February 2020 ULI Member Spotlight: J. Lynda BlakeLynda Blake is president of Narman Construction, Inc., which she founded in 2005, and has more than 22 years experience in the industry. She co-founded M.A. Blake Painting Co., Inc. in 1997 and the Woodland Cooperative Construction and Development Company in 1998. In the early 2000s, Lynda spent four years honing her real estate development skills at Veterans Benefits Clearinghouse Development Corp. (VBCDC), a nonprofit that builds affordable housing for veterans and their families. She forged a partnership between VBDC, a private developer, and a faith-based organization to build $5MM of single- and two-family affordable homes through Boston’s vacant land initiative in Dorchester, Mattapan, and Roxbury.
Lynda currently serves on several boards working to promote community engagement and equity in housing. She has a Bachelor of Science in Management and Accounting from Fisher College and a MA Unrestricted Construction Supervisors License.
Very rarely do you find women, or women of color, leading a construction firm. What motivated you to start your own company?
I founded Narman with the practical mission of expandingBlake Paintinginto two divisions — painting and construction. It felt like a natural progression considering the knowledge and experience I’d gained with the Woodland Coop, and it would allow me to grow personally while fostering a legacy for my family.
When the housing crisis hit in 2008, things got a bit scary, but I knew that when the market inevitably began to recover, there would be an influx of developers and investors needing reputable contractors to renovate the foreclosed properties they had purchased. And that absolutely turned out to be the case.
More recently, after researchingthe local commercial sector, I noticed a shortage of qualified minority and women contractors that meet the requirements for city and state procurement opportunities. It’s a whole different world from residential, but it’s a potentially profitable realm, so we’re restructuring Narman to venture into commercial construction and scale the business.
Over the past 20+ years, you’ve worked on a wide variety of projects. What has inspired you the most and why?
The occasions that have afforded us the opportunity to support our community and advocate for “the little guy” are the ones that have meant the most to me and that continue to inspire me. For instance,about a year after we’d been vetted as an approved contractor for a major insurance company, the relentless winter of 2015 struck, and we found ourselves with over 70 clients who’d made claims due to damage from the storms.
I noticed the settlement estimates from the insurance company weren’t matching what I was seeing. The claims adjusters weren’taccurately reflecting what needed work. I did my due diligence reporting the discrepancies, but getting the work approved by the insurance company was taking months, and clients were rightfully upset.
Meanwhile, we found out that the insurance company’s adjusters were contacting our clients essentially asking them to disparage us in an effort to avoid paying for the repairs. We engaged our attorney and, despite it being a David and Goliath scenario, we prevailed. Our clients chose to support us in writing,and the insurance company had to back down and pay its due. They were all about the money; we were all about honoring and rebuilding our community.
What is Narman’s current focus? How are you developing the business?
As I mentioned, we’re restructuring to create a commercial division, including bringing on a CFO to help with the financials. Government procurement opportunitiesoften have diversity and inclusionrequirements favoring minority-owned firms and those with a diverse workforce. It’s the government’s way of ensuring opportunities for those who historically haven’t gotten the chance to come to the developer’s table. Right now, there aren’t a lot of us out there, so the time is ripe for us, especially since we’ve already made some inroads with more seasoned commercial contractors. Doors are opening for us, and we’re getting a lot of positive feedback.
As a Pathways to Inclusion cohort member, how is ULI helping you?
I appreciate the opportunity to be involved with ULI and its missionto promote responsible land use and sustainable, thriving communities. I was looking for an organization with the tools to help me learn and grow, and I was so impressed by the fall meeting in D.C. I plan to access ULI’s research and data to help me make the best build decisions. It’s a great stepping-stone as I expand Narman in Massachusetts and maybe even beyond. I’ll always be grateful to Amy Korte at Arrowstreetfor introducing me to the organization.
I believe in progressive development — buildings and homes that promote healthy lifestyles and ecosystems, builds that enrich communities just as much as developers. What if public schools had solar panels just like Walmart? It makes economic sense and the monies savedcouldfund arts and afterschool programs. Why can’t we have green spaces incorporated into urban community plans at the outset, and open-air cafes in small suburban towns? Intelligent forethought and planning that addresses community needs, as well as aesthetics, is the key to success for the modern developer.
Binge-watching TV shows have become the new normal. What is the last show you binge-watched?
OWN’s “Queen Sugar.” I love that show! Following a tragic death in a Louisiana family, the three siblings have to put aside their complicated lives and feelingsand come together to run the family’s struggling sugar cane farm. It resonates with me so much, because of the challenges I’ve experienced as a small business owner.