Bittenbender failed sewing; Plan B worked out even better

Emily Bittenbender at Central Green Park, which her construction company is building at the Navy Yard. ( Michael Bryant / Staff Photographer )

Emily Bittenbender should be thanking her lucky stars that she couldn't manage to sew, because otherwise, she might have joined the ranks of hundreds of other frustrated, would-be fashion designers with lots of great ideas, but no work. Instead, she runs a general contracting construction company, Bittenbender Construction LP, and her name is all over premium projects around the city. How did that happen? Like most stories, it was a combination of ability, luck and being in the right place at the right time.

Bittenbender, who grew up on a farm near the Poconos, dreamed of being a fashion designer and went to Moore College of Art and Design to get the training. There, she learned she couldn't sew, so switched to commercial interior design, she told me during our Executive Q&A interview published in Sunday's Philadelphia Inquirer.

"After I graduated, I worked for EwingCole," a major Philadelphia architectural firm.

 "At the age of 24 years old, I was working on the $42 million Municipal Services Building renovation."

Here's where the luck came in:  "The project manager from EwingCole left and I became the project manager at this large tower renovation project," she said.  "I completed it as the project manager and then we won a $56 million tower conversion at the Bell Atlantic Building at 1515 Arch Street.   And at the age of 27 or 28 I was the project manager on that building."

Something important happened while she worked on the Municipal Services Building. She came to the attention of city officials, including then mayor Ed Rendell. He recruited her for her next job. "I tell people all the time that Ed Rendell is the man that really gave me my first big break." 

"They asked me to interview to become the Capital Program Director for the City of Philadelphia," she said. "So I took that job at the age of 29.  I was a deputy mayor at the commissioner level.

At the time, she said, the city's finances were shot, but $500 million in emergency capital funds came into the city coffers. "Rendell wanted me to burn them down, to spend all the money before he left office.  So he thought the only way to do that was to create a new city agency called Capital Program Office and bring the private sector approach to project and budget management."

From there, she landed work on the construction of the National Constitution Center as vice president for design and construction -- essentially the project manager on that job. 

That's when she decided to take the big risk to start her own business. Construction isn't a cheap business to start -- it requires significant cash to be able to post the bonds that guarantee to customers that the contractor won't run out of money before the building is up. Cash flow is a problem. The signs posted on construction projects mention funding by banks, but the real funding starts when a sub-contractor somewhere starts signing pay checks, hoping that the general contractor and the customer will pay up before the next round of checks are due. The key is to establish a line of credit, but that line of credit has to be backed with cash, particularly at the beginning. In the beginning,  

"I was in a trailer still building the Constitution Center and I sold everything that I owned.  I sold my home.  I liquidated all of my 401k’s.  I literally went for broke.  I came out with cash and started Bittenbender Construction in 2003.   No father, no husband, no financial support.  So I was really poor.  I moved to Camden so I could live as cheaply as I possibly could."

All of that netted her $300,000 -- enough to back a $100,000 to $300,000 line of credit and enough to fund early projects at Comcast and AAA-MidAtlantic. Now she can swing a $5 million line of credit.

"I just figured if I’m going to do it, I’m going to do it right and go big," she said.  "I figured I started at a McDonald’s and I can go back to McDonald’s." 

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