Finding its Niche
Originally focused on clearing and grading, the company would eventually expand its service offerings to include site utilities and paving.
According to Comer, “At the beginning, we experienced year over year growth – doubling revenue and gaining new work, but after some time, business leveled off and we determined we needed to find a niche to stand out among the competition.”
Comer Construction found its niche as a WBE Certified, women-owned grading contractor focused on site preparation, site grading, and utility installation.
The company’s first two lease-purchase trucks have grown into a wide-ranging fleet of 17 dozers, 22 excavators and backhoes, 22 loaders, 10 articulated trucks, 24 rollers, and 25 dump, tractor, roll-off, and service trucks.
Over the years, Comer says the company has been proud to work on several high-profile projects including the site development of Ripken Stadium followed by the neighboring hotel and youth fields; the Route 1 Hickory Bypass extension — which they completed four months ahead of schedule; and site development for the Kaiser Permanente building in Timonium.
Comer Construction was the site development contractor for Wegmans in Abingdon, which represents one of its larg-est dirt jobs to date – they moved 600,000 yards of dirt and built a 2,000-foot long x 50-foot high retaining wall. The largest project awarded to Comer Construction remains the work to support the construction of the Midfield Cargo Complex at BWI Airport.
The Only Woman in the Room
As a young co-founder working alongside her father, Comer says she was never the hidden partner of the business. She attended meetings and events as the representative of the business from the beginning, but that often meant she was the only woman in the room.
“Dad pushed me forward from the very beginning. He only had an eighth-grade education, but he had the foresight to elevate my visibility with the company. I was the only woman at any event for years — whether it was a board meeting, dinner meeting or a bull roast. I volunteered and earned respect when I showed that I could get things done,” states Comer.
Comer was the first woman president of the Harford County Contractors Association, and was the first woman board member for numerous associations.
In a male dominated field, Comer says employee candidates have often been surprised to meet with a female boss. She shares, “Many times I would interview a male candidate and he would say he doesn’t know if he could work for a woman, and after some time with us he will say he doesn’t know if he could ever go back to working for a man.”
She notes that today there are lots of women in the field and opportunities in every role for women. At Comer they have female employees working in traffic maintenance, as dump truck drivers, and in operations. There are women in every aspect of the construction industry today including ownership.
Comer and her sister Leona aren’t the only long-time employees. Three other employees have been with the company since the beginning, and 25 percent of the staff has been with the business for 25 years or more.
Paul Swank, vice president of Operations, has been with the company for 10 years, but has known and worked with the Comer family in a variety of capacities for 40 years.
He notes, “Our employees enjoy working here because of the family values. Company ownership is here every day, all day – they are not hands off. Susie and Leona know everybody’s spouse and kids. Employees are treated as a member of the family.”
Comer takes pride in being able to offer competitive benefits including 401k and healthcare. “We are a family-oriented business. We treat our employees well. It was important to my father that we treat everyone fairly and with respect.”
According to Swank, “Employees are not just a number at Comer. Susie makes sure to keep healthcare costs down and to help employees when they need it. There is a strong employer-employee relationship. She is fully engaged with every employee. The way this company is run – its focus on family – is the reason I came.”
A Legacy and Future Vision
Comer Construction has earned a reputation for its honesty, integrity, quality service and efficient work.
“Comer is a respected company. When I worked for other contractors, we always treated Comer Construction as a good contractor that happens to be minority-owned,” says Swank. “They have always been a good competitor. The industry recognizes Comer as a family-oriented company, not just a big corporation. Here, the handshake is your word – it was commonplace 20-30 years ago, but today it still exists at Comer.”
Comer has many repeat customers who value the relationship they have built with the company. According to Swank, Comer is known for its quality of work at a fair price. Customers can trust they will get it done on time. If something is wrong, Comer will come back and fix it.
“What you see is what you get at Comer. Susie is as honest as the day is long – her word is everything.”
In recent years, the company has invested in new equipment, added new capabilities like maintenance of traffic, and adopted some new technologies such as the hydro excavation truck, which prevents damage to underground pipes, lines and cables. Not only does the truck reduce the cost of repairs and restoration, it speeds up projects and protects the construction crew.
Safety is the number one priority at Comer. In 2018, Comer Construction was awarded the Maryland Associated General Contractors (AGC) 2018 Safety Excellence Award, in recognition for achieving zero lost time and a combined incident rate 58 percent below the Bureau of Labor Statistics average rate for the industry sector. In 2015 and 2017 they received the Miss Utility Dig Smart Award as the safest contractor in Maryland, and in 2019 they received the Maryland Associated General Contractors (AGC) Safety Excellence Award, as well as the 2019 Specialty Trade Contractor Safety Program of the Year awarded by the National Association of Home Builders + Builders Mutual Insurance Company.
Comer Construction remains focused on the quality of the work it provides and their core areas of expertise. Despite 40 years of growth and success, Comer sees additional opportunity as a woman-owned company and wants to expand their work as a WBE as municipalities increase their participation requirements.
The future is female at Comer as Susie’s daughter, who has been with the company for 18 years, trains to succeed her mother and continue the business as the third-generation owners.
“Dad will be smiling when the third generation is carrying on the legacy of the business. He is still talked about every day and we have kept his core principles in the way we operate. It is an honor to carry on the tradition,” states Comer.
“Dad had experience working for other contractors, but things weren’t going the way he thought they should. So, with two purchased trucks, a loader and dozer, we started the business,” recounts Susie Comer, President of Comer Construction.