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Julie Laughton, CEO of her own Design Build firm, tells us what it’s like being a woman in a man’s world. Leading the way for female entrepreneurship, she offers a fresh perspective on being one of very few women who owns and operates her general contracting firm in Laguna Beach, CA. She shares the challenges she faced as well as the realizations in her capabilities, bringing to light the amazing things women can do just as much as men. Julie also credits her ability to do her job well with being under Blair Chiropractic care, showing the balance of health and work as part to success.
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It All Starts With A Good Plan
How Julie Laughton Is Trailblazing New Opportunities In General Contracting And Design
My guest is Julie Laughton. She is the CEO of her own design-build firm in Orange County, California. She has more than 25 years of experience and over 500 remodels under her belt. I’m excited for you to hear what she has to say about being a woman in a man’s field. Julie’s motto is, “It all starts with a good plan.” Tune in to hear what she has to say about this exciting career and how Blair Chiropractic has helped maintain her health all of these years.
Welcome, Julie. I’m so excited that you’re here with us. I’ve wanted to interview you for a while because I know that there are so many cool things we could talk about and I want to get right to it. You are a female contractor in Orange County. Tell me about that.
I’m a female in a man’s world so it’s interesting because no one else does it. I am out and about a lot and I do a lot of blogs and advertising myself, so I get quite the response from women at the grocery store and the bank and the coffee shop. I’m a little hero for the women that wanted to do it and wish they could have done it. They envy that position because it’s the best move I ever made in my career, but it is unique. It’s a lot of work and I’m a trailblazer.
As a woman in Chiropractic, chiropractic colleges have been graduating 50% women but for many years, it hasn’t been that way. When I joined the Well Connected Chiropractic and I had the pleasure of meeting you and then becoming your chiropractor, I was always fascinated about the journey that you had. Share that with my audience. I want people to understand just because you do one thing for a while doesn’t mean you have to continue to do that very one thing. You can change your circumstances and change your life. Can we go back to the beginning? I know that you had a career on the East Coast. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
My career started because, at a young age, I was an artist. I can draw anything. At first, I thought I want to be an architect. I didn’t want to do decorating because it was proposed to me as a female. I said, “No, I want to be an architect. I can draw.” I ended up in interior design space planning, but my job was to work for architects. In my first ten years, I was the only female working for men and drawing their stuff and then doing the decorating too because I am a licensed interior designer. I’m in a female’s world working in a man’s office this whole time. I’m an interior designer the whole time doing all this work.
Since I was little, I was better at the drawing so I got to do more stuff and little more meetings. My bosses would throw me into meetings at a very young age, so I was always out there. I would meet with the contractors and get in the dirt because I drew the stuff and I’m like, “You’re not building this right. Let’s look at this.” I was always in the dirt with the contractors, but I was always around man. I was either working for an architect, I was in the dirt with the contractors and I’m trying to get stuff done according to what I draw or they drew. I’m leading the way.
How did you know that they weren’t doing it right? If you were the architect, sometimes that plan doesn’t translate to the actual function. How did you know?
That’s what it is. You’ve got to go out in there and then you’ve got to draw it. You’ve to go back out and make sure your measurements are right. You’ve got to make sure they actually laid it out. You take the plan, you go back in the field and you measure again. You measure down with the sixteenth of an inch. I was measuring hundreds of thousand square foot spaces and everything had to be right. You check and double check. If it’s not laid out and they say, “We can’t lay this out. We don’t know how your measurements are going to get the end results,” then you’d have to talk to them like, “Let’s do this. Let’s do that.” That constant back and forth to build what’s needed in existing space and/or new space is still my job now. I still do the same thing I always did but as a designer. In California when I moved here, it took me a while to take the lead to be a contractor because it was scary. I went a good ten years doing contracting before I became licensed. I worked owner-builder.
Your early career in New York with your designing and your architect work and the ability to be thrown into meetings and get your feet in the dirt led you to come to California and earn your contractor license. Getting that license is no small feat. Tell me about that.
It was no small feat. I come to California at 29 years old and I’ve already made it in New York. I worked for the top five developers and there’s no farther I could go. It was time to start my whole career. There happened to be a little recession in New York in the building industry with the clients I’ve had at the time, so I came up to California to look around. I met with a college buddy and I thought, “Let’s just move out here. The weather is nice.” I started over from scratch with no connections. I came to LA and I got an apartment and I started working residential because I didn’t want to work commercial anymore. I started designing and selling kitchens.
