Adversity is a given. And anyone who works hard will face it. But Marjorie Perry, CEO of Newark-based MZM Construction, is a former gymnast who has gone over all the high bars and broken barriers in a misogynistic field.
Perry will present “Growing New and Small Businesses to Scale,” a talk on covering linear versus vertical growth and supply chain model assessment, on Thursday, April 14, at the New Jersey Association of Women Business Owners’ 13th annual Business and Procurement Expo at the Pines Manor, Route 27 in Edison. Cost: $180. Call 609-799-5101 or visit www.njawbo.org.
Perry has worked for 3M, Johnson & Johnson, and United Airlines. She was a natural at sales and marketing, taking advantage of training and practices at each corporation. Since becoming an entrepreneur, however, she has become a firm believer that knowledge of finance lays a foundation for planning and strategic development.
“You don’t need to be an accountant, but you absolutely need to know how to read financial statements and understand what the accountant is talking about,” she says. “I started in this business with two other people, but they didn’t understand the bottom line when we talked finance. They thought our first $50,000 was a big check and I said no, that’s just revenue and pre-tax. We don’t even know what we have left over.”
Her original partners could not manage that reality, so Perry bought them out. She found ways to expand the company while relying on repeat business from clients. Her advice to small businesses is to diversify within the context of current customers’ needs.
“Find out your customer’s value chain and where your business can contribute,” Perry says. “Take other responsibilities off of the customer’s plate. Help them cut costs while simultaneously building your business’s economy and your value to them.”
Much to Perry’s delight, MZM was able to participate in the monolithic New Meadowlands Stadium project. MZM performed safety procedures at the venue and Perry’s employees went out on high wires, making sure technical ratios and conditions were safe before the steel workers started on the infrastructure.
“Management there says ‘I have good news and bad news,’” she says. “‘If you succeed I will make sure your contract continues to grow and escalate. If you fail you’re out of here.’”
Perry’s mother was a nurse and her father worked at IBM for his entire career. She says her father was dogmatic and militaristic in his approach to problem-solving and his career was clearly an anomaly — and a major accomplishment — for an African American man in the 1950s and ‘60s. His daily experiences shaped Perry’s will, motivation, and sense of responsibility — he had her doing her own income taxes at the age of 16.
“He faced all kinds of challenges and adversity, had to go through every change you could imagine,” Perry says.
But adversity is what made her father the man he was. “That becomes your DNA and that’s what I think we’re losing a little bit in our world — we’ve become too soft because everybody wants to make it safe and okay.”
Perry earned her bachelor’s in education from Kean University and an MBA in finance from NJIT, where MZM’s Newark offices are located.
#b#Think like a man, act like a woman#/b#. Trying to survive in the construction industry in the metropolitan area is challenging for all, but for a woman at the helm it’s an especially daunting task.
“This industry will always discriminate against women,” Perry says. “It’s just a male, boys’ room kind of job. I’m probably in the only industry where you have all cultures represented that would not like to see women in leadership jobs.”
But her upbringing and her life as a child of the inner city keep her charging ahead. “I’m tough as nails because I grew up having to be tough as nails,” she says. “No matter how people might perceive me or what they initially think, I just believe that my humility has kept me grounded in not letting anybody throw me off my game in these male boardrooms.”
Sometimes that’s still not enough. Perry on occasion sends the men from MZM to get things done “so that there’s less combativeness.”
“I’m black and I’m female so I know if I fail it hurts everybody else who comes behind me,” Perry says. “I thought, ‘How am I going to make sure I succeed so that I get the added bucks they’re willing to offer?’ And, ‘Can I satisfy my employees to make sure they’re engaged and safe so that the project stays safe?’ You’re always balancing those acts and at New Meadowlands we did that successfully and the contract kept growing. Every time I go there I say ‘Yes, I was a part of this project.’ And the support comes from them too because they need you to win and succeed.”
#b#Think like a golfer, act like a lady#/b#. “Women sometimes stay persistent and say they know they can do it,” Perry says. “We tend to hold on to things longer, whereas men usually say ‘Forget it, what’s next?’ That’s why men get things done on the golf course because golfing is a great metaphor for life — you can say ‘I missed that hole. OK, next hole.’ Everyone should learn how to play golf. In business, what are you going to do, fight over the ninth hole when you have nine more to go? You missed it and there’s 20 carts behind you. You’ve got to move on,” Perry says.
Perry teaches about how to think like a man and act like a lady, including how not to become prey in business settings. She also stresses that you cannot form a team between businesspeople without liquid assets on each side.
“Women feel like they need to satisfy everybody,” Perry says. “But the better you get at ‘no’ the better and more sustainable your business will be. I can’t please everybody, including my customers.”
Perry says businesswomen could learn a lot from Warren Buffet. “He’s compassionate, he’s caring, he’s smart, he gives back, and he mentors,” Perry says. And he understands a fundamental law of industry — good employees make good business.
So, she has found, does learning about other people. When Perry was 25 her marketing position with United Airlines took her to Japan, Beijing, and Hong Kong. Her many visits overseas taught Perry that the rest of the world lives simpler lifestyles than Americans, and her humility helped her learn.
“World travel keeps you open,” she says. “It reminds you that we’re all people and everything we do affects somebody else. When I went to Africa I learned they never talk down to people who are perceived to have less because they might still be content in their lives and they will still share bread with you.”