Union in the News for August 8, 2002
Sabrina (Rau) Kanner '80 oversees rebuilding at World Financial Center
By Glenn Collins - The New York Times
SEXISM 101: Conjure up an image of the woman who is construction honcho at the first major rebuilding effort at ground zero. Wears that hard hat, yes? Chain-smokes Camels? Swears a blue streak? Screams a lot? Downs boilermakers while she issues arm-wrestling challenges to the guys?
O.K., Sabrina Kanner does wear the hard hat. That's about it.
Ms. Kanner is overseeing the $50 million reconstruction of the 10-story Winter Garden atrium at the World Financial Center, which suffered severe damage on Sept. 11. Her title is vice president for design and construction at Brookfield Properties, which, true to its name, owns 50 properties worth $8 billion in the United States and Canada, including the World Financial Center.
Willowy and 44, she is regularly reminded of her resemblance to Gwyneth Paltrow and Audrey Hepburn. "Sabrina is altogether ladylike," said Jim White, the on-site manager for Turner Construction, chief contractor at the Winter Garden. "She's not one of the guys, but she knows just as much as they do."
Her role as Brookfield's boss on the 11-month-old project requires equal measures of diplomacy and desk-pounding. Drawing on two decades of knockabout experience with construction crews, she hand-picked the contractors on the job and is goading them to meet their looming deadline: Sept. 11, 2002.
"There is one beauty problem I don't share with my friends: hard-hat hair," she said.
Ric Clark, president and chief executive of Brookfield, said: "It is rare to have a woman in her job in this profession, which is dominated by a rough-and-tumble boys' network. But usually she's the smartest one in the room."
Her opinion? "Being a woman worked in my favor," Ms. Kanner said, "because I am the unexpected. That puts people off balance. In this business they test you - and maybe more so when you're a woman. But when they find out you have the goods, they accept you."
She hasn't opted for the high-decibel approach in going nose to nose with the most formidable contractors and construction unions in New York. "People think the secret to being a construction boss is screaming and yelling," she said, "but the real power is the checkbook. I tell them if they don't do the job, they don't get paid. Then they listen."
These days as Lower Manhattan languishes in the summer sun, it isn't all that easy to recapture the funereal desperation of last fall. Ms. Kanner, though, is unable to forget. "It was so grim," she said on a recent afternoon in the Winter Garden.
Early on, "it was a war zone," she recalled, her gaze very far away. "You'd find yourself having your lunch next to where the morgue was." She sighed. "Anyone down here was grateful to have something to do. To make it whole again. To make things normal."
Normality is still a long way off, but "the task never seemed insurmountable, because we knew what we had to do," she said. "Enclose the buildings with plywood. Get power and water going. Then start cleaning up. And cleaning. And cleaning."
After tons of steel, glass and marble began arriving, "it was hair-raising at times, to do so many seat-of-the-pants things," Ms. Kanner said. "But everyone has done what they needed to do."
THE oldest of seven children who grew up in Haworth, N.J., she was ever accustomed to presiding at tables full of large, vocal groups. Later, as an English major at Union College in Schenectady, she took business courses "so I could get through the door," Ms. Kanner said. The door in question happened to be that of a paint contractor (she did estimates and financial reports), and soon she was hired to put together estimates for construction jobs for Olympia & York, the company that later built the World Financial Center and was ultimately succeeded by Brookfield.
"Once I got into general construction I fell in love with it," she said. "I was desperate to build. It is so tangible. So I kept begging to be a project manager." Her first project, in 1983, was a bank in 245 Park Avenue, "strictly sink or swim."
She swam so well that, two years later, she was entrusted with the construction of the 10-floor trading center at Merrill Lynch in the World Financial Center. By 1986 she was heading all building renovation, managing a company within a company.
"It's tough to be in the construction business now, but back in the 80's it was the Wild West," Mr. Clark said. "And there was Sabrina, in her 20's, running the interior construction business for Olympia & York." She became a vice president in 1989.
Curiously, not that long before Sept. 11, Ms. Kanner had returned to her first building, 245 Park Avenue, to supervise the reconstruction of the space now occupied by the brasserie Django. Since the attack on the trade center, though, her office has been ground zero.
Somehow Ms. Kanner managed to find time for a family. "I used to drive around the city with my kids till they were sick of it, telling them, `See, I did this building, I did that lobby,' " she said of Michael, now 12, and Hayley, now 9.
After Sept. 11, "I'd find myself talking about what I was doing with them," she said. "I think it was a point of pride to them, that I was down here helping to put things right. I hope it made up for those days when I couldn't get home on time."