Q&A with Jessica Steely of Semmes & Co. Builders

Jessica Steely is an owner in custom builder Semmes & Co.
Jessica Steely is an owner in custom builder Semmes & Co.

As a Cal Poly student, Jessica Steely took a class that put her on a path to a career at North County-based Semmes & Co. Builders.

While taking a corporate communications course, Steely was tasked to write her top 10 priorities for a future job.

“I wanted to work for someone who strove to be more progressive, someone who constantly strove for a better answer,” said Steely, who majored in construction management with a minor in sustainability. “I wanted to stay in custom homes because I liked how personal it is. I wanted to stay here (in San Luis Obispo County).”

Steely researched firms and settled on Semmes & Co. Builders, which specializes in construction of custom homes and remodeling projects with an emphasis on sustainability. The company wasn’t hiring at the time, but Steely was persistent.

“After a few visits and a number of months, they said I could work for them,” said Steely, 32. She started as a production coordinator in 2004, guiding projects through the building process.

Now, less than 10 years after she was hired, Steely is leading the company as president and training to become head of sales as company founder, Turko Semmes, approaches retirement.

Semmes founded Semmes & Co. Builders in 1978 as a small construction company focused on building passive solar homes (using the sun’s energy to heat and cool living spaces) and has carved a niche in environmentally friendly construction. He’s also co-founder of the California Straw Building Association and SLO Green Build.

The company has completed more than 300 custom homes and remodeling projects, and numerous select commercial projects, including the Trader Joe’s market in Templeton. Much of the straw-bale construction in San Luis Obispo County was also completed by Semmes (check out the “truth window” at Claiborne & Churchill Winery in Edna Valley).

In July 2011, as Semmes started moving toward retirement, Steely, Production Supervisor/HR Manager Paul Rose and Production Supervisor/Head of Production Tom Moore assumed part ownership.

During an interview at the builder’s Atascadero office, Steely shared views on building trends, the recession and being a woman in a predominately male field.

Q: Tell me more about Semmes & Co.’s goals and vision.

A: (Since) Turko started the company 30 years ago, a group of people have come together over those three decades to share their enthusiasm and vision and let part of their beliefs become reality in their career.

Someone would come to us for the most efficient home rich with detail and quality. We pride ourselves on quality. For people who want the cheapest possible house, it would mean we would have to omit a lot of the tried-and-true details that we believe in — do we put in minimal insulation, for example, when we know that if we double the insulation it will cut the cost of heating and cooling? We build homes all over the North County with no air conditioning.

It’s really rewarding to have clients come to us because they want us to employ that progressive vision and really think outside the box.

Q: How did you survive the recession/housing downturn?

A: We spent a lot of time working on our company — never getting complacent on our services. We also saw the remodel market picking up, and so we tailored our marketing toward remodel and started to tout our green-building experience a little more heavily. A lot of it is word of mouth; referrals didn’t stop coming in. Our values enabled us to weather the storm of the recession. We used to be this niche, and now it’s the forefront of the construction market, and we just happened to be right there ready for it.

Q: What have been some of the biggest lessons/challenges in navigating your career?

A: Being a young female in the industry, the lesson would be that it doesn’t change anything. I was never necessarily intimidated by being a minority, but over the years I’ve discovered that it’s actually advantageous in a number of ways in that it’s a little easier to communicate you get more flies with honey than with vinegar. It really comes down to knowledge. If you are empowered with knowing what you know and if you can soak up information and be excited to share it with people, that’s what it’s about. It’s not about your gender or how tall you are; it’s about your enthusiasm and intellect.

Q: What changes have you seen in that regard? Are more women starting to enter the profession?

A: As far as general contractors go, I see more women in support roles. With specialty contractors or designers, the curve caught up faster for females. I haven’t seen a significant change in leadership in general contractors.

Q: What are three key pieces of advice you would give to anyone, male or female, considering this career path?

A: I would articulate what it is you want out of your career and know you can have it. Keep an open mind and constantly learn. Get involved with organizations like SLO Green Build where you can network with other like-minded professionals; find continuing education opportunities.

Q: What trends do you see in building/contracting work and how is Semmes Co. staying ahead of the curve?

A: The net-zero-energy home is a buzzword that people are excited about. That means the home produces an equivalent amount of energy as it uses, so you have a zero carbon footprint. We continue to implement the more aggressive technologies and track our efficiency calculations. We are the experts in building science, and we put real dollars to it so people can see what it’s going to cost.

It’s also really important for us to use local vendors and craftsmen because everyone stands behind their work, and it also keeps the money circulating here.

I’m really excited about the future of our company and growing our team to become a hub for all the people who want us to keep pushing the envelope.