimes.  

“My mother tells me I was always curious,” she said, asking such questions as why a light switch was on the wall and a bulb was overhead.

She became the neighbourhood fixer, got odd jobs, printed up a flyer and got more jobs. In university, she ran summer construction crews to pay for tuition and travel.   

It was after majoring in political science at Mount Allison University and looking towards law school that her soccer coach pulled her aside asking: “Are you really sure you want to do that? I can see you one day running a million dollar company.”

She had done well running summer construction companies to finance her university, plus the national and international travel to competitive soccer events. 

Murphy realized it was a good choice and in a field that was underrepresented by women. She bought a house and began converting it to apartments to pay for the renovations.

“It had a domino effect,” she recalls as soccer friends or neighbours wanted work done.

A former soccer teammate’s call to attend her wedding in Calgary in 2005 caused a shift to Alberta, as she met a life partner and relocated. 

She started over building a business, fuelled by referrals by soccer mates and friends. She met Ryan while they were both working on a project in Banff and together they made the decision to form a company in 2008.  

They persevered during the downturn, used networking and teamwork to gain contracts and also embraced the community they were working in with Murphy taking a leadership role.  

She sits on the board of the Calgary YWCA, the Chamber of Commerce and the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology. These organizations – as well as construction-related organizations – are places where companies can contribute but also receive benefits. New entrepreneurs can meet veteran business entrepreneurs able to provide advice based upon experience.  

“Cheerleaders are different from mentors,” said Murphy, who recognizes the merits of a good coach.    

The message Murphy gives to women wanting to start their own construction company is not to be discouraged when starting out.

Perseverance pays off. She remembers cold-calling designers when the company first started and introducing her firm as a female-owned construction company. Eventually, there were a few designers who said yes, giving Ryan Murphy a chance to perform.  

“I was a moderator at an International Women’s Day forum where a woman said that when one door closes another opens,” said Murphy. 

Her response to that woman was: “And, if you need someone to build a door, we will do it.”

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