Susan Bowman sets the example

CFO Susan Bowman is Ralph Korte’s oldest daughter, but don’t let that mislead you. Before coming to The Korte Company, she spent a few eye-opening years at a different family-owned construction company — and she knew what people sometimes said about kids on the payroll.

“By the time I came to Korte, I already realized, ‘Okay, I’m coming in as a family member — and that means some employees will receive me well and some may not.’”

Earning the job mattered. She’d graduated with an accounting degree at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, worked at a Big 8 public accounting firm, passed the CPA exam and learned the ins and outs of construction accounting at Pepper Construction in Chicago.

Only then did she come back to the family business — and she didn’t expect any favors.

Ralph Korte and adult daughter Susan Bowman wearing matching yellow golf polos.

“I had a true interview just like anybody else. I went through the entire process with the controller at the time, Bill Boudouris, and was asked all the questions of what I’ve been doing for the last several years.  I had earned my stripes to prove that I deserved to be here so no one could say I didn’t deserve the job.”

And in her three decades at The Korte Company, no one ever did. She worked her way up from an entry-level accounting position to CFO the old-fashioned way: hard work and dedication.

“You have to set the example. If you want everyone to work hard, you better work hard. Employees may have a perception that family members are here just because of our last name. I wanted to prove that I was here because I had the right qualifications, that I was a hard worker and that I would do a good job for Korte.”

Building the foundation

Susan has worked in the accounting department for more than thirty years, but her actual Korte career started even earlier.

As a sixth grader, she’d ride her bike over from school to the office to numerically organize the paper checks. Later, she worked in the print room alongside Sandy Grapperhaus, and in high school, she became the office switchboard operator, after class each day.

At home, family time merged with company time, especially with her dad in the room — a man who loved saying, “I’d rather drive nails than eat.”

Ralph and Donna Korte posing with their four adult children.

Her mom, Donna, was no stranger to company concerns, either. While Ralph grew the business, Donna helped build the culture. She memorized every employee’s name, the names of their spouses and even handwrote their birthday cards. And when folks fell on hard times, she was quick to show up at the door with dishes like meatloaf and Texas sheet cake in both hands.

“We always said, ‘Mom’s the CEO: Chief Emotional Officer. She was definitely a great role model to teach us how to treat people. She took care of us so Dad could take care of the company.”

Donna didn’t just take care of the family. She took care of the community. She was a Boy Scouts den leader, a Girl Scouts troop leader and eventually the Girl Scout Council chairwoman for Southern Illinois. Susan followed her mother’s footsteps in Girl Scouts as a troop leader and council treasurer. Meanwhile, Ralph was accomplishing major Korte cornerstone projects like the Walgreens Distribution Center in Mt. Vernon, St. Louis Union Station and even a $21 million job for NASA. And at the dinner table each night, conversations revolved around work.

Ralph Korte and Susan Bowman posing with grandchildren on a construction site. All are wearing hardhats.

“Every family meal had work in it. My dad loved work, loved what he did, and he talked about it a lot. We would hear about job sites. We would go on job site visits. On Sunday afternoons, we would drive by job sites before getting wherever else we were going.”

As a kid, her parents’ drive and passion was just Mom and Dad being Mom and Dad. But as she matured, her perspective began to shift.

And in college, it dawned on her: What my family’s company does — and how we do it — is really special.

Ralph Korte signing the contract to turn The Korte Company over to his children. Susan Bowman is on left with two brothers.

Seeing a bigger plan

Susan’s always had a knack for numbers, so she studied accounting at The University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. There, she learned how numbers could tell the story of a company’s health.

“In my cost accounting class, we learned percent complete revenue recognition, and I realized this is what we do on every Korte job each month.”

And that wasn’t the only special thing that happened to her back then. During her junior year, her friends introduced her to a tall, skinny Chicago-born guy named Rob Bowman, swearing they’d hit it off.

They didn’t. Well, not at first.

“I just… wasn’t interested.”

But fate had other plans. Later that summer, she and her roommates needed a stereo for their house party, which they ended up borrowing from Rob and his roommates.

“And the rest is history.”

Susan and Rob Bowman wedding photo.

But nothing’s ever as simple as it seems. Susan was born a few months premature, putting her at high risk for vision problems. As a newlywed making life plans, she grappled with the prospect of mid-life blindness.

“I really thought that by the time I was 50, I wouldn’t be able to see.”

She didn’t let it stop her. It was just something she and her new husband needed to plan around. Meanwhile, Rob’s hometown of Chicago was a great place to launch their careers. He worked at Truax in Elmhurst, and she got a job at Ernst & Whinney. But with Susan’s vision issues looming, she just couldn’t see herself growing old there, driving the city’s busy interstates.

Plus, her family’s own business was calling her name.

