Dealing with a diagnosis of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma during her first semester of college, Jennifer Herman took some time away from school and ended up falling in love with her family’s construction business, even though she might not have admitted it at the time. Little did she know that this love of the construction industry would lead to her joining the AV world and starting her very own systems integration firm, MKJ Communications.
After eventually returning to school and completing her studies, she relocated several times working for a construction company that did project management for law firms and tech firms, and one company that led her to building high-end retail stores across the country. She was eventually lured away by a very large construction management company, and it was there she learned the importance of business development, which helped fuel her later successes as an entrepreneur.
“As a female in construction, I realized very early on that every one of my male counterparts was having his next project slated for him, but no one was doing that for me,” said Herman. This led to a focus on selling her services; for a time, she shifted her career to business development with another large construction management company. It was at this point that she noticed that all of her projects were being held back due to a lack of integration of AV, security, and other low-voltage trades. Out of that awareness, MKJ Communications was born.
Fifteen years later, MKJ has grown into a leader in integrating 21st century technology with a focus on delivering high-level customer support. MKJ has completed more than 245 projects, including working with high-level clients in the transportation sector like New York’s MTA, LaGuardia Airport, and other players in the space.
“When we came to market, no one was doing it the way we were doing it,” Herman commented. Looking for a niche market that would limit her competition, Herman ended up focusing on public works, which eventually led her to focus on the transportation industry in the tri-state area. This industry is obviously not a walk in the park for any new company, but Herman wasn’t scared by the challenges, which include shutting huge networks down for work and modernizing spaces in very old locations.
With this focus, it was important to find what she called the “nerds who really wanted to do this work.” She described much of her company’s work as “a Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle kind of project.”
Finding the right people is something very important to MKJ and Herman, and she has a unique approach to finding them. “I stopped trying to look for this person and started to make this person,” Herman said. MKJ has an established a 10-month internship program that focuses on a specific project, giving interns the opportunity to be involved in all facets of work. The program has been such a success that the company has a 75 percent stay rate.
With MKJ, Herman hasn’t strayed far from her family business roots, despite having avoided actually working in the family business for some years. “I didn’t always like the feel of a family business. I thought it was terrible. I thought it was onerous. Every Thanksgiving or Sunday brunch was just another business meeting. But when I left it and I went to other small, medium, and humongous companies, I really missed that feeling of a small business where you were a stakeholder and everything mattered.”
Herman spoke of her close-knit team of more than 30 employees at MKJ as a family and said they truly believe in what she called “the MKJ way of doing things.” She said it may sound cheesy, but her employees prefer it this way. There are no walls in their office space, and there is one large communal table. Everything is out in the open—from what is happening with a particular project all the way to what employees had for dinner the night before.
MKJ has developed a system in which no project relies solely on one individual. As Herman said, the team is “truly a collection,” and each person is only as good as the team member standing next to them.
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