I’m doing this for a year. I sold $1 million of kitchens in the first year and I thought, “I think I’m good at this.” I’m a draftsman. I didn’t want to decorate. I never have one to decorate. I want to design and build. I’m selling these kitchens, I get all these referrals. I have all these clients. I get called to Newport to design a showroom and then it leads me to Laguna Beach and this is where I started my business. I was doing kitchens for people that couldn’t find an architect to do their kitchen or showroom. I couldn’t find anybody that is designing the kitchen without selling them cabinets. Ten years go by and I’m starting to contract for clients because contractors are all over the board out here and they’re not professional like I was used to in New York City. I’m like, “This is what you need to do. You’re getting ripped off and they’re not showing up. Let’s do it the right way.”
Eventually, the client would hire me to help them do their permit and their contract and that went on for another five years. I was scared to take the test because it’s a big deal. I got my exam ready and I went to college, but this test scared me for some reason. I went to a class to give me all the books and six binders and I studied for six weeks. I get the test and I was nervous for some reason. When I got to the test area, they lock you in a room and they photograph you because it’s very serious to get your contractor’s license. I’m in this little room and you’re locked in and I was in there. I took the test and I got done. I look around and nobody else is done. The lady says, “That’s okay. You can get off and your test results will come immediately.” She looks at me and taps me on the shoulder and said, “You’ve got a 98% and you’re the fastest person that’s ever taken this test. Nobody does this.”[bctt tweet=”It all starts with a good plan.” username=””]
When I left the building having my contractor’s license, I thought, “This is so weird because everything I studied for was not on this test.” Everything that was on that test is what I’ve learned in the dirt in New York City. It was years ago in a concrete slump. Who knows this? Who remembers that stuff? It was all that experience combined with learning in the dirt and then doing it myself too. I physically did the contracting myself for ten years. You go to the sheriff’s department and get fingerprinted and palm printed and background checks to the FBI. It’s everything and it’s major. It’s serious. Once I got it, I’m like, “Why didn’t I do this earlier?” It changed my life to work legally and help the client do it better.
You had the work ethic that I like to pride myself in having been raised in the Midwest. We are known for having strong work ethics and integrity. You saw a need and you made it happen. I can relate to you in a lot of ways. When I came to California as a new doctor, I joined the California Chiropractic Association at the local level just going to the meetings to get my CE credits. Every year you have to continually learn and stay on top of what’s happening in your field. I’m sure the same goes for a general contractor. I showed up at these meetings and I started getting involved. I was asked to instruct the other chiropractors there about the Blair Chiropractic work. I didn’t want to go into that without the covering of authority and somebody making sure that I was doing it right.
I went and got my certification through the Blair Chiropractic Society and it was because there was a need. There were chiropractors who needed to understand more about Blair upper cervical chiropractic. I was asked to be an instructor, so I went and did the hard work to take the test to become an instructor, which is no small feat. Now, I’ve been an instructor since 2011. I understand and appreciate where you’re coming from with seeing a need and then meeting it and challenging yourself personally. It was the best thing you ever did. I’m on a new adventure myself so I can even more respect where you’ve come from and what you’ve done because choosing to do something different when the things that you are doing are just fine is scary, but it’s so rewarding.
I like the change. The fear part doesn’t bother me because I know that if I make a change, I’m going to get better. When I first came to California, I started from zero at 30. I could have stayed comfortable, but I started over and then I got my contractor’s license. It all revolves around a person and just improving yourself and it’s also that I’m helping someone else. I’m giving back. That whole thing about success is gratitude, success is giving. That is true. It’s strange but true because you’re giving more than you’re getting.
That’s how you’re able to create this incredible name for yourself. I’m sure that it hasn’t been without challenge. The reason I met you is that I became a chiropractor at Well Connected Chiropractic and you were already a patient. I had the fortunate opportunity to take over care for you. Tell me about how the Blair Chiropractic has kept you going.