“Part of the deal when we got married was me asking, ‘Can you handle living in Highland, Illinois for the rest of your life?’ I could be in a business with great potential earnings and the gratification of being part of a family business. I felt like I was more in charge of my own destiny and I could contribute more because there’s really something to work for here: the value of our name, the value of our company and what we can accomplish.”

Rob and Susan Korte posing with a university tile where they first met.

Guessing is not okay

At Korte, Susan started as an entry-level accountant, then became controller, and eventually became CFO. These days, her job involves monitoring the daily cash position, financial investments, 401k program, stockholder communications, taxes, year-end audits, annual budgets and the company’s credit card program. She also approves invoices and oversees the monthly reporting process that tracks job costs.

“We have a lot of avenues for the team to share what’s going on in their projects. There are site visits, monthly meetings, and also project executive narratives, so we can look at it and say, ‘Yeah, that’s what we’re seeing in the numbers, too.’ It’s about getting the proper information. Guessing is not okay.”

Ralph and Donna Korte with their adult children posing in front of a Christmas tree.

At the end of the day, it boils down to protecting the financial integrity of the business — and she’s the company’s north star. Even though she hated public speaking as a kid, she learned to overcome that fear and get comfortable presenting critical financial information to the whole company and its stakeholders.

“It’s my job to make sure our teams are giving us the best information about the projects so that we can create accurate financial statements for our internal customers, meaning all of our employees, and our external customers, whether that’s owners who are trying to decide if we’re capable financially to do a project for them or banks or our bonding company. It’s important that they can all trust that our documents tell the story of Korte.”

Just as a carpenter needs a hammer and nails, Susan needs the right tools for the job. Big advances in The Korte Company’s technology platforms, including Vista accounting software and Procore Construction Project Management software, especially under the leadership of Alex Ayres, has also helped her department evolve.

“The way we do things, the amount of access and what computers and programs have allowed us to do has really changed the way accounting works inside of The Korte Company, and we can just be smarter about the way we work.”

That “we” includes a 10-person accounting department that handles payroll, receivables, payables and job costs. That lets Susan focus on high-level operations and communicating the company’s story by numbers to top leadership.

“I’m the financial compass that makes sure the C-Suite guys, Todd and Brent, really have a handle on where we’re at and what we’re doing.”

And over the long arc of Susan’s tenure at The Korte Company, those numbers reflect a steady story of success.

All in the family

In hindsight, moving back to Highland worked out great for Susan. She officially joined The Korte Company in the summer of ’89, just after the birth of her first child. But at the time, she felt nervous for Rob. Luckily, he quickly made Highland his home.

“He is from Chicago, and Highland is a lot different. But he fit right in and made the most of it, made the best of it, by really becoming part of the fabric of the community.”

Susan and Rob Bowman smiling together at a tented event.

That didn’t just mean raising kids in Susan’s hometown. It meant opening and operating a full-service real estate business called Terra Properties, which Susan and Rob co-own together. Rob became a member of several civic organizations and also served on the city council for several years, and later even became the mayor of Highland.

Rob’s success was Susan’s success. It helped her support her family and grow her career while building and embodying the culture that makes The Korte Company so family-friendly. In fact, she was one of the first in the company to take parental leave. Now, it’s part of the benefits package for every employee.

“This was before that was even a thing. There were trials and tribulations along the way, but we made it work, and I tried to have at least one afternoon a week in the summers that I spent with my kids. Those were the kinds of perks you didn’t usually get working at other companies.”

And now, she continues that tradition with her granddaughter.

The Bowman family at a Christmas tree farm. Susan has her arms wrapped around her elementary-age granddaughter's waist.

After all, Ralph Korte was a family man through and through. He always found ways to share his love for the job with his grandkids, whether that meant showing off the new tilt-up grocery store in town or test-driving the surface of the Gateway Raceway.

“One Saturday, my dad took the kids out for the day in my mom’s minivan. They came home later and told us a story about how Grandpa took them on the dragstrip going 100 mph in Grandma’s minivan. We were like, ‘You did WHAT?’”

And in just the same way her own father once played “I spy” with construction projects during road trips, Susan finds herself doing the same.

“All these years later, I drive down the street and say, ‘Hmm, wonder what they’re building there?’ ‘Who’s building that?’ ‘There’s one of our trailers!’ That’s always a point of pride, when you spot a Korte trailer.”

Proud because it’s her family. And because she and her siblings — Greg, Todd and Vicki — have all found ways to expand on their father’s legacy while developing on their own strengths.

“I’ve gotten a lot of self-confidence in learning to speak up, represent women in construction and fit into a man’s world. I don’t think I could’ve done that without all the stuff I learned in school and having parents who supported me. Dad would always say, ‘You can make our own way in the world. You can work wherever you want.’ But I always knew he would be proud if all of us worked for the family business.”

She did. He was.

Rob, Susan and their adult children and grandchildren posing on a sunny summer day.

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