Written by Jennifer H. Gilmore
“There must be a better way to do things.”
With those words, Barbara Mulkey launched her own engineering company in 1993 to better balance her career with her desire to be a wife and an active mother to her two elementary school-aged children. Working out of her home, she focused on what she knew best — roadway and bridge design — and earned $28,000 in revenue.
“I had been a bridge design engineer at a consulting firm that was supportive of letting me work a shorter schedule, but it ended up feeling awkward,” she recalled. “My job responsibilities didn’t change; I was just doing it in less time. The idea of having my own firm really appealed to me because I could work around my family’s schedule.”
Unlike some professional consulting careers, bridge and roadway design contracts cannot be fulfilled by one person. Mulkey approached a few trusted peers who were not only willing to support her, but to also join her business. She was able to leverage her designation as a small woman-owned business to help her garner the early contracts, but it was her strong engineering skills, marketing/business acumen and emphasis on providing a desirable work atmosphere for her employees that sustained the firm and accounted for significant growth in the first eight to 10 years.
Today, Mulkey Engineers & Consultants is a multimillion-dollar firm with more than 200 employees in six offices across the Southeast. It was recently named one of the top 500 engineering companies in the country, based on annual revenues, by Engineering News-Record, and it has expanded to offer a broad spectrum of consulting services.
Mulkey is particularly proud of the innovative and dynamic work environment she has cultivated since the day she set up shop in her home. She sees the value of diversity, not necessarily because she is a woman, but because its presence, she believes, is a key component of building a successful, solution-oriented business.
“Whether it’s age, sex, nationality, race or even behavioral types, when you get a solid, diverse team, it provides your best opportunity to see an issue from all sides and develop the best solution,” she explained. “Women, for example, may bring a certain intuitiveness and empathy to a project, in addition to their technical skills. Reading people well is especially important if you are trying to create consensus or solicit public feedback to a project. As a group, we’ve made the field of engineering richer.”
In February, Mulkey stepped down as her company’s CEO and turned over the reins to one of those people who believed in her from the beginning: her first CPA, Jill Wells Heath.
“A mutual friend introduced us back when Barbara was starting her business, and I had opened my own CPA practice the year before,” Heath recalled. “As her CPA, we would meet once a month to go over her financial statements and talk about her business. When the firm grew to need a full-time CFO, I decided to join the company because I couldn’t imagine anyone else doing the job. There’s no other place that I would have left my own business to join as an employee.”
Heath credits much of the firm’s success to Mulkey’s personality, values and her ability to hire talented staff. “She has created a Christian environment where we live out our values and strive to do the right thing for our employees and our clients every day. Barbara is a smart business woman, but she also has a warm demeanor and an aura that makes people want to be around her.”
Mulkey is now chairman of the company’s board, which still keeps her busy, but it has also given her time to reflect on how she created her own path to personal and professional fulfillment. She is spending more time with her husband, who retired from owning his own construction business, and making time for herself. She enjoys serving her alma mater — N.C. State — not only as a member of the Board of Trustees, but also as a mentor to students. And, she is working with the N.C. United Methodist Conference on a leadership academy for pastors and laypeople.
“I did achieve my desire for flexibility, satisfy my hunger for a new challenge and sustain a passion for working every day,” she said. “When I look back on being a working mother, I rarely shortchanged my kids or my company. While I’ve been recognized in the business world in different ways, it’s all very nice. But nothing is more important than having your own family proud of you.”
- Barbara Mulkey, 2008 Women of Western Wake Honoree