Construction Firm Touts Second Generation of Leadership
Jessica Burns, the new president of Orlando construction management and general contracting firm R L Burns, wasn’t always sure the family business would be in her future. Watching her father, Bob Burns, build the business from the ground up was inspiring, she remembers, but it was also harrowing.
“Seeing my dad develop his business from nothing made me value what it means to be an entrepreneur. But there were times when we really struggled,” Burns said, citing the uncertainty of times like the Great Recession, which hit in late 2007 right as their first corporate offices were opening. “Seeing how difficult it was, at first I shied away from it. But a lot of that was because I didn’t understand what the challenges meant — that those obstacles were just problems waiting for
Even before she was sure about taking on her current role at the Parramore-based firm, she was ready to lend a hand in those solutions. She came on board as marketing coordinator after earning a bachelor’s degree in organizational communications from the University of South Florida. That led to a role as business development coordinator, working with clients and sorting through compliance requirements and contracts.
She began to see and appreciate the connectivity between the parts of the whole, and how they work together to keep the business thriving. That eventually grew into a vice president role, where she stayed for three years. In 2016, she left to pursue her law degree at the University of Florida and became an associate attorney at Weinberg, Wheeler, Hudgins, Gunn & Dial, a firm with multiple offices around the country.
When she returned to R L Burns this year, her newfound knowledge, construction background and spirit of entrepreneurship made her a perfect fit for her new role as president. Her return marked a brand-new leadership lineup as well. Her father now serves as CEO, and April McIntosh, a certified general contractor, serves as executive vice president.
In an industry where women represent only 10.9% of the workforce, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, women make up 25% of the employees at R L Burns. The company is committed to the knowledge that gender equality in the workplace benefits everyone, Burns said.
It isn’t just the gender gap where R L Burns is breaking new ground. Since its founding in 1994, the focus has never been on industry norms. Bob Burns himself was a carpenter by trade before his entrepreneurial venture, and his daughter described how that spirit of a “true builder” has always set them apart.
“We have a team full of people who truly understand how to build,” she said. “So when there are challenges on the job site, or collaboration is needed with designers, we understand how to work quickly, how to put things together and take them apart to make them work.”
And while that team is still a smaller one, it seems an advantage to Burns. “Our size allows us to be really nimble and flexible. Sometimes larger entities might be caught up in red tape when you’re trying to work through solutions, but we can make decisions quickly. I and the rest of the team are heavily involved in the day to day.”
That spirit has gotten the firm a reputation that holds weight with current partners like Orange County and Hillsborough County public schools, Pasco County and the City of Ocala, along with some of the most recognizable landmarks of Orlando. “We were really excited to be a part of the Amway Center build in 2008,” Burns said. “That and our work with the Dr. Phillips Performing Arts Center gave us such a platform and allowed us to expand our business.”
The firm’s partnership with the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority, one of its longest-standing clients since 2003, has led to improvements everywhere in the airport, from security gates to terminals.
Its latest project is one that has become more and more pressing in the past year: affordable housing projects for the City of Orlando, which include eight single-family homes expected to start construction in early summer. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, Florida is one of 13 states with metropolitan areas, including the Orlando-Kissimmee-Sanford region, that have severe housing shortages. R L Burns is taking steps to alleviate this burden for the community while expanding the firm’s business opportunities.
“We’re looking at expanding our housing division even more, both single- and multi-family units,” Burns said. “We’re also looking at developing new lines of business to support economic and environmental concerns that are ongoing, and infrastructure concerns exposed by COVID-19. I want to evaluate what we’re doing currently, and how we can innovate, be more creative and provide competitive advantage.”
These steps mark an exciting new chapter, but it’s one that stays true to the heart of the company her father founded. At R L Burns, uplifting community has always come first.
“It’s really important to us to have our office here,” Burns said of the firm’s location in the historically Black neighborhood of Parramore.
“We understand the importance of community in raising the next generation and having a successful Black-owned construction business right here, and in being a model for others to look to and say, ‘I can do that one day.’ The more you see people who look like you doing things you want to do, the more you realize those things are attainable. The challenges you face can be overcome.”
It all comes down to the first lesson Burns learned when she entered the business: Challenges do not mean the end of the road. “As I’ve grown, I’ve realized it’s our job to find the solutions,” she said. “And if we can’t, it’s our job to empower our team to find them.”