In the arcane, male-dominated world of surety bonding, Karen Pecora-Barbour has been a pioneer her entire 33-year career.
Surety bonds are legally binding contracts, typically used in construction projects, that ensure obligations will be met between the principal (usually the contractor), the obligee (the person or entity bound by the contract) and the surety (the insurance company guaranteeing that the principal will fulfill the obligations).
Surety bonding has been Pecora-Barbour’s specialty and when she started as an underwriter, she was one of the first female surety bond writers in the country.
She worked her way up to being a bond producer, arranging bonds for a surety company, and again was one of the first female producers in the country.
“I was told there are no women bond producers, you’re not going to make it,” she recalled recently.
In 2002, after 17 years in the business and keen on helping the minority- and women-owned businesses she thought were missing out on too many contracts, she started her own surety bonding and commercial insurance business – again, a rarity for a woman. The Barbour Group is based in Westminster but does business in dozens of states and overseas.
“I wanted to become more of a political advocate, to push for legal changes,” she said. “I thought the regulatory system in Maryland was more geared against small businesses than for small businesses.”
Her timing, however, was imperfect. She launched her company the year after the 9/11 attacks, when business for federal contractors, who were most of her clients, dropped dramatically as more funding was put into homeland security. Also, the area’s tourism-related construction industry pretty much dried up and insurance rates went through the roof, forcing some of her contractors to fold.
“The first year or two were not so good,” Pecora-Barbour recalled. “But after that it went really well…. Until we had the recession.”
She has coped with the ups and downs in a variety of ways, some creative. Recently, for example, she formed a joint venture with a larger bonding agency in Delaware to cover administrative costs. The change cut her overhead dramatically, at the same time quadrupling her markets.
The Barbour Group does some business in Maryland, bucking what Pecora-Barbour says is a still-strong “good-old-boy” network that dominates the industry. She does a lot of business in Virginia, the District of Columbia and other states, and has bonded projects for the U.S. State Department in nine foreign countries.
In Maryland, her work got a huge boost when she was certified as a women-owned business 15 years ago. She considers all of the secretaries of the Governor’s Office of Small, Minority and Women Business Affairs she’s worked with as friends, she said, and their help has been invaluable.
“They’ve supported me on legislation, and promoted me at their events,” she said. “They’ve helped my brand, given validity and support to what I’ve tried to do.
“…Without them, I wouldn’t have gotten one-tenth the business I’ve gotten in Maryland.”
Pecora-Barbour’s work has earned her numerous awards, including being named small businessperson of the year for the state of Maryland by the Small Business Administration in 2008, and business honors from The Daily Record and Baltimore Sun.
In the past few years, meanwhile, she has expanded her reach by launching a handful of new companies.
One is the BG Network, a team of consultants, many of them retired executives, to assist small businesses. Another is the Alliance for Hispanic Commercial Contractors, which helps the underrepresented Hispanic community with surety bonding, contract negotiations, proposal writing and more.
She also heads the Party for the Cure, a fundraising group that supports individuals with neuromuscular diseases, such as muscular dystrophy, and their families with cell phones, service dogs, housing renovations and more. This year’s big fundraiser, a gala dinner, raised about $125,000, she said.
Most recently, Pecora-Barbour launched the National Small Business Party, a national political party designed to help small businesses, which she believes are inadequately represented at the federal level.
Her trend-setting career has been an uneven ride, but Pecora-Barbour has no major regrets.
“I’ve made a lot of good friends along the way, met people from all walks of life, people I don’t think I would’ve met if I didn’t have my own company,” she said. “I’ve had losses, but made money, too. I have one kid through college, the other one almost done. … It’s not a bad scorecard.”
This article is featured in the 2018 edition of The Daily Record’s Expanding Opportunites Resource Guide for Small, Minority and Women Businesses. Published in conjunction with the Governor’s Office of Small, Minority & Women Business Affairs, Expanding Opportunities explores diversity, entrepreneurship and innovation in Maryland’s small business community. Read more from Expanding Opportunities on this website or read the digital edition.