High heels and steel-toe boots share space on the floor in Mary Wyatt’s house. The difference between the pairs of shoes is like the difference between a suit jacket and a raincoat; one is formal, while the other is utilitarian. Mary wears both pairs of shoes, often in the same day. Two years ago, that wasn’t the case.
“It’s so funny to see that contrast now,” she says. “Those pairs of shoes tell the story of my life.”
By day, Mary, who turns 40 in May, is the CEO and owner of Birmingham-based Wyatt General Contractor, LLC, trading her high heels at the office for work boots at her company’s construction sites. When she pulls up to her Vestavia Hills home at night, she is back to being a single mother of two young girls (shoes optional).
Her story—reflected in the shine of her high heels, and embedded in the dust on her work boots—carries a powerful message of hope in the dark depths of tragedy and resilience in the heaviness of grief.
Time Stands Still
Mary’s life is divided into two categories now: pre-tragedy and post-tragedy. Prior to August 27, 2015, “Life was moving along just as planned.”
Mary and her husband, John, met on a blind date when she was 28. “My grandmother told me often that she prayed I would marry someone who owned a family business, and lo and behold, God led me to a man who worked for his father’s construction company,” she says. “The construction industry was booming at the time, and John was flying his private plane all over the Southeast, visiting job sites and learning about the construction business from his father.”
Mary and John married in 2007, settled in Vestavia Hills and, before long, welcomed two daughters into the world. Mary was a stay-at-home mom raising Mary Evelyn and Rose, and John was running the construction company. Then, one August night in 2015, the family’s world turned upside down.
John had called Mary to tell her he was going to the Shelby County Airport after work to practice some touch-and-go maneuvers in his single-engine airplane. Mary told him dinner would be waiting for him in the oven at home. But he never made it home.
John’s plane crashed in a field just south of the airport’s runway. When he didn’t answer his cell phone, Mary started searching the internet for the airport’s phone number. That’s when images of the fiery crash filled her computer screen. Her instincts told her it was John’s plane before the police notified her that he had died.
“Nothing would ever be the same, and in a brief moment—the longest in the world—my life changed forever,” she says. “My husband of nearly eight years was gone, and my girls had lost their father. In an instant I became a grieving widow, a single parent and the owner of a construction company with a major, highly visible project underway downtown, and another project breaking ground in a matter of weeks.”
That August night is frozen in time for Mary, as if the hands on a clock stopped moving. She remembers sitting in her living room with the TV paused, dinner warming in the oven and her girls asleep in their beds. Days later, she remembers walking behind John’s casket and marking the subsequent days merely by meals and bedtimes.
As she dealt with her grief, Mary also had to face hard decisions about how to keep the construction company going without John.
Fight, Not Flight
Despite feeling overwhelmed, ill-equipped, unqualified and scared out of her mind, Mary says an inner resilience caused her fight response to kick in, and she felt the urge to protect what had been so important to her husband.
“Fortunately, John already had an amazing team in place who never let anything fall through the cracks and kept everything running smoothly. Not one single person left after John died,” she says. “We were fortunate to make a key hire in the first few months, so with an amazing team already in place and a new VP of Operations, we were ready to begin moving forward.”
Mary immersed herself in learning the ins and outs of the construction business, from bonding to insurance to financials to job site visits. During her first visit, she learned how to tighten a hard hat, and she climbed a tall ladder to the second story of the hotel structure. “While all of that was happening, I was trying to process whether I had enough fortitude to keep this company open and if that was a risk I was willing to take, considering my lack of industry expertise. My team put up with me trying to figure out my place, vacillating between wanting and needing help and simultaneously trying not to ask for help.”
The company spent a year bidding work, coming in a close second on multiple jobs. The current jobs were wrapping up, and Wyatt hadn’t secured any new projects.
In January 2016, Wyatt landed the police station job at UAB. “That was just incredible,” Mary says. “Leading up to that job, I was going to do everything I could and let the Lord do the rest. I knew then we were going to make it.”
