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Paving her way to success Atlantic InfraRed changing the construction industry

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Marilyn Grabowski is in this year’s class of the NJBIZ Best 50 Women in Business.
Marilyn Grabowski is in this year’s class of the NJBIZ Best 50 Women in Business. - ()

Potholes. You probably went through one this morning.

They are, after all, inevitable — caused by weather and repairs.

But here's something you probably didn't know: If fixed correctly, they only need to be repaired once.

So says Marilyn Grabowski, who has convinced enough utilities and municipalities that her process of using infrared technology is so much better than traditional fixes, that her company, Atlantic InfraRed, is part of an umbrella group that had more than $10 million in revenue in 2014.

It's why Grabowski was selected to the 10th anniversary class of the NJBIZ Best 50 Women in Business event this week.

“Our process is much quicker, much more permanent and seamless,” she said. “It doesn't leave a bump in the road like most asphalt repair.”

It also takes less labor to achieve better results, she said.

Leave it to a woman, she said, to address an issue more efficiently and cheaper than ever before by starting a company in a male-dominated industry she hadn't previously worked in.

But don't be fooled. It hasn't been easy.

— — —

Grabowski — known as “The Lady in Red” in her industry — knows how her blond hair and iconic red dresses make her look to competitors within the male-dominated field of utility construction, but she doesn't mind one bit.

She knows her appearance gets her a conversation, not a contract.

“You need to put your boots on, and you need to be 150 percent prepared if you want to sit with the boys,” she said.

So when Grabowski started Atlantic InfraRed in 2002 — a company that uses infrared technology to remove asphalt in and around repair areas — she figuratively pounded the pavement to tell her story.

For starters, she'll explain that more than 90 percent of potholes are caused by utility companies having to do emergency repairs on the road.

In other words, she said, you know when the potholes are coming, you just need to fix them properly when they do.

“Engineers, inspectors for the utility companies, mayors, councilmen — I would tell them all why infrared technology was better for road repair,” Grabowski said.

For one thing, there wouldn't be another pothole there again next year.

“When you have a heated area and you add plant-temperature asphalt to it and roll it, you get a thermos bond, which seals the edges of the repair,” Grabowski said.

Her product is selling.

Grabowski always has been able to sell.

— — —

In 2001 — after more than 11 years in pharmaceutical sales and training on medical devices — a company-wide cut pushed Grabowski into entrepreneurship.

“I made a choice,” she said. “I could have easily gone back into medical devices, but I would never have seen my children in the morning having had to have been in the operating room.”

Her decision to enter utility construction was not only strategic — thanks in part to her skills and marketing expertise — but also a family affair.

Construction was already in her blood, with her grandmother starting her own general contracting firm in Bergen County at age 40.

And when Grabowski met her husband Tom — who has worked in operations since the creation of their company — he was working for a construction company that utilized infrared technology.

So Grabowski took her severance pay, purchased her first piece of equipment and started Atlantic InfraRed in 2002 within the confines of her walk-in closet.

“I was basically doing the job of four people from my home,” Grabowski said.

And the fact that she was willing to don boots and travel solo to locations such as West New York and Newark to prepare job sites only helped build her reputation.

“(They'd say) 'Call Marilyn — she'll take a two-hour job for you, and she'll do it really well,' ” Grabowski said. “That's how we've grown; we're willing to take on small jobs, build relationships and opportunities.”

In fact, Atlantic InfraRed's growth was so astounding that Grabowski then founded Atlantic InfraStructure (which performs larger underground maintenance of utilities) in 2009 and Atlantic InfraTrac — her largest company to date — in 2011.

“It's an incredible responsibility to protect the underground utilities,” she said.

Atlantic InfraTrac (which performs utility mark outs) now has the largest utility contract in New Jersey and 70 around-the-clock employees supporting 811, or “Call Before You Dig.”

Between all three companies, Grabowski employs close to 100 and annually works with 11 of the 13 major utilities in the state.

Her clients also include some municipalities and large companies such as Enterprise and United Airlines, since traditional nightly repairs cost three times as much and require five men and several pieces of equipment.

“We're able to get into the gated areas of Newark airport and fix potholes during the day with one truck and two men,” Grabowski said.

— — —

Though her business has shown tremendous growth, Grabowski sees no need to expand outside New Jersey right now.

“I believe there's still so much potential right here at home,” she said.

Finding talent and labor, however, has been a struggle in a state with such a high cost of living — so Grabowski teams up with the Construction Industry Advancement Program to find new employees.

“I help them choose which civil engineering students to give 50 summer internships to, and we end up employing two or three,” Grabowski said.

As a past member and board president of the Supplier Diversity Council of New Jersey, Grabowski also believes the state can do a lot more to assist women- and minority-owned businesses.

“We have a lot of work to do in New Jersey to grow and help make diverse companies stronger,” she said. “The utility industry has an incredible thirst right now for diverse companies in this space.”

But as a Top 25 honoree by Leading Women Entrepreneurs — a business resource and quasi-public relations agency for women business owners — and a member of the Women's Presidents Organization, Grabowski said few things have changed for women in construction.

She pointed to excerpts from a 1973 Bergen Record article featuring her grandmother, Florence DeRosa, as proof.

“Sounds like me, doesn't it?” she said.

“In the construction environment in New Jersey, I can still count the number of women-owned businesses on one hand that are truly, actually run by women.”

But the boys in the business aren't going to stop Grabowski.

“We haven't even started to grow,” she said. “It's going to be a banner year.”

E-mail to: megf@njbiz.com

She’s the boss

Michelle Diaz, project manager at Atlantic Infra, knows that someone hasn’t researched the company if, when they call and hear a woman answer, they ask, “Can I talk to someone about measuring this job?”

“Marilyn works in a field that is still considered nontraditional for women,” Diaz said.

“She adds a fresh point of view and perspective to a lot of the events we attend.”

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