Linda D. Rabbitt
Class of 2016
- Founder / Chairman rand* construction corporation
Linda Rabbitt, the older of two girls, was born in 1948 in Grosse Pointe Woods, Michigan, but grew up in the Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Hills. Her father had immigrated to the United States from Germany at the age of 19. He planned to become a doctor, but he saw the sudden growth of the American automotive industry as the wave of the future. Thus, he wanted to be part of it, so he attended night school to become an automotive engineer and enjoyed a long career with Chrysler Corporation, where he took out 19 patents. "He was a brilliant man," says Rabbitt. "He was very disciplined, and he taught me that good is never good enough. He also taught me to leave things better than I found them. For him, the goal of a professional life was to make a difference, to achieve something noteworthy."
Rabbitt's mother came from a very different background. Her parents emigrated from Italy, settling in Detroit's Little Italy district. "My mother was one of 10 children," says Rabbitt. "She worked since she was 12. Her father had lost his car assembly-line job during the Great Depression, and my mother helped her family by getting neighbor children ready for school, which paid her 25 cents a week. She was a hard worker her entire life. She was 19 years younger than my father and working as a secretary when they met."
Rabbitt believes her father wanted a son. "He taught me to think like a boy," she says. "He had an office in our home, and when he threw out old business cards, I would collect them. I didn't play with dolls; I played business."
Rabbitt loved school and was an extrovert. She avidly joined groups and enjoyed being in charge of those groups. "When your parents tell you that you can do anything, you believe it," says Rabbitt. "I worked hard in school, but I didn't really know what I wanted to be when I grew up. My mother told me to be a school teacher, marry a man who could take care of me, have two perfect children, and give back to the community. If I did all that, she assured me, life would be good."
Rabbitt's mother was a big believer in citizenship. She was a volunteer at the local hospital and at her daughter's school. When Rabbitt was 11, she and her mother jointly wrote a newspaper and sold it for five cents a copy to their neighbors. "We talked about the trophies kids had won and other news of those who lived near us," says Rabbitt. "My mother taught me the value of relationships, networking, and friendships. She died at the age of 87, and there were people at her funeral who had been her friends for 60 and 70 years. She was proud of her longstanding relationships."
It was always assumed that Rabbitt would go to college. In his best German accent, her father would say, "Linda, you will go to the University of Michigan." Rabbitt knew there was a bigger world that she wanted to explore, but she did not yet know how she would reach it. She worked every summer from the age of 16 for an engineering company, making $1.25 an hour reviewing timesheets.
In 1970, Rabbitt graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in social studies and a minor in education. She planned on becoming a teacher but not in her home state. "I wanted to experience living in a new region of the country," she says. "I chose to move to Washington, D.C., because I sensed the people there would be more accepting of working women."
At first, Rabbitt had a difficult time finding work as a teacher, so she enrolled at George Washington University (GWU), earning a master's degree in education. She eventually found a position in Fairfax, Virginia, teaching eighth-grade American history and English.
After a few years as a teacher, Rabbitt knew it was not the career for her. About then she met and married a doctor, and soon she gave birth to two daughters. She had done exactly as her mother had suggested, she had become a teacher, married a man who could take of her, and had two perfect children. Unfortunately, life was not the fairy tale that Rabbitt expected. Her husband, she learned, had an undiagnosed emotional illness. Eventually, his mood swings and temper became uncontrollable. He abused Rabbitt physically and emotionally. For the sake of her children, she tried to stay in the marriage. But one day, when her husband threw a piece of a vacuum cleaner at her and it came within inches of her daughter's head, she decided she had to ask her husband to leave.
He not only left, but also sold his practice, moving himself and his money offshore. Rabbitt could not find him, and so she could not collect alimony or child support. She had not kept up her teaching certificate, which made it impossible to return to teaching. When the electricity and water were turned off, Rabbitt and her children, who were only three and two, temporarily moved into a friend's home.
Rabbitt finally found a secretarial position at KPMG. She moved with her girls into an apartment and at the age of 32 started over. She learned the business operation rapidly, and her innate managerial skills quickly got her promoted to executive assistant and then to director of marketing. In that position, she helped to grow the office from 300 employees to 700.
"I was dealing with the executive committee and marketing initiatives, it was like getting an MBA," says Rabbitt. "My five years at KPMG gave me a solid grounding in business. My education and social skills helped me, and I was getting people to believe in me and teach me about the world of business. I loved it!"
In 1985, Sherry Turner, who did marketing for an architectural firm, asked Rabbitt to partner with her to form the first female-owned construction company in the Washington, D.C., area. At the same time, a man approached Rabbitt to say that he had her ex-husband's power of attorney to sell their former home, which had been vacant for several years. Rabbitt agreed that if she received all the proceeds from the house's sale, she would pay off her ex-husband's debts. Afterwards, she bought a small house (with an owner-financed mortgage, because she had no credit), set aside money for her daughters' college educations, and prepared to once again start over with a new venture.
Four years later, Turner dissolved the partnership, and Rabbitt used the money she received for her stock to start rand* construction. She took on a 30 percent partner, Mark Anderson, who knew the construction business. Starting from scratch in 1989, rand* reached $20 million in annual sales by 1995. At that point, Anderson left to start his own construction consulting business. "I was scared when that happened," says Rabbitt, "because people in the industry were saying the guy who knows construction is leaving, she's just the marketing chick. She'll be out of business in 90 days."
Determined to keep her company going, Rabbitt worked 14 hours a day, seven days a week, for seven months. "So much of business is trust," she says. "I had to assure people we would take care of them, and I had to make sure my workers did the highest quality work. We achieved it all one brick at a time."
In 2001, Rabbitt, then 52, felt that all her hard work was paying off. Her business was thriving, she had overcome the challenges of her difficult divorce and the loss of two partners, and she had met and married John Whalen, a hardworking, supportive, and kind man. But after a routine mammogram, Rabbitt learned that she had breast cancer. "When you hear the C-word," she says, "your life changes. I have been cancer-free for 15 years, and in many ways, I feel that experience was a blessing. It taught me to try to live my life without regrets. I now do things that make me not only happy, but also proud."
Rabbitt's national commercial construction company has been included among Washingtonian Magazine's "Best Places to Work in Washington, D.C." The Washington Business Journal, which includes her company in its "Best Places to Work" list, named Rabbitt "Most Admired CEO in Construction" as well as an "Outstanding Director" for her leadership on the Willis Towers Watson board of directors. Likewise, the National Association of Corporate Directors has named her "Director of the Year."
Rabbitt's advice to young people focuses on positive self-esteem. "Don't let a difficult past define your bright future," she says. "The way in which we think of ourselves is how we interact with the world. You are in control of you. Don't let others define who you are and what you are capable of doing. I was once controlled by a man who undermined my self-confidence. If I had listened to him, I would not be running a $300 million company today."
As a breast cancer survivor, Rabbitt had her company build the National Breast Cancer Coalition's new offices at no cost. She believes volunteering should be a way of life, and she has raised funds for My Sister's Place, a program for battered women. She pioneered and financed an executive education program at George Washington University, where she was a trustee, to teach women how to be successful corporate board members. She has served as a board member of the Willis Towers Watson Board and the Economic Club of Washington, and she has received GWU's Distinguished Entrepreneurial Achievement Award. In 2008, Rabbitt was inducted into the Washington Business Hall of Fame for her outstanding leadership and significant contributions to the quality of life in the National Capital Area. An advocate for women in business, Rabbitt's advice is to become a strategic thinker early in life. "War, sports, and business are all games of strategy," she says. "The difference between the winners and losers is just: someone had a better strategy.""