Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Emily Bittenbender

Her namesake construction firm boasts its union model.

Emily Bittenbender at Central Green Park, which her construction company is building at the Navy Yard. (Michael Bryant/Staff Photographer)
Emily Bittenbender at Central Green Park, which her construction company is building at the Navy Yard. (Michael Bryant/Staff Photographer)Read more

General contractor Emily Bittenbender, 48, who describes herself as a high-end red neck, loves four-wheeling in the Pine Barrens. She also owns "two mean dogs," made her ex-fiancee her business partner right after they broke up, and gets more than a little annoyed with how the media portray union construction workers.

"That whole skyline was built by union construction workers," said Bittenbender, founder and managing partner of Bittenbender Construction LP. "There's a problem in every industry, [but] we get a bad rap and it really pisses me off.

"Let me tell you something," she said. "We run a really tight crew. They are loyal to the bone. Have the best product ever. They're safe, responsible, courteous.

"They've been well-trained through their apprenticeship programs. Safety is first priority on our job sites," she said. "I am very, very proud to run a union shop."

Bittenbender is the first woman to lead the male-dominated General Building Contractors Association of Philadelphia in its 125-year history.

The association, which negotiates master collective bargaining agreements with union carpenters, ironworkers, laborers, and cement masons and operating engineers, helps to market union contractors.

Tough sell?

Obviously, the union marketplace is slowly shrinking. I think that GBCA needs to really promote and market the benefits of union construction. What I want to do is create a shift at the GBCA and build a Philadelphia construction community.

Like what?

There's a new group being formed right now that's bringing together the entire group of associations and business managers from the unions to build a consolidated group to go out and actively market.

Is the situation with the ironworkers and the vandalism a problem?

It's sad for all of us. People need to know that's not the norm. The norm is people who just want to do a great job and deliver a great product and go home to be with their families.

What's it like working in a male environment?

I have a very masculine mind. I don't cry. I don't bitch. I don't gossip. I don't complain. I take the bullets just like everybody else. Construction is high risk, tons of conflict. I think I perform very similarly to men in that regard. I will tell you this: I love blue-collar men more than I like the white-collar men.


When there's a conflict or problems arise, people get hotheaded, but [blue-collar] men don't take it personally. I think sometimes white-collar people are always worried about their image and their position and how they're perceived.

Most of your top execs are women. Any advice?

I don't hire emotional women, but I do hire women that can handle themselves appropriately. My intuition is very good. I tell people I can smell it on them.

What are you looking for?

I look for women that are good multitaskers, good sense of humor, roll with the punches, get things done, don't complain. Self-starters.

You were engaged three times, but never married.

I loved them all, but it just hasn't felt right yet. So I'm single and looking for an awesome man.

You work with lots of men.

They're married or they're married with girlfriends. I can't do that.

You don't have children.

People ask me if I ever had children. I say, "Yeah, the National Constitution Center" [where she was project manager]. You have an intimate relationship with a building. People don't understand what a relationship is like with a building.

What is it like?

You really feel like you give birth to something. It's like having a child that started in conception and you get to build something that breathes life and has impact on people.

At the same time you know where every joist is.

It's cool. That's what I think about when I drive by. The exhibit floor of the Constitution Center is just a whole web and maze of electrical conduit. You know what's on the roof. You know how the equipment works. You give pulse and a soul to something.