Let's play a word association game. Builder. What do you picture? A deeply-tanned, bare-chested, hammer-wielding man on a ladder? Flight attendant. A nice looking lady in a business suit pushing a beverage cart? Congratulations! You got the stereotypical snapshot right. Now try this one: Flight attendant-turned-master builder. Stumped? Meet Kelly Cheek.
"What was I thinking?" said Kelly with a lighthearted chuckle. After 20 years flying the friendly skies, as a single mom, she was thinking that she could not continue leaving her daughter, ZoÎ, in someone else's care. "When she was about four, it was getting too hard to leave her on my trips," she explained.
In 1999, Kelly gave up an exciting career with U.S. Airways to join her dad, Buddy Cheek, in his homebuilding business, Bay Homes. She started out in customer relations and worked her way up the ladder-not the one to the roof, but the one to the top of her industry. Today, Kelly owns Bay Homes; she holds a South Carolina builder's license and is the first and only woman in the state to achieve Master Builder certification.*
"I just sort of fell into it," said Kelly, of her dramatic career shift. She studied international marketing in college but got her real education out in the field, watching the men. "I knew what the end product was supposed to look like. It was a matter of learning how to get there," she said.
In addition to on-the-job training and guidance from her dad, Kelly took construction courses at the Technical College of the Lowcountry and University of South Carolina, Beaufort. While you won't find her swinging a hammer or operating a circular saw, she has a hand in every aspect of the building process. Specializing in custom homes, she works with planners, architects, engineers, subcontractors and interior designers; she checks job sites, orders materials, creates the schedule and crunches the numbers. And in the end, she makes her clients' dreams come true.
As a woman in a male-dominated industry, she faces special challenges. "Subcontractors might not take me as seriously until I've had to put my foot down," she said. On the other hand, she uses her more feminine style of communication to effectively get what she wants. "I feel like I get a lot more from them by trying to work with them. I'm not an intimidator," said Kelly. "If we work together to figure out a problem, it's better all the way around. I think that I have earned the respect over the years that I do know what I'm doing and I do call the shots."
As you might guess, Kelly's new career comes with a high level of responsibility and its consequent stress. Faced with ovarian cancer a year ago, she began to examine life anew. Now cancer free, she says she feels blessed. She balances her workload with relaxing activities such as gardening and boating. As a social and philanthropic outlet, she volunteers her time with Zonta of Bluffton-an organization that helps advance the status of women worldwide. For stress relief, she turns to skydiving. "There are a few moments when you have to be ever so present in the moment. It's great psychologically," she explained.
"Spirituality also plays a big part in my life-not so much religion, but a connection to the world around me," she continued. "We're all in this together. Sometimes we get so busy with our lives, we forget about the lessons that we are here to learn."
Of those lessons, perhaps the greatest is to see the possibilities. Whether she is building a house or jumping out of a plane, Kelly proceeds with confidence.
To women considering a career change or a non-traditional career, she says, "Just go for it. Don't let gender hold you back. Don't let anything hold you back."
Hometown: Asheville, NC Lowcountry resident: since 1985 Dreams for the future: learn to kitesurf; get back into traveling. Lifetime achievement goal: raising her daughter. "If I can get her through school and college and into a career where she's happy, I will have really accomplished something."
*To obtain Master Builder certification, a builder must be nominated by his/her peers and satisfy stringent review criteria in areas such as job and financial stability, consumer satisfaction, adherence to accepted building technology standards, customer service and governmental compliance.