Self-made Woman; Tupper Urges Younger Job-Seekers to Consider Building Trades

By: Martha Conway

Donna Tupper - Headshot

Donna Tupper got her start in the building trades by cleaning and patching up vacant properties for realtors. As clients requested more of her, she made it her mission to learn more, becoming a property manager and eventually hiring other women to work with her.

Thirty-eight years later, she is president and sole owner of Infinity Northeast, Inc., a New York state and Tennessee Certified Woman-Owned Business, and she can be selective in the projects she will undertake. The business is headquartered in Syracuse, with satellite offices on Murfreesboro, Tenn., Naples, Fla., and Orlando, Fla.

Tupper’s eldest daughter, Director of Project Management Jessica T. Graham, has headed up projects throughout the US for her for several years now. Graham brought to the job an education in law, a real estate license and experience working for the state of Tennessee. Middle daughter Stephanie K. Baker serves as director of human resources and union benefits; she is educated in mental health but also left her career to work with her mother.

Tupper is a member of the Syracuse Builders Exchange and a signatory to Northeast Regional Council of Carpenters Local 277 and says she has a very loyal client base that wants the meticulous attention to detail that Infinity Northeast provides.

“We all have our own special gifts,” Tupper said. “My field people are spectacular handling projects at the site, and they don’t care they are working for a woman-owned business.”

Labor: The Next Generation

Tupper said she has a core group of foremen, superintendents, field workers and administrative staff; however, the field is growing, and seasoned professionals are aging out of construction. The time is ripe for getting younger generations interested, recruited and trained to work in the building trades

“Kids don’t know that construction opportunities really exist,” she said. “It’s as strong as the medical industry. The demand for medical facilities and housing isn’t going to diminish, regardless of politics.”

Locally, trades are primarily taught at Board of Continuing Education Services locations. Vocational-technical/trade schools teach hands-on skills for specific careers, such as welding, auto mechanics, plumbing and carpentry, among others.

Among the benefits of a trade school education are the reduced time it takes to graduate, more affordable tuition costs, smaller class sizes, hands-on training and job placement services.

“I go to various events, trying to promote the opportunities that exist in construction,” Tupper said. “I’ve led classes of women within the union and am closely involved with the New England Regional Council of Carpenters, Girls’ World Expo and the Small Business Administration’s Women in Construction.”

Girls’ World Expo is a 21-year-old national program that aims to connect girls to resources and partners in their communities to help them realize their potential. For people who don’t know where to start, the union is a great resource to become familiar with.”

Tupper said not all kids want to or are suited to attending college, and many schools have eliminated shop classes for staffing or budgetary reasons.

“This is a great field that can put you right to work after high school with on-the-job opportunities and boots-on-the-ground experience,” Tupper said. “Be dependable, conscientious and open-minded, and those opportunities could be endless. Good employers know their workers can make or break their companies, and they like to reward them with more responsible – and financially rewarding – positions in the ranks.

“They don’t want to lose any good employees. For instance, if we profit over projections, everyone profits. My team shares in that money because I want to reward the people who made it possible. I have seriously loyal people who are so much more than employees, and they all make above union rates. If we’re not a team, we can’t do the work we do.”

Tupper said she didn’t want people to think there is space only for the very young.

“Older adults have opportunities, too, and with so many people having lost their jobs during the COVID shutdown last year, it’s a good time to look around and see what else is out there,” she said, explaining that most of her crew is over 40. “Maybe they had a lot of time to think about new goals while they were in lockdown and don’t want to go back to minimum- or low-paying jobs. Now is the time to explore this field.”

“For those who find themselves unemployed during this difficult time, if you put in a little hard work, you’ll be financially stable with a solid career,” she said. “Have no fear and take a chance in construction.”

Opportunities for women and minorities

And construction is one field where opportunities exist for diverse populations due to hiring requirements required of project owners, especially in public projects. In addition, there will be an enormous demand for more women- and minority-owned outfits due to government mandates for those public projects.

It’s vital to Tupper that the employees and subcontractors of Infinity Northeast are members of trade unions, such as the Carpenters Local 277. For that reason, if she were to take on an apprentice, he or she would need to join the union.

“I would have no problem having them learn in-house,” she said, adding that in-house trade work includes architecturals, mill work and finish carpentry.

Tupper hires subcontractors for other tradework when contracted as a general contractor.

“I love my industry and I have huge passion for it. I don’t want to market my company,” she said. “I want to market my story so maybe other people – especially younger generations – will consider getting into the business.”

She said if people work hard, stay focused and find something they enjoy, it’s not like work.

“The money will just come.”

The projects she loves

Infinity Northeast is well-positioned and well-experienced to complete public works projects. Among credentials in municipal works are projects completed for myriad SUNY locations, the military, Nine Mile Nuclear Power Plant, medical facilities, pharmacies, malls, hotels, motels, schools and more.

“I have discovered I like working on casinos, high-end hotels and military barracks,” Tupper said. “I am able to tackle these jobs because unions can provide the labor. It’s very important to me that my employees and subcontractors are members of trade unions, such as the Carpenters Local 277. If I were to take on an apprentice, he or she would need to join the union – I have no problem having them learn in-house.”

In-house trade work includes architecturals, millwork and finish carpentry; she hires subcontractors for other tradework when serving as general contractor.

COVID-related costing

People have had sticker shock in the post-shutdown world. COVID-19 has created shortages of staff to manufacture and bring products to market, and nowhere is this more evident than in construction.

Lumber, steel and other building materials have seen incredible cost hikes – in some cases as much as tripling in price – but that has not discouraged project owners who have to get the work done.

“Construction has been large COVID-19-proof, and we pride ourselves on our ability to schedule and stick to that schedule,” Tupper said.

One challenge of scheduling is whether the materials to complete the project will be available when promised at the price quoted, something that needs to be known before being able to build those air-tight schedules. Tupper has learned a lot about managing schedules and has groomed a team of problem-solvers to handle any impacts that might keep the project from moving forward.

“But you never cheap out on a job or cut corners,” she said, “because pretty soon the projects won’t be lining up for you. It’s better to reduce your profit a little than to compromise your integrity.”

Defining success

Tupper’s definition of success is when the Infinity team completes a project and hears the compliments on it, especially complimenting the ethics with which the project was handled, as well as the final project aesthetics.

“We’re one of the few companies that leaves a site without a punchlist,” she said. “My team is trained to never leave a site without a detailed punchlist, so we don’t have to go back.”

Tupper wasn’t worried about the challenges of 2020 – she was confident she could keep people busy, and she did.

“We’re moving into development, and that takes some planning,” Tupper said of property she is developing into self-contained communities in North Carolina and Florida, and medical facilities throughout the USA.

These residential communities will include residences with a focus on retirees who don’t want to do their own property upkeep anymore and that will be more mobility-impaired friendly.

“There are a lot of singles and couples who don’t want to take care of their properties anymore or climb stairs,” she said. “I want to help people really enjoy the last 10 to 20 years of their lives.”

She also is looking at what her target communities are lacking; for instance, Tupper said Naples, Fla., is sorely lacking in physical therapy facilities.

The development work is planned to support her own retirement down the road, while her daughters steer the legacy she’s built.

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