A career of rising above assumptions

In the concrete hustle and bustle of the city, Concord business owner Barbara Walker has found architectural opportunity.

More than a decade after founding her commercial design firm, BJW Architecture, she still has a passion for designing commercial and industrial buildings, from warehouses to restaurants.

Yet even though she's been in business 16 years, some continue to assume she does home design because she is a woman in a male-dominated field.

The hours remain long for Walker. When asked how many hours she works, she shakes her head, laughing. “You don't even want to know,” she says.

In the past few years, BJW, which has five full-time employees, has secured projects with several large companies, including Dunkin' Donuts. Walker received a bachelor's degree in architecture from UNC Charlotte in 1982.

The Observer spoke with Walker about the challenges of doing business in a male-dominated field and how she has learned to hold her own. Questions and comments were edited for brevity and clarity.

Q. What is the best business advice you have received, and who gave it you?

My husband, Gary. He said to keep looking forward and to look at every job or every meeting with a person as an opportunity for business. You never know where it might lead.

Q. What has been the biggest challenge you have faced?

Trying to manage the perception of what people think you do and what you actually do. Initially when I went out and started my own business, people thought I did residential work because I was a woman. They just assumed that. And although I have done some residential from time to time, it is an extremely small part of our business.

Q. How have you overcome this assumption?

I've been around for a long time now and it's name recognition. I actually changed the name of the company from Barbara J. Walker Architecture to BJW two years ago and am trying to move away from that. Although it has helped me in the past to be a woman-owned business, I don't rely on that solely.

Q. Why did you decide to go into commercial and industrial design, rather than residential?

When I started my first job I was working downtown, surrounded by all the office buildings and restaurants. I really enjoyed that. There were a lot of office towers being built that we were involved in. I sort of migrated toward that.

Q. Has the diversity of your projects – which can range from restaurants to medical offices – helped to insulate you in the current economic downturn?

Definitely. Just look at residential. There are times when industrial work has its ups and downs, but I do think we are more insulated. We're not doing high-rise residential condos. We can look at different sectors and see what the trends are and seek out that work.

Q. What has been the most innovative design your company has done?

The Cabarrus Bank had certain requirements. It was a white brick building, but they wanted it to look like their branch, which was red brick. Trying to do it cost effectively, we ended up utilizing a process that's little-known in this area and little-known in the United States. We actually ended up staining the brick.

I think that was kind of a transformation that almost took place overnight. It received a lot of very positive comments from the public, as well as our client.

Q. What does success look like for you?

Right now, it's an awful lot of hard work, and it's been a lot of hard work. I think it's always enjoying what you do. We have good relationships with our clients so we enjoy our work and working for them trying to do the best job we can.