Susan Brewer – Gray, Inc.
When tornadoes and floods tore across Kentucky in the midst of pandemic quarantines and chaos, the CEO of Gray, Inc., grabbed his chainsaws and sent a text to other leadership saying he was heading out to help coworkers and others in need—welcoming anyone who wanted to join him. Many of Gray’s team members did and leadership ensured they all got paid their full salary.
“That’s the culture we have here, of support on a professional—and personal—level and not just treating everyone like family but working as a family too,” says Susan Brewer, who’s been with company since 2004 and its chief people officer since December 2021.
For the past two decades, her focus has not wavered: people. In a representation of a picture speaking a thousand words, her LinkedIn background photo is a group picture of her and her Gray colleagues together at the Gray Family Weekend held each October.
Yet, actions speak louder than words or pictures, and her efforts have been instrumental in building teams to support the rapidly growing company—from a revenue of $250 million in 2004 to over $3 billion in 2022. To attract and retain top talent, she’s enhancing Gray’s career pathways and trainings guiding people from entry level positions to leadership roles within the company and beyond.
“A number of our current leaders started as interns here and are now in executive positions as presidents, chief executive officers and chief operating officers,” Brewer says. “I feel so proud and happy when I see them excel in their careers, raising Gray to new heights.”
Barbecuing and building communities
Brewer’s ongoing efforts, such as enhancing leave benefits and launching a new mental health program through Lyra Health, played a critical role in helping Gray make the 2023 list of top 10 best places to work in the state of Kentucky. Additionally in 2022, the Charlotte Business Journal ranked the company’s South Atlantic office as the second-best place to work in the city.
“The Charlotte team is an amazing set of individuals, and within just a year, the ranking jumped from number eight to number two,” she tells Vision.
According to her, her responsibility—and, by extension, her team’s—is to create a pipeline to discover, recruit and support such individuals. She says their success leads to Gray’s success. However, this goal isn’t as simple to achieve as it may seem on the surface.
A coast-to-coast engineering, design and construction company, Gray has more than 2,000 team members across four business segments—construction and design, engineering, manufacturing and real estate—in over 22 locations, including a global presence with sites in Europe and Canada.
With teams spread across the globe, creating camaraderie as well as a sense of support and belonging isn’t easy, Brewer says. So, she created and became the founding executive sponsor for two of Gray’s employee driven cooperatives.
She launched the first, Emerging Leaders, in 2010. The mission is to guide junior team members towards leadership roles. Such is her commitment and belief in this group, she’s set it so any non-management team member automatically becomes a member of the group upon hire. It provides philanthropic, professional development and networking opportunities for their first five years of employment at Gray.
She says the second group, which she started in 2016 with two other women executives at Gray, is equally important: Groundbreaking Women. It’s open to every woman-identifying team member at Gray and provides support similar to Emerging Leaders but with a focus on uplifting women and helping them navigate the challenges present in their professional and personal lives.
She adds camaraderie and team mentality extend outside of work. For instance, a group of Gray’s team members, known as the “Meatheads” gather at the annual Gray Family Weekend in October. All colleagues and their families were invited to join; this past year, over 1,600 attended in Lexington, Kentucky, to review the prior year’s successes, chart the path for the coming year, recognize accomplishments with individual and team awards and compete in the “Graymazing Race.”
After an annual meeting on Friday followed by fun and festivities on a Saturday, the “Meatheads” prepare approximately 500 pounds of pork shoulder, ribs, chicken, brisket and hotdogs to tailgate for the University of Kentucky Wildcats football game. Friday evening, they start prepping and cooking the meat for everyone in attendance and serve a few hours before gametime on Saturday.
“Such events and groups are to have fun together, build camaraderie but also learn from one another,” Brewer says.
An evolving pipeline of talent—and pivoting foundations
This type of thinking led her to put together a pilot program at Gray, based on the existing RISE Up program, developed with the Oregon Tradeswomen as well as the women and minority trades focus groups in Seattle. Standing for Respect, Inclusion, Safety and Equity in the construction industry, the program advocates not just for training but for measurable, actionable items—hiring and promoting women and minorities to eradicate biases in the industry.
She and her team are starting small with Gray’s version, launching at a Missouri job site in 2022 and hoping to expand across the nation by the end of 2025.
“The idea is to create a more inclusive environment, which highlights one of Gray’s core beliefs—treat others as you’d like to be treated where everyone is welcome and respected,” Brewer says. “It opens up opportunities for historically underrepresented groups and those not usually entering this field to pursue and succeed in a construction career.”
Predicting trends and adapting to them while positively upsetting status quos is something Brewer has been doing for almost 20 years at Gray. In 2020 and 2021, pandemic-induced labor and materials shortages nearly stalled the construction industry. Yet, she recalls how, nearly a decade prior, the industry similarly wilted. She’s focused on revitalizing people’s interest in the field.
As part of that effort, she’s helped Gray take several strides over the past three years. She built a strong talent acquisition team and together they enhanced Gray’s existing, robust internship program, with over 50 interns across the company in 2023.
To further enhance the talent pipeline, she oversaw establishing partnerships with colleges and universities, offering scholarships at the University of Kentucky, Kennesaw State and Auburn. She’s currently working with her talent acquisition team to build new relationships with historically Black colleges and universities like Tuskegee University in Alabama and international partnerships with Hispanic-serving institutions.
She’s developing programming and sponsorships with the Architecture, Construction and Engineering Mentor Program, the Society of Women Engineers and the National Association of Minority Architects—while also increasing second chance employment opportunities through participating in Kentucky’s Fair Chance Academy. This helps individuals pursue jobs after incarceration or recovery from substance use disorders.
“Construction is a fascinating, constantly developing industry with many varied career opportunities—something not enough people know,” Brewer says. “Every day, I get to make people aware of the wonderful family and industry they’ll join if they join Gray.”
View this feature in the Vol. IV 2023 Edition here.
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