Editor's Note: This article is part of a series that celebrates the Inc. 500 founders for whom good enough isn't good enough, the ones who blast past what everyone else thinks are boundaries.
As a child, Kristina Benza used to tag along when her dad and uncle visited their company's huge worksites, which included wastewater plants, bridges, and parking garages. Though she had designs on being a doctor and got her master's in medical sciences, by the time she was grown up, those worksites, and that company, had captured her imagination. In 2013, at 24, she invested her life savings and bought County Fabricators, a structural steel and miscellaneous metals fabricator in Pleasantville, New York, that her dad and uncle had founded as a sideline to their civil general contracting business. Today, her firm supplies fence posts, conduits, cofferdams (watertight enclosures that permit underwater construction work), and myriad other temporary and permanent metal items needed for huge construction projects. Those projects include the Mario M. Cuomo Bridge, which replaces the Tappan Zee Bridge across New York's Hudson River; the $1.5 billion replacement of the Goethals Bridge and the $1.6 billion raising of the Bayonne Bridge, both of which connect New Jersey to New York City's Staten Island; and the new $555 million Kosciuszko Bridge between Brooklyn and Queens. Benza, although satisfied with being a supplier, is aiming to also begin installing the heavier structural steel needed for the primary members of big-bridge projects. "I have very big plans for our future," she says. Here, Benza describes her early setbacks and eventual successes. --As told to Steve Goldberg
County Fabricators was started as a side business in 2004 by my father and my uncle. It was an idea that they had that never really took off, mostly just because they just didn't have the time to devote to it. At the same time, I was realizing that the medical field wasn't going to be fulfilling for me in the long term.
I approached them, and asked them to have their accountant do a valuation of County Fabricators. It didn't really have a book of business, but there was something to the name and it did have some equipment and things like that. I went all in. I spent my life savings and I bought them out of the company in December 2013.
My father and uncle were very helpful to me in the beginning. I was able to call upon some of their contacts to get some meetings or make some connections. But beyond that, everything was up to me.
Not that it has been easy. Actually, it has been a huge learning experience. I don't think that you can truly understand and appreciate how difficult it is to be a small business owner--especially in this state--until you're in it.
Plus, as much as I would like to tell you that in the year 2017, gender doesn't matter, it absolutely does--especially in this industry, and on a lot of levels. I've had banks tell me they won't lend to me because I am a young female. I've had customers tell me that--it still happens actually, believe it or not--they'd rather be speaking to a male. It stings, but it stings a lot less now maybe than it did in the beginning.
We got our first purchase order from Tappan Zee Constructors in late 2013, and since then we've done over 220 individual purchase orders with them, ranging in value from $500 to $3 million for everything from small brackets, conduits, and fence posts to the under-bridge catwalks and tower ladders to a crane trestle used in the demolition of the existing Tappan Zee bridge.
I saw an opportunity with the new Mario M. Cuomo Bridge to take advantage of as a local business. Being young and fresh out of school, it was definitely a challenge, but after six months, a year, 18 months went by, I started to realize that this felt more like home to me than anything I'd done before.
I'm going to take it as far as I can.