About a dozen diecast collectible models of backhoes, excavators and loaders surround Karen Silva every working hour of her day at Navajo Pipelines.
Silva had a 17-year career as a social worker and took time out to rear two boys – Scott and Brian Silva – before a family friend asked her to help out with managing accounts at his construction company.
Silva ended up taking on a lot more tasks than that at Sacramento’s Mark III Construction, ultimately running the team that did underground construction of sewerage and other conduits before she founded Navajo Pipelines in 1992 at age 50.
Amid a construction industry downturn, she and others lost their jobs. A former coworker, Jaime Davila, prodded the slender blonde with the pixie cut to get her contracting license, persuading her that they could build a company that could win contracts in the insular, male-dominated underground construction niche.
“When I first started my business, I was not welcomed into the construction trade,” Silva recalled. “The big boys ruled. Here was this old white woman and this young Mexican kid (Davila) opening a company, and we were not welcomed. We are now. We’re established.”
Silva talked with The Bee about how she ended up running a multimillion-dollar construction company and why there aren’t any job titles on Navajo’s business cards.
Q: What was life like for you when you grew up?
A: I grew up in Portland, Ore., and my family was in a very diverse community. My relatives were all farmers. Dad (Albert Lankow) was the only one who worked in the city. My cousins thought that was really cool. Of course, I loved the farm, and I worked on it every summer, for my uncles.
I think that’s why I like the smell of dirt. One of my greatest prides was running the tractor because girls couldn’t do that, you see, in my era. Girls didn’t do much in my era. Well, you were allowed to be two things: You could be a nurse or a teacher. That was it.
I remember my uncles making fun of me when I said I wanted to be a vet. They thought that was hysterical.
My dad was a factory worker. He quit high school to help his family financially. He was the eldest, and that was really common then. He loved electronics, absolutely loved them, and he went to a boys’ school where they taught different types of skills. He loved fixing radios. When the first TV came out, he was in paradise.
It was really too bad that he never got the opportunity to just do that. Factory work is what he did. He worked for Jantzen Knitting Mills from the time he was 17 until he retired. My mom (Erna Lankow) stayed at home, but she was the eldest girl of a family of eight. She not only took care of my brother and myself, but we always had cousins living with us.
If one of her brothers or sisters-in-law got sick, she went and took care of them. She graduated from grade school, and she was always very, very supportive of education. I think she always felt inferior because she didn’t have an education, and she had a very high respect for it.
She went to work when I was a sophomore or junior in high school, and we voted on it as a family. When I look back on that, I can’t believe it. My brother and I were like, “Yeah, more money!”
Mom went to work at a company that made stuffed animals. They were all housewives who were terrific at sewing. My mother made all my clothes for years and years and years.
My point is that I came from a really strong work ethic. Mom went to work, but that didn’t mean things didn’t get done around the house. My brother did half (the chores) and I did half. He cheated a lot. I did more than he did.
My dad went to work every single day. I mean, every day. He left early in the morning, and when he came home, he would fix people’s TV sets and their radios.
Q: How did you end up in Sacramento?
A: My cousin Lynette (Sahnow) and I both came to Sacramento and went to Sacramento City College. I finished my education at Sacramento State, where I majored in social sciences. It really interested me, and I was a social worker for 17 years.
Q: How on earth did you get into construction?
A: A really good friend offered me a job with his construction company. That was Mark O’Brien with Mark III. I worked there until 1992. We had a recession in ’92, and he cut the company way back. Then I was unemployed.
I applied for my contractors’ license with a lot of prodding from people I had worked with. I got my contractors’ license in ’92, and I got my first job in ’93.
I ran the business out of the house for seven years. It kept the overhead down but drove my husband (James Silva) crazy.
In fact, when my son Scott graduated from college and joined the company, he said, “I never thought my first job out of college would be in my old bedroom.”
Q: How did you choose the name, Navajo Pipelines?
A: I didn’t want to use last names. That just seemed too proprietary.
I had just finished reading a book about the Navajo people, and there wasn’t one thing that I read about them that I didn’t like – their tenacity, their commitment to family and community. All the things they went through in terms of diversity. They were treated very poorly when they were moved off the reservation, but they negotiated a return to a small portion of their homeland. They’re talented, and they’re prideful.
I had a really strong feeling about this company needing to be a community of people. There is not one person here that is more important than any other one. We don’t have titles on our (business) cards. If someone asks me what I do, I say, ‘I work in construction.’
Karen Silva, Navajo Pipelines
I had a really strong feeling about this company needing to be a community of people. There is not one person here that is more important than any other one. We don’t have titles on our (business) cards. If someone asks me what I do, I say, “I work in construction.”
So do the rest of our people. I know titles are demanded in business, and we all have titles, but we don’t use them here.
Q: What inspired the idea of not putting titles on business cards? Is there some lesson you learned?
A: I think titles open up the window of arrogance. I feel you have to determine value in people by their character, by their morals, by their integrity, and not by what their title is. It provides an avenue for judgment, and I don’t like that.
A title as common as “housewife.” Instantly, your brain tells you what that person does. My son Scott was filling out some paperwork, I think it was a soccer application for one of my grandchildren, and it asked for the wife’s occupation, and he put “homeland security.” Do you love that or what? She’s a stay-at-home mom. I thought that was so perfect.
Q: Tell me about Navajo’s first job.
A: We were recommended by a contractor that Jaime and I had worked with before. He was just a certifier of valves, but we got along really well, and … Kragen Auto needed some underground in, I believe it was, Dixon. Believe me, we had nothing. We had no shovels. We had no measuring tapes. We had no backhoes, nothing.
Everybody got together. We got everything out of our garages that we thought we would need, and I rented everything else. I rented a dump truck. I rented a backhoe, and that was our first job. After that, it was a matter of time.
I doubt we even made $50,000 on that first job, but we’ve gotten some multimillion-dollar jobs here in Sacramento.
I run the office and Jaime runs the field. If you ask me how to put in a sewer line, I’d say, “I don’t know,” but on the other hand, if we need a bonding report, I don’t think Jaime could figure that out. We have a really good relationship. I have a lot of respect for his talents, and I think he has a lot of respect for mine.
Q: Tell me about milestones for your business.
A: The most recent milestone is that we did all the on-site and off-site utilities for Golden 1 (Center). That was a huge milestone.
We have a really good relationship with some substantial general contractors, Hensel Phelps being one of them. We did Esquire Plaza with them. We did the Sheraton Hotel. We did the SMUD building. We worked on San Quentin prison, their hospital facilities there, and we just finished Ione (prison).
Most of my 35 employees have been here for a long time. We do not have much turnover.
This column was edited for content, clarity and space.