CEO of the Year: Denise Burgess Breaks Ground as Chair of Denver Metro Chamber

A success in the male-dominated construction industry

Denise Burgess, CEO of Denver-based construction-management firm, Burgess Services, is known for her persistence and ability to foster teamwork. After building a career as a leader in a male-dominated industry, she's the first African American to chair the board of directors at the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce.

Born into a military family in Munich, Germany, Burgess moved to Colorado in 1973 after her father, Clyde Burgess, retired from the Army. He'd made the decision during a five-hour layover several years earlier. "He said, 'When I retire, I'm moving to Denver,'" Burgess says. "It was the friendliest place he'd ever been." Clyde Burgess and his wife, Lucille, founded Burgess Heating and Air Conditioning a year later.

Denise Burgess went on to graduate from the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley with a journalism degree but returned to Denver for an internship at the Colorado History Museum that evolved into a full-time job. "I had an all-female management team," she says. "They taught me to be confident." 

Burgess subsequently worked in radio advertising sales in Denver and San Diego. After her daughter was born in 1993, she decided to leave the radio business and returned to Colorado.

Back home, Denise Burgess started helping her father's business with marketing and earned a certificate in construction management from the University of Denver. "I've been here ever since," she says. "It's different when you're running a family-owned business. It's in your DNA. Not only do you know their quirks, you also know their hot buttons."

Clyde Burgess passed away in 2002, just six weeks after he was diagnosed with cancer, and his daughter took over as CEO soon thereafter. "We were doing the Webb building at the time," Burgess says. "Hensel Phelps said, 'We'll support you.'"

They were especially impressed with a responsive quality control system Clyde Burgess developed to solve problems during inspections. The key outcome: "Inspectors didn't have to come back," Denise Burgess says.

Burgess Services kept busy during the recession by broadening its geography and managing projects as far away as Miami. Locally, Burgess Services worked on the Denver Justice Center and History Colorado Center, which replaced the Colorado History Museum, Burgess' old workplace. ("It was like coming full circle," she says.)

More recently, Burgess Services provided construction estimation services and engineering support and oversaw mechanical installation at the Westin Denver International Airport Hotel.

"What I like about Colorado is opportunity," Burgess says. "That openness and opportunity and sense of almost camaraderie in Colorado, I don't get the same feeling when I go to other places. We can be competitors, but we can also have a beer afterwards."

While her father's staff peaked at about 75 employees, Burgess relies on 12 people and a network of consultants. "We're a boutique shop," she says. "I did that deliberately. It was a better fit for my style." But the company's ethos remains the same: "If it needs to be fixed, fix it."

Arvada-based consulting engineer Tom Traxler, a 40-year veteran of Denver's construction industry, has worked on several projects with Denise Burgess and Burgess Services, including the Great Hall and Westin at DIA. "She's a very strong woman in a male-dominated industry," he says. "She gets involved in stuff up front at the very beginning. You get to use your imagination."

Not only do the chefs have a say before the cake gets baked, but Burgess values their input, Traxler says. "She listens. There's a lot of different leadership styles. I've worked with people who say, 'This is the way this is done,' and don't deviate from that. With Denise, it's a collaborative effort. You're helping make decisions."

Grant Lebahn, operations manager at Hensel Phelps Construction in Denver, has worked with Burgess on projects ranging from the Wellington Webb Municipal Building in the early 2000s to an ongoing gate renovation at Eagle County Airport today. "The best part about Denise is her hands-on approach," he says. "She is involved with every job she does."

He adds, "Every time there's an issue to work through, she says, 'Let's do this. Let's figure it out. Let's roll up our sleeves and get to it.'"

Lebahn says the smoke detector system at the Denver Justice Center is exhibit A of Burgess Services' approach to inspections and quality control. "You want to make those adjustments before you get to the testing phase," Lebahn says. "We worked together to develop a process we're still using today."

In 2013, Burgess launched the Burgess Family Fund with the help of the Denver Foundation. Her mission was to support local girls in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields, so she "adopted" the G-STEM@Laredo club, comprised of about 20 African-American girls in 6th and 7th grade at Laredo Middle School in Aurora. She has since supported it with grants and her own time by bringing in plans from the Westin at DIA for the girls to peruse. "They would talk about Beyonce while highlighting blueprints," Burgess laughs.

"She's all about helping the community," says Alisa Thomas, a 6th grade math teacher at Laredo and leader of G-STEM@Laredo.

Burgess’ community involvement doesn't end there. She connected with the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce in 2009 and became the first African American board chair for the organization this year after leading the chamber's small business board and its education committee.

"It's really good to get out of your field," Burgess says, to discuss "common challenges" of small businesses. "How do you retain talent? How do you deal with health care? It doesn't matter if I was in construction or something else."

Kelly Brough, president and CEO of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, says the chamber made a video about Burgess when Vectra Bank's Todd Munson handed off board chairmanship to her in September. In interviews, co-workers and colleagues used the same word to describe Burgess: “Tenacious. Our joke is now there's a picture of Denise in the dictionary next to 'tenacious’,” Brough says. “When she makes a commitment, she's going to see it through."

Burgess also excels at "making sure everybody feels welcome," Brough says. "Our team is all talking about the level of engagement from her. She took it to a new level. She is naturally good helping people expand their companies and find partners."

When she's not managing big construction projects or working with the chamber, Burgess likes to spend time with her family and her dogs — she's got a pair of canine companions, Kona and Carlos — and to flex her green thumb. "I do my plants and dig in the earth and I'm happy," she laughs.

What's her advice to up-and-coming business leaders? "Listen and really hear people. Try to put yourself where they're at."

Burgess adds, "When you're a woman in construction, you really have to listen. You get the girl test. You have to be aware of it. When I was younger, I used to resent it. Now it doesn't bother me nearly as much."

Today she sees more and more women working in the industry. "I think construction's come a long way," Burgess says, noting that there were more women
working on the DIA Westin than any other project she'd been involved in over the course of her career. "No one issued a girl test. It was all good."

Categories: Business Leaders