In life and in business, Suzanne Kondra-DeFuria runs on passion and pure energy.
As the president and sole owner of Potter Heating & Air Conditioning and Perrone Plumbing Services, she climbed her way to the top of a male-dominated industry with spunk, pizzazz, and a can-do attitude.
These characteristics, be them innate or learned, were showcased as young as 10 years old, when during the winter, she would shovel all her neighbors’ sidewalks.
“I just had this energy,” she remarked.
Then she met her father’s boss — a woman, who was the president of a trucking company, another male-dominated field.
“I remember her always saying, ‘Suzy, you can do anything you want,” said Kondra-DeFuria, who spoke of the times she would watch her dad’s boss at the office, dressed in suits, interacting with her team — and loved it. “Honestly, I think the seed was planted way back then. I really was into doing what I want to do.”
Potter Heating & Air Conditioning was already well-established years before Kondra-DeFuria and her husband at the time, David Kondra, came into the picture. The company, founded in 1944 by Homer Potter, began as a one-person operation based in Fayetteville. Over the years, the company grew in size and relocated several times. But Potter’s health was failing, and he was preparing to sell his business.
“We knew the Potters,” said Kondra-DeFuria, noting the Potters had tried for a few years to persuade Suzanne and David to buy the business. Finally, after giving the idea more consideration, Kondra-DeFuria spoke up and said: “Let’s take the risk.”
In June 1981, the keys changed hands. Potter remained an active participant in the company he nurtured for nearly four decades, until his death in 1986. That same year, the Kondras acquired Perrone Plumbing.
More changes occurred in the years following. When the Kondras acquired the small business, they had less than a handful of employees, Kondra-DeFuria said, and Potter Heating & Air Conditioning/Perrone Plumbing generated an average $100,000 in work. As typical of most businesses, the numbers fluctuated, and internal reforms were made. Suzanne and David divorced in 1995, but they remained business partners for another 15 years, until she bought him out in 2012.
“It was a good move because then I really expanded the business,” specifically as a 100% Women’s Business Enterprise (WBE), she said.
Prior to the buyout, however, she still made notable strides. In 2006, she was certified as an 8A contractor with the Federal government and remained one for a period of nine years.
“When people first found out that I obtained the designation, they’d say, ‘How did this happen?’ To get it, you have [to prove] discrimination, and I just happened to have [experienced] some major discrimination, especially [as] a woman in my business, because there were no women in my business back in the ‘80s.”
Kondra-DeFuria’s biggest challenge to overcome in the industry was, as a woman, being able to convince customers — and counterparts — that she was knowledgeable in the mechanical field.
She shared a story about the company’s first big job — it was $200,000. The contractor, who was from Albany, thought he had put Kondras-DeFuria on hold over the phone. He didn’t. And she heard firsthand some choice words about what he thought it would be like working with her.
“Then all of a sudden, he realized I wasn’t on hold and he says, ‘Hello?’ And I said, ‘You know what? Why don’t you wait and see how I am before you make judgments.’”
When the job was complete, the contractor made a point to express his final impression. He sent flowers and told her it was the most well-run job he had with a contractor and would have never thought that, she said. “I never forgot that.”
Also, In the ‘80s, Kondra-DeFuria was the only person who completed the Syracuse Builders Exchange Mentorship program for Minority and Women-owned businesses.
“I still have a working relationship with my mentor at SAI and we are in our second five-year MATOC at Fort Drum,” she said.
Kondra-DeFuria didn’t wait for change; she made it happen. “I was constantly trying to drum up business” by going to events and constantly meeting new people, she said. “I learned to do things on my own because if you wait for other people to go with you, it just doesn’t work.”
Today, the company thrives, bringing in millions annually. Potter Heating and Air Conditioning offers services for residential, commercial, and institutional/federal clients. Heating services include installation of gas furnaces, radiant heat systems, and hot water steam systems and boilers. Cooling services include air conditioning and improving indoor air quality. Perrone Plumbing is known for its expertise in repairs and installation; clogged sinks, drains, and toilets; new sewers and water services; faucet repairs and replacements; water heaters; pumps; grease traps; gas lines; and thawing frozen pipes.
Kondra-DeFuria, 72, admits she likes being different. She is one of two women in Syracuse with a heating license. She was the first woman appointed to the City of Syracuse Mechanical Board in 79 years, then reappointed this year for another four-year term. In 2013, Governor Cuomo appointed her to the State Workforce Investment Board. Kondra-DeFuria was also the first woman elected president of the Syracuse Heating and Air Conditioning Contractors Association, serving four terms as president. She was the second woman recently elected as president of the Subcontractors Association of Central New York.
In addition to her industry achievements, Kondra-DeFuria has been a volunteer at St. Joseph’s Hospital for 45 years and serves on numerous civic boards.
Not one to ever stop, even when diagnosed with cancer more than 10 years ago, Kondra-DeFuria is a living legacy of her own making.
“A positive outlook makes a big difference. You can’t let it take you down,” she said.
Indeed, her diagnosis and subsequent treatment did not slow her down in either her personal accomplishments (as a former active crew member with the Syracuse Chargers, she still participated in Nationals) or business, as evidenced by the company’s double digit growth during that period and continued volunteer contributions.
American author Earl Nightingale is quoted as saying, “The key that unlocks energy is desire. It’s also the key to a long and interesting life. If we expect to create any drive, any real force within ourselves, we have to get excited.”
For Kondra-DeFuria, those first sparks of child-focused energy, interest, and exposure to independent thinking from a woman who was way ahead of her time, created a lasting and productive excitement that continues to this day.