I believe in health in the purest form. I don’t live in taking a drug or masking or doing anything else because I believe that your health starts with your inner self. I had a little incident in college where I had whiplash a couple times with people driving their cars wrong and running into me and whatnot. I always dealt with it with the traditional chiropractor who would get you in there and just wring you out like a wash rag and it never fixed the problem. It was causing more pain and all that. I’m a naturopath and I couldn’t figure like, “Why am I always getting cracked and why am I always ending up in the same situation?” My arms are going numb.
I figured out Blair Technique by being referred to your office that it was the technique that would work. Starting that technique in putting my bones back in place instead of just cracking me was magical. Then I learned how to exercise to support being aligned because when you’re out of line so much, you develop bad habits. Combining that with yoga and strength training keeps me going. It takes a lot to get me out, but we have stress. That’s life. That’s what puts me out, this stress. That is magical. I don’t know how anybody else survives because once your spine is out, the Blair Technique is the only answer.
I happen to agree with you. More and more people are coming to that conclusion, which I’m so thankful for. What I do love about when I get to check you is you come in wearing your signature orange cowboy boots.
It’s always my uniform. I do tend to wear comfortable clothing. I don’t wear heels anymore, but I do try if it’s comfortable. I have a uniform for my look. That’s also part of the signature branding. Dressing comfortably is the deal because I am on the go from 4:00 AM to 6:00 PM. I have to be in line. I can’t have any additional stress from being fatigued or out of place because that causes so much extra energy. If you’re not completely physically fit, you’ve got to be balanced. I do the yoga thing, clear and cleanse and all that stuff. It’s constant.
Talk to me about some of the challenges you faced as a woman in a man’s world.
The biggest challenge is that whenever I call someone to ask a question, they always think I’m the homeowner. They never assume that the contractor was a female. If I walk in and was meeting my clients, I always get that, “Oh no.” No one expects that you’d be the contractor. That’s the only challenge. They assume if you’re a female, you’re not the contractor or you’re the decorator. There’s this assumption. Even though you’re talking to them, they assume that you’re not as knowledgeable as they are. I’ve gotten past that because of the after years of experience. When I show up to a job, my reputation precedes me so that’s helpful. I’m chatty and nice and people don’t think you know what you’re talking about or have that experience. When I got to California, I already had massive experience. When I entered the residential arena, getting residential experience didn’t take much time. In the beginning, people give you a look and they challenge you. The guys will challenge and try to see if you’ll keep up with the lingo. Now, I get what that lingo is. It’s been many years, but it’s fun. You get challenged in the beginning. The man’s rules are a fair playing world when you’re in it. That’s good news.[bctt tweet=”Choosing to do something different when the things that you are doing are just fine is scary but also rewarding.” username=””]
Once you’re able to prove to those people that you do have the ability, skill set and the training, then they just have to stop talking.
I’m a little older and they get it, but I still get those looks and the questions. I had to call a couple of new subs and call their secretaries and they always think, “Are you the homeowner?” I’m like, “No.” I still get that. That’s what kills me. You’re a woman’s voice. They never guess.
That’s what you get for making an assumption.
That’s what kills me. Other than that, they’re used to me. I’m known enough. When I go to an interior designer or designer convention, I tell the girls that are interior designers what I’ve done to take it a step further and they’re like, “I should have done that. I almost did that.” A lot of them want to, but some don’t want to. Some know that it’s scary and they just don’t want to do it. They’re terrified of it. I don’t know why. Most of them are terrified of it, but they know that they need to do it. Some of them are doing it illegally because they’ve already crossed over it. There was a crossover in our business between architect, interior designer and contractor. There’s an opportunity for everybody to do what I did. That is my point.
Do you look at yourself as a champion of women and encourage them? You knew that you had to do that and you see these women at these conventions and you know that they have to do it. Have you had the opportunity to mentor women and get them to make this stuff?
My first opportunity was the Association for Women in Architecture + Design, AWA+D. I did a talk with them. I had done my blogs and my newsletter, but I did my first talk and a lot of women showed up just to pick my brain and ask my permission like, “Would it be okay? How do we do this? How do we start?” They’re right on the verge of it because they’re all doing it. They were just like me. They were designing kitchens. They’re doing interior design and running the job. They’re running the job because the contractors that are supplied with the homeowner are useless or not leaders themselves or legal. They’re all on the verge of it and doing exactly what I was doing, but they’re still terrified.
