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Building a construction business is her work

Marialisa Zywotchenko
Marialisa Zywotchenko applies skills learned as a Navy Seabee at her Westchester construction business.

Marialisa Zywotchenko showed her enterprising side in 2009 when she was laid off her job in high-end retail construction at Structure Tone in New York City.

“I put up signs around the neighborhood: ‘Professional painter available,’” said the Tuckahoe resident. “It sustained me for about a year.”

In 2010, she and her husband, Alexander A. Zywotchenko, decided to partner as well in the small business he had started in Yonkers, Cyrus Contracting Corp. With their separate backgrounds in the industry, “We complemented each other very well,” he said.

Two years later, the couple is looking to expand their residential contracting business into commercial markets. With Marialisa as president and majority owner of their company, they have applied to be certified as a minority and women-owned business enterprise (MWBE) by New York state, New York City and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. With general contractors required to award a percentage of subcontractor work to MWBE companies on most commercial projects, “It opens up a whole new world to us,” she said.

Their business plan and early-stage growth would not have happened without the training and support of the Women’s Enterprise Development Center in White Plains, the couple agreed. “It’s just been a tremendous resource,” Marialisa said. “WEDC was so integral in us envisioning what we could be instead of us just trucking along.”

Zywotchenko last spring was among 40 women who enrolled in WEDC’s 15-week entrepreneurial training program. She was one of three female veterans in the group awarded scholarships for the modestly priced course. The Walmart Foundation this year awarded WEDC a grant to provide a limited number of full scholarships to female veterans in the entrepreneurial training program.

From 2000 to 2006, Zywotchenko served in a New Jersey-based Reserve unit of the Seabees, the U.S. Naval Construction Force. “It was a great sense of camaraderie. I learned the practical side of construction,” she said.

That Seabee training complemented her academic studies at New York University, where she completed a one-year construction management program and received a bachelor’s degree in NYU’s real estate management program.

Her husband, a graduate of Amherst College, had worked a series of construction jobs in the region as a carpenter – including the restoration of the PATH train station at Ground Zero by Yonkers Contracting Corp. – before starting Cyrus Contracting Corp. in 2009. “My father was a builder, so I was in it my whole life,” he said.

But the couple lacked a business plan and their business lacked some elements that WEDC helped supply.

“We really needed to hone in and establish the business model,” Alexander said. The entrepreneurship program “takes you from soup to nuts, what you need to do to run a successful business.”

“It was just so beneficial in so many ways,” said Marialisa. “We had never done any marketing. We had never done any advertising. …We didn’t have our website in place.” In June, Zywotchenko was awarded a $5,000 LEAP grant from WEDC’s Lanza Enterprise Awards Program to help grow her business. She said it will be used to purchase a second work vehicle for their company.

More recently, the enterprising female veteran was chosen by the Westchester County Association to receive its 2012 Apex Award for Young Professionals/Small Business.

Before finding WEDC, “I think maybe we were just trucking along doing this residential thing one thing at a time.” Now Cyrus Contracting is running simultaneous projects “and bidding on all kinds of projects,” she said.

Her partner said their company is looking to do construction consulting as an owner representative and expand into institutional work at hospitals and universities in the metropolitan area.

“It’s going to complement that residential side,” he said. “In this economy and this market, if you’re able to be part of a lot of different projects and a lot of different products, it’s going to help your sustainability much more.”

“I told my husband,” said the Apex Award winner, “if we’re going down, we’re going down big now. No guts, no glory.”

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