Mesa Contractor Honored for Overcoming

Caliente manager successful through death of husband, bad economy.

Sep. 27--When Tom and Lorraine Bergman were married, it was not just a good love match. It was a great business partnership too.

As co-managers of Caliente Construction, a Mesa-based commercial general contractor, Tom handled operations and Lorraine handled administration. And the business thrived.

Then tragedy struck. When he was just 48, Tom was diagnosed with colon cancer, and doctors only gave him a few weeks to live.

For Lorraine, it seemed like everything had caved in on her. They had both lived healthy lifestyles. It seemed impossible.

"I can't explain how I felt," she said. "It was devastating. I couldn't stop crying. It was disbelief. I kept thinking they had to be wrong."

Tom's will to live was strong, and he fought back. It was up and down. Sometimes his treatments seemed to be effective, and he would be able to come in to work. When he was confined to a hospital bed, Lorraine would stay with him there.

The business suffered. Revenue dropped sharply from $22 million annually to $9 million. Half of the employees left. It didn't seem the company had much of a future, and potential customers backed away.

"People questioned if we would be here," Lorraine said. "But he decided he didn't want to sell the business. He loved what he did."

Tom finally lost his battle with cancer on Feb. 12, 2005. He had lived for nearly a year after the diagnosis.

"When he passed away, we decided to keep the business going," Lorraine said. "There was a bonding with the employees. ... We had a group of people remaining who really had a strong desire to keep it going."

Lorraine also found that continuing the business served a therapeutic purpose.

"Having a company to go to helped me get out of bed in the morning," she said. "The business kept us going."

And rebuild the company she did. Caliente's revenue has grown steadily each year since she became the president and chief executive -- no small accomplishment in an industry that's male-dominated.

The company has even grown in the past year as the economy suffered. She expects Caliente's revenue will increase 20 percent this year.

The company has been able to thrive through remodeling and renovating work and a few large projects such as a $13 million science-classroom building at Chandler-Gilbert Community College.

A staff of 20 employees has grown to 50, and Lorraine is hiring three more people to manage new projects. The company also has outgrown its headquarters at 242 S. El Dorado Circle, and Lorraine is looking for a new building.

Her comeback efforts were recognized this week when the Spirit of Enterprise Center, a part of Arizona State University's W.P. Carey School of Business, awarded her the Overcoming Adversity Award.

It is one of five awards presented annually by the center to companies that "demonstrate ethics, energy and excellence in entrepreneurship."

Gary Naumann, director of the center, said Caliente was recognized because "overcoming adversity was truly what that company did. She had people she could rely on, and as a company they pulled through it."

Naumann also liked her contrarian approach to management. She did not overexpand during the boom years, and that has served the company well in the downturn, he said.

"They had the good sense to throttle back when others were going full bore," he said.

Lorraine said she didn't chase additional work during the boom because she knew she wouldn't be able to find the caliber of employees she would have needed for top-quality work. Now, she said, the candidate pool for the construction industry is "spectacular."

Bergman has emphasized developing relationships with customers, and as a result about 90 percent of her business is with repeat clients.

But the real secret to success in business was taught to her by her late husband, she said.

He showed that "having passion and enthusiasm for what you are doing takes you a long way. When you have that attitude and desire ... the customer sees it," she said.

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BOUNCING BACK: Lorraine Bergman expects her Mesa-based Caliente Construction's revenue to increase 20 percent this year. MATT PAVELEK, FOR THE TRIBUNE

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