Leading Ladies: Erin Widener
By Chelsea Sherman
President of Widener Corporation
Although Erin Widener grew up around her family’s successful building company, her path to becoming president of Widener Corporation was not as obvious as it might seem. At age 14, Widener began working for the family business built by her father, Bob Widener, helping with tasks like sweeping out houses and working in the office. At the time, the tasks seemed menial, but Widener now sees that experience as invaluable to the trajectory of her professional life.
After graduating from Virginia Tech, Widener took a job as a healthcare sales rep in Richmond. About a year later, though, she found herself returning home.
“My return to the family business was the first time I ever felt prayerfully called to do something like that,” recalls Widener. “I never thought this was what I was going to do professionally, but I just trusted that I was being led home for a reason.”
She spent several years learning the specifics of the construction industry from Widener Corporation’s project manager, Steve Kirby. After several years learning the ins and outs of the business, Widener moved to Winston-Salem, N.C., and started her own building company. She spent 10 years building homes in Winston-Salem before making the move back to Virginia Beach to return to Widener Corporation.
Photo by Jim Pile
While the more senior Widener handles land acquisition and development, Erin focuses on vertical construction.
“The construction industry is very dynamic, and every day is different,” Widener explains. Multiple factors can impact the day’s priorities, from construction deadlines and client needs to changes in the weather. However, Widener says these variables and challenges are minute compared to the biggest challenge she has faced in her career: the housing market crash.
“The recession from 2009–2015 was like nothing any business owner in our industry has ever seen in our lifetime. Any other obstacle is incidental by comparison,” Widener says.
Despite the difficulties the past decade has placed on the housing industry, Widener hasn’t simply skated by—she has thrived. Shortly after moving back to Coastal Virginia, Widener was asked to serve on the board of directors for the Tidewater Builders Association (TBA). The prestigious trade organization was founded in 1953 and is one of the most highly esteemed building associations in the country. Two years later, Widener began serving on the executive committee. In 2016, she became the first female president of the TBA.
“My parents were heavily involved in TBA, and my dad served as president for two terms, so the organization was like an extension of our family to me. To be a part of that legacy is extraordinary,” Widener says.
While it is more common these days for women to be in construction, it continues to be a male-dominated industry. Women on job sites are still a rarity—a phenomenon that never stopped Widener from getting into a crawlspace.
“I have always taken the approach that we are all on-site to work and I’m not excused from doing any particular task just because I’m a girl,” Widener says. “No one likes crawlspaces, men included, so when I’m the first one in they definitely know I’m not there for show.”
As a mother of two children and two bonus children, Widener recognizes the tendency for working mothers to feel guilty about having to devote attention to their careers. However, Widener has a refreshing perspective for working mothers. Her children have grown up coming to work with her, and she encourages their involvement with the business.
“I would suggest that insulating kids from what it takes to earn a living, run a company and manage life is doing them a disservice. I use it as an opportunity to teach them things not only about construction, but life skills in general,” Widener says.
In addition to Widener Corporation and the TBA, Widener serves on the boards of the Building Trades Academy and TBA Scholarship Foundation. She is active in her kids’ school PTAs, Trinity Church, the Governor’s School for the Arts and the Protecting Children Foundation.