Mary says everything started coming together for her, and she decided she wanted to keep moving forward with Wyatt. She started introducing herself to as many architects and subcontractors as she could, letting them know who she was and what was going on at the company. With new stainless steel Wyatt cups and her new business cards, Mary made her rounds to different offices. “Building these relationships I knew would be the foundation of future success, but I also recognized this as an amazing opportunity to learn…to ask questions, become familiar with vocabulary and shake hands with people we wanted to do business with.”
Even as “a widow with no construction experience,” she was received by others in the industry with open arms. “I remember our bonding agent telling me in those very early days when I was processing all that happened and trying to grasp owning this company that ‘construction is a people business,’ and that was the most important thing to remember. That statement has rung true time and time again, and is the reason I knew I could make a go of this.”
She trusted her talented team to handle the issues she couldn’t, and she focused on business development and marketing—and making sure people knew Wyatt was there to stay.
“Everybody pulled together and did their job and excelled,” she says. “If anything, people pulled together and worked harder than they ever have, and really supported me and rallied and encouraged me.”
Shortly after John’s death, Mary did a complete renovation of her house, Vestavia’s historic Gwin House built in 1938. She worked with fellow Vestavia Hills resident Alan Simpson with Ruff Reams Building Company.
“He made the process so enjoyable and seamless,” she says. “It really transferred over to how I wanted to do business at Wyatt. I chose a great builder with great character and integrity. I thought, ‘That is what we want to exude and exemplify in commercial construction.’”
In addition to picking up another project at UAB, Wyatt is building the new cafeteria and kitchen at Vestavia Hills Elementary West. Last July, the Wyatt office relocated to downtown Birmingham from Riverchase, a move Mary says was on a list of goals she found on John’s computer after he died. The company also underwent a rebranding process and launched a new logo and website, WyattBuilds.com. Another milestone for Mary and the company was becoming a WBENC-Certified Women’s Business Enterprise.
“Maybe it’s just me, but I think women have to work so much harder to be confident and pat ourselves on the back, and even more so in a male-dominated industry,” she says. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve walked into a room full of men and wondered what in the world I was doing. But I do it anyway, and I leave with more knowledge and relationships in our industry.”
In January, nearly 30 women in construction gathered at the new Wyatt office and listened as Mary shared her story. It was one of many times she has spoken to groups about her experiences, and it’s likely not the last. In September, she spoke at the 2017 aTeam Ministries Handbags and Heroes Luncheon presented by Oakworth Capital Bank. Many of the women in the audience were mothers of pediatric cancer fighters and survivors.
Mary is a survivor, too. She has survived every day since the night she learned John wasn’t coming home to her and their two girls. She knows what it means to love, to lose and to carry on anyway.
“Over the past two years, I have prayed my grief would not be wasted,” she says. “We are capable of so much more than we can ever realize. We must choose to be resilient.”
In the weeks after John’s death, Mary says she prayed aloud as she drove her girls to school each morning that God would show them signs of His goodness each day. She made a “Jubilation Jar” to fill with notes about good things the family could read the next year.
“When we are grateful, bitterness is not allowed in,” she says. “Certainly, there are times when it takes more effort to give thanks. I’ve experienced great loss, but now, I will choose to live. I pray that God will fill in the gaps.”
Filling in the gaps is precisely what Mary’s neighbors have done since August 2015. Whether it was a last-minute babysitter, a warm meal or a quick bicycle repair, someone has stepped up to help the family at every turn.
“My neighbors have poured into our family,” she says. “I can’t imagine living anywhere else. It’s always been hard for me to rely on other people, but I’ve had to do that, and they’ve made it easy for me to do that. Leaning into such a dark story, they were never afraid.”
She admits juggling single parenthood and a business isn’t always easy, but every day is a new opportunity to learn, grow and be a strong role model for her daughters, who could someday don hard hats like their mother and help run the family business.
“The way I look at this is I have been through so much tragedy, but now, I can look and see before me a won opportunity and a very bright future,” she says. “I look at it as a blessing from the Lord to have this amazing gift.
“And so, for me, it all came together one night when I looked over to see a pair of black high heels beside dirt-covered work boots,” she says. “I have experienced great loss, but I’ve also gained extraordinary perspective, opportunity and new relationships. I am blessed to be a woman in construction, building herself back up, building strong girls and helping build our community.”