‘I was absolutely stunned’: Palmina Whelan on joining the National Academy of Construction

She tried to escape construction, but ended up as managing director of real estate for American Airlines. Now, Palmina Whelan MCIOB has been elected to US construction’s hall of fame. We caught up with her to find out more.

In October 2022, veteran aviation construction manager Palmina Whelan MCIOB was inducted to the National Academy of Construction (NAC) in the US.

Before setting up her own advisory practice during the covid pandemic, Whelan spent more than 15 years in a senior leadership position with American Airlines (AA), as its managing director of real estate.

During her tenure there, she managed airport expansions, redevelopments, new construction, and renovation work for AA’s portfolio throughout most of the US – including Dallas-Fort Worth, New York City, and Boston – and Canada.

A kind of hall of fame for the US industry, the NAC recognises people for their achievements and makes its reservoir of expertise available for public benefit. In being elected, she joins an exclusive group of some 400 industry leaders elected to the academy since its inception 24 years ago.

Whelan could not have predicted the honour when she left high school in her native New York City. At the time, she was determined to get away from construction, having grown up in a contracting family.

GCR caught up with her to find out about her career and how construction lured her back.

GCR: You tried to escape construction. What happened?

PW: It’s funny. My father’s a contractor so I grew up in construction, though at the time I was not exposed to any females in the construction environment. Growing up, I had no interest in design and construction, so I pursued a degree in communication arts to get away from it.

Then, in my third year, I decided to study part time so I could earn some money. As life would have it, a friend of mine at the retail group J.Crew mentioned that the vice-president of real estate was looking for someone to help assist her. The task turned out to be reviewing leases for potential new retail locations.

Palmina Whelan
‘I had no interest in design and construction, so I pursued a degree in communication arts to get away from it,’ says Palmina Whelan MCIOB (Courtesy of Palmina Whelan)

They suggested it would be more of a communications, translation, and supportive role, which sounded appealing at the time. Although this position wasn’t focused on design and construction, it did help that I had a foundational comprehension in reading blueprints and a rudimentary idea of how buildings were built.

When I got the job, I ended up working with her side-by-side, negotiating the leases, and planning development locations. Then the market shifted, and J.Crew began downsizing its flagship stores. At that point a contractor we knew asked me to help him set up his first office in New York. I thought it would be exciting to help launch an organisation in a sector I was developing more touchpoints in.

And that was it. Although I began my career steadfast that I would not be in the construction industry, I kept being drawn to the built environment.

GCR: And from there to American Airlines?

PW: No. After departing from J.Crew, I moved into general contracting and from there, construction management. First with the firm O’Brien-Kreitzberg & Associates, frequently referred to as the founding fathers of construction management. Years later, I joined STV and Carter Burges. While at STV, and with their support, I joined the Construction Management Association of America (GCRAA) Metro NY/NJ Chapter, as board member. It was the first organisation I had ever joined, and now I’m a Fellow.

I joined American Airlines in 2004. An important part of my job was to interpret what the airline needed and to lead the planning, design, construction, logistics, and operation of facilities.

In the six years before covid, the airline was very active, and I managed five terminal rebuilds. When the pandemic hit, ridership crashed almost and capital programmes were cancelled.

I took a pause and evaluated my career: I conferred with trusted colleagues and took stock of how much travel I was doing, for years. I decided it was time to try something different and adjust my work-life balance, so I took the leap to start my own consultancy practice, Palmina Whelan Strategic Solutions (PWSS).

It has been an incredible journey to be my own boss and continue to work on some of the most dynamic projects in the world. For instance, PWSS is working on the $9bn JFK Terminal 1 project, the DFW Terminal C project, and many others.

GCR: How did you come to the CIOB?

PW: At the GCRAA I got to know CIOB Fellow Porie Saikia, who is now head of environment, energy and sustainability at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority of New York. She was interested in the idea of an international division of the GCRAA to