I have been coaching and I want to do more of that. I’ve even spoken at colleges. I spoke at a local university, the graduates of The Interior Design Institute. There’s one man in there but the rest were women. I encouraged them and told my story and a lot of them made sense. When I explained to them the dollar increase in their salaries and the potential of their future career monetarily, their ears perked up. They don’t understand that yet unless they’re doing it. Once they do it, then they’ll realize, “Yes.” It’s a game-changer but they’re still fearful. It’s only me out there preaching it.
It just takes the one and then eventually you’re going to have people that step on behind you and soon you’re going to have a whole network of women. I love that you’re a trailblazer. I love that you’re pioneering this because you’re encouraging entrepreneurship and financial freedom. Is this what led you to write your book?
My book is not as much about women, life, freedom and trailblazing but it is automatically that because I am a feeble contractor. The reason I wrote my book is to help homeowners. The reason I started becoming a contractor is to help homeowners to stay out of the pitfalls of what could happen if you don’t do it right. You don’t hire the right people and you don’t get your job organized by hiring the right players and stay out of trouble. 50% of the remodels or even more end up in a nightmare because you’ve hired the wrong person or you’re going to try to do it yourself or you believe the wrong person’s going to help you. There are so many nightmare stories. I wrote the book for my clients to survive a remodel successfully and then me being the female contractor, writing it is an automatic vale for women. That’ll come into play as soon as the book is out.
When is your book coming out?
I would say within a year because we’re waiting for the winter publishing season to pick up.[bctt tweet=”You need your direction in everything that you’re doing in general. That’s how you get your goals.” username=””]
I’m just so thankful that I know you. I’m so thankful that it happened that you needed to have good chiropractic and the Blair technique and that I get to be a provider of that for you. It’s so neat to be able to be a doctor and get to live through all the different experiences that my patients have. I feel that a piece of me go through you because when your head is on straight and when you’re feeling great and when you’re able to go in and execute the design and everything, it’s rewarding for me because I know that I played a role in helping keep that going.
You need your direction in everything that you’re doing in general. That’s how you get your goals.
You’re part of my team. I have a set of people. I have my naturopathic doctor, I have you and I do my yoga. Your part of my whole system, my fabric of my daily world because if I go out, I can’t function. I get physically ill and I feel drained. I have to get there almost immediately because it takes me down. You’re part of the whole fabric of my being in shape and tuned up. I can’t survive without it. It’s cool for me that my doctor is a female because my naturopath is a female as well. She started her practice after being under a man for many years as well. It’s not that I do this on purpose, but I always go with other leading females in my world as well. It’s automatic.
You attract that into your life and it ends up being the way that it is.
We are superior in many ways.
Another thing that you can appreciate about the Blair Chiropractic work is the fact that it’s so specific. You were telling me that you had to measure these 100,000 square feet remodels down to the sixteenth of an inch. That’s what we’re doing with Blair correction. We’re engineering it to the very specific anatomy of you. It’s a fingerprint and every time you do a design, you’re creating a fingerprint.
That’s what I love about it because I have an engineering background. I’ve tested on mechanical engineering in college. That was my path in the beginning. I’m technical anyway so I get it and I enjoy it. When I go in to see you, for example, and you get the strings out and it’s all percentages, it pops two bones in place, it’s satisfying to know that I’ve fixed immediately in the precision. Nobody is guessing and wringing me out like a dish rag. I don’t know how people do that or subject themselves to that. Some of those walk-in places should be banned. It’s really dangerous.
If it weren’t helping some people, they wouldn’t be in business. I always say that specificity is important. In fact, B.J. Palmer said that chiropractic is specific or it was nothing. B.J. Palmer was the developer of the chiropractic so if he said it, it’s a big deal.
That’s what it’s about. Like me, I have a specific ailment, a specific bone set was injured and moved and I just treat those. The rest is done by overall general health, hydration, eating right and balance, clearing, cleansing with my yoga and keeping things moving and all my blood flowing. You have to combine all of that together. I couldn’t do in any other way or guess because that’s not what life’s about. You can’t guess. You have to have a blueprint for everything you do. That’s also what my book is. It’s a Bible or a blueprint for how to survive the remodels because you need your direction in everything you’re doing in general. That’s how you get your goals.
One of your tag lines in your brand is, “It all starts with a good plan.”
