When tragedy struck, she took over the family business

Thomas Heath
Reporter January 17

Manuela LeVaca was at her girlfriend’s house in northern Montgomery County on a Friday night four years ago when she received a telephone call informing her that her 38-year-old husband, Kevin, had died from heart arrhythmia while playing a game of pick-up basketball.

Kevin left behind his wife, two little children, a historic home and a small, three-year-old masonry company in Mount Airy, Md., called LeVaca Construction. It had two employees, not including the owner, and supplied the family with a comfortable income just short of $100,000 a year. There was little savings and no life insurance.

Thomas Heath is a local business reporter and columnist, writing about entrepreneurs and various companies big and small in the Washington Metropolitan area. Previously, he wrote about the business of sports for The Post’s sports section for most of a decade. View Archive

“I was a stay-at-home mom whose main priorities were to make sure my 2-year-old and
6-year-old were taken care of,” said LeVaca, who goes by Mannie. “How am I going to pay the mortgage, keep my children in their school and put food on the table? ”

Business stories don’t have to be about big companies making lots of money, or millionaires throwing some to charity and getting their names in the news. They don’t have to be about someone taking a smart idea, running with it and then selling it and retiring.

Most business stories are small tales about people working hard, taking risks, trying to make an honest go of it, earning enough to support a family and just showing up. If they can make it big, buy a second home, send their kids to private school, great. I bet most don’t.

LeVaca had no idea how to run a construction company, even a small one like her husband’s, which builds things such as driveways, patios and stone walls. The jobs typically run from $15,000 to $50,000.

LeVaca, 43, had taken some college business courses, but her only contribution to the company was to type up proposals and help pay the bills.

“He was the person that did everything,” she said of her late husband.

Her father told her to see if she could run the company on her own, which would allow her the flexibility to be there for her children.

“My dad said, ‘You should give this a try,’ ” she said. “ ‘You shouldn’t just let it go.’ ”

LeVaca was intimidated at first, going up against other stone and masonry companies, nearly all of which were run by men.

“You don’t see a female in this business,” she said. “I am 4-11. A blonde. I don’t exactly fit the profile. It’s very challenging even today to be taken seriously.”

Her first trip to Tri-State Stone and Building Supply on Seven Locks Road in Bethesda, with its big trucks in the parking lot, was an awakening.

“If you see a woman there, it’s because she is picking out a stone for her patio,” LeVaca said. “It was initially intimidating. Here I’m coming in in my Chevy Tahoe wearing sneakers, jeans, no workboots, and asking for things that I didn’t even know I was asking for.”

She remembers having to buy a pick and shovel for one of her employees and asking the service people behind the counter what exactly a pick does.

There were friendly faces, however, from businessmen who had known her husband and her father. One business owner gave her his cellphone number and told her to call if she needed anything.

But she sucked it up. LeVaca brushed up on her Spanish to communicate better with the employees. She had to fire one of them, which was difficult. She lost several thousand dollars on one, two-week-long job when she miscalculated the curvature of a 150-foot stone wall and had to rebuild it.

She learned to power wash patios, buy drainage pipes and read architectural plans. She had not driven pickup trucks before.

LeVaca scraped by her first year, grossing only $183,000, which was barely enough to pay her bills, cover her mortgage and feed the kids. With little income, she cut back on things such as cable TV and electricity. She even scrimped on heating oil for her home. During one winter, she didn’t have any work for three months.

“I would like to say I got $750,000 from the life insurance and didn’t have to do this, but I didn’t,” she said. “This is it.”

By 2012, LeVaca had grossed $350,000, thanks to her first commercial contract, which was building two coal-fired pizza ovens at Haven Pizzeria-Napoletana in Bethesda. (I recommend the pie bianco with black olives and imported anchovies.)

“A lot of these projects, I had the attitude that I haven’t done this. I don’t know exactly what I am doing, but I can lean on others, engineers, whatever.”

LeVaca hasn’t closed the books on 2013, but she expects revenue of about $500,000. She hopes to increase that this year, in part by getting a government certification as a woman-owned business, which could allow her to be more competitive, including bidding government jobs.

She is not in the clear yet. Her parents help her out with health insurance. She still calls on her dad for help when bidding projects.

LeVaca expects to clear $120,000 or so in profit this year, some of which she lives on and some of which may go toward a new truck. She expenses her cellphone, gasoline and her home office to the company.

She currently has five jobs under contract but wants to take a more strategic approach to sales so she has a more reliable stream of business instead of relying on word of mouth.

Her goals in 2014 are to buy a new truck, advertise and network with landscape architects as well as builders. She hopes to expand from five or so employees to around 10. She hopes to land one government contract this year, which would give her predictability and help cover the fixed costs.

But one thing is not changing.

She will still get up at 6 every morning, drive her kids 40 minutes to the carpool, talking by Bluetooth with her crews all the while, making sure they have what they need for the day.

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