2019 JAX Chamber Small Business Leader of the Year shares the strategy for success that grew her business to 25 employees and $2.9 million in annual revenue.
Story by Drew Dixon, Contributing Writer
Tina Meskel, the 2019 JAX Chamber Small Business Leader of the Year, pursues a basic – and successful – business strategy.
“We are going to deliver on what we promise. That’s really all there is to it,” Meskel said.
Meskel & Associates Engineering, founded in 2008, has grown into a Jacksonville business with 25 employees and $2.9 million in annual revenue.
Her projects include high-profile developments in Northeast Florida. The Intercity Bus Terminal Downtown, UNF road resurfacings and JEA projects are a few of her projects, along with private development.
As Small Business Leader of the Year, Meskel said she feels a calling to foster the addition of more women in her field.
“We also try to stay close to the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) programs in our schools and specifically for girls,” Meskel said.
“Still, there is this underlying belief that boys are good at science and math and girls are maybe not so good,” she said.
Meskel proved that is not true.
She arrived in Jacksonville working for the Ellis & Associates engineering firm. She rose to chief operating officer and left to form her own company that specializes in public works projects through government contracts involving geotechnical, environmental and construction and materials inspection.
Meskel’s work gets down in the dirt. Many of the company’s contracts focus on soil analysis and foundation stability testing.
“I did know that there was a niche in our (engineering) market for women-owned businesses and minority-owned businesses,” Meskel said, noting her awareness that set-aside contract programs among government projects were increasing.
“There’s a need in that area. It was part of my initial plan for the company,” Meskel said.
Along the way, the 5-foot, 61-year-old Meskel had to deal with stereotypes.
“It hasn’t always been welcoming. Our business, by definition, has been very male-dominated over the years,” Meskel said.
Much of her work requires her services after there are signs of a problem on a construction site.
“We’re not necessarily what a contractor wants to see,” Meskel said. “Then add to that, being a female showing up on a construction site, that has probably been the biggest area that I’ve experienced that has presented some challenges.”
The actual number of instances of hostility have been few, Meskel said, but there were times.
One job in the 1990s involved a site in Jacksonville where the soil on a project was excessively moist and not stable. Meskel had to stay on-site to make sure the contractor corrected the situation.
An owner swung a backhoe full of dirt in the bucket over her head and shook some of the soil onto her.
“It was very, very passive-aggressive,” Meskel said. “But almost everyone standing there thought that was the line. After that, everything got better there.”
It served as a lesson to maintain her focus.
“There were less women in engineering. So, we were an anomaly in every meeting and on every job site,” Meskel said. “That is very much changing. We’re still not large in numbers, but it’s definitely changing.”
Over the years, she said she learned how to handle herself in those situations and not take it personally.
Meskel studied drafting at Trident Technical College in Charleston, South Carolina. A professor suggested she consider engineering.
She took that advice and after a series of academic moves, she received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Pittsburgh. She received an MBA from the University of North Florida in 2007.
“I just started to think that this was something I could do. I think it’s the same for most people who start a business: They get to the point where they want to control their life a little more,” Meskel said.
Daniel Davis, president and CEO of JAX Chamber, said Meskel built her company from the ground up, “growing from a one-person shop to a thriving business with 25 employees and offices here and in Tampa.”
“Her hard work and success is a tremendous example for entrepreneurs looking to start their own businesses here in Jacksonville,” Davis said.
Meskel’s first year of running her own business was in 2008, the start of the Great Recession.
“I think I was prepared economically to be without a salary. Maybe that lasted a little longer than I had hoped for,” Meskel said. “The truth is that getting a slow start was a bit of a benefit to me.”
Meskel said she was the only employee of her new company and that lowered some of the pressure. She turned to independent contractors and that allowed her to avoid the burden of keeping up with regular employee salaries for the first two years.
She rode out the recession and her fortunes turned for the better with each year. Ultimately, she credits her success to basic business practices - networking and customer service.
“When I started my business, I had already been working in Jacksonville for 13 years and I knew a lot of people,” Meskel said.
They knew “I’m also going to deliver and that was a big part of it going forward.”