I started using that because of my client who’s almost 80 years old. I went to help her with something because she had several homes. Her grandmother was the first grocery store owner in Laguna Beach back at 1910 or 1920, which is now the 230 restaurant. Her grandmother owned that grocery store and her grandpa was the mayor of Balboa. Her family has been here since day one and she’s had several homes. She inherited their grandpa’s home, which her dad had first and then she had it. When I went to remodel it, it was so emotional. I was down there on the Peninsula in Balboa. She had had other people help her with little things.[bctt tweet=”There is so much safety in a good plan.” username=””]
When she came to do the big part of it and get it ready for her and her husband, she called me and she says, “I’ve worked with contractors for years and you’re the first one that gets it. You’re so organized and you get what I’m saying from the moment I talked to you.” She’s the one that came up with the tagline like, “You tell me everything and you tell me what we’re going to do, how are we going to do it, what’s going to happen and how long is going to take. You tell me everything like a blueprint and you get me.” She’s the one that started helping me come up with that tagline. She’s like, “You should call your company, ‘It all starts with a good plan,’ because you’ve helped me and now I feel better. You’ve planned it for me. I can relax. I know what’s going to happen.”
There is so much safety in a good plan. With 25 years of experience here in California and then another ten in New York, even if something goes a little sideways, you have the experience and the training to be able to mitigate any problem, which is outstanding.
Something always goes wrong because there’s always an unknown or the client unwittingly asked us to do something that’s going to be challenging after the train’s already left the station. Once the train is rolling at 80 miles an hour and you make changes or something potentially happens, it could be disastrous. There is a lot of holding the team together. One little trip-up and it’s disastrous. It’s the only way I can explain it. There’s a lot at stake and a lot to manage when we’re going at full speed. I liked the stress of it, but I don’t like when people try to sabotage it.
It’s perfect that you are a woman doing this work because women have been blessed with the ability to have commissures. They connect the right and left hemispheres of your brain. There are more connections. Women have more than men do. We’re able to deal with more things at one time and think about the whole picture a little bit more effectively.
I’m not bragging or dogging men in any way because their assets is just as valuable, but we do multitask better and it’s a proven fact. Our brains are different and we talk differently. We communicate differently and it’s proven. It’s not that we’re superior at all, but we are superior in certain departments. Communication is one of them because we go at lightning speed and they don’t.
There’s nothing wrong with capitalizing on the strengths.
I liked using everybody’s assets to their fullest.[bctt tweet=”There’s nothing wrong with capitalizing on the strengths. ” username=””]
I’ve been so blessed by this conversation and I know that my audience will be very excited to look you up. I’m going to include your website. Can you tell me what that is so people can check you out?
It’s very simple. It’s my name, www.JulieLaughton.com.
It’s been a delightful conversation and I’m so thankful that I get to be your chiropractor and keep your head on straight. I’m so thankful that you are out there pioneering things for the world to enjoy.
The door is wide open. There’s so much opportunity for women in what I’m doing. It’s very exciting to see because some women don’t even realize it, but I am trailblazing and getting the word out. It’s fun to watch and open the door for lots of more career opportunities for women.
Thank you so much. I can’t wait to have you back on the show. When your book comes out, we’re going to have a whole conversation around that.
You are very welcome and I can’t wait either. I look forward to speaking with you soon.
Julie, thanks so much.
- Association for Women in Architecture + Design
About Julie Laughton
Julie Laughton is the CEO of her own Design Build firm that provides a unique one-stop shop for clients. She draws the plans as the designer and runs the job as the general contractor, overseeing all aspects of the project with her hand-picked team.
Julie spent the first 7 years of her professional career in New York City working for two different Architecture firms and as the Senior Designer and Space Planner for an Interior Design firm. As Senior Designer, Julie’s responsibilities included all the hand-drafting of space and furniture plans, the selection of all the furnishings and materials, and the supervision of all installations. While in New York, Julie also collaborated with the Top 5 developers in Manhattan to help build many of the city’s 40-story luxury high-rise condos.
She moved to Laguna Beach, California, and added Certified Custom Kitchen and Bath Designer to her Interior Design License, and then also became a licensed General Contractor. She devoted her career to custom home design and remodeling. Julie’s motto is, “It all starts with a good plan.” With over 25 years and 500 remodels under her belt, Julie consistently delivers a comforting, phenomenal experience, and gets it done right the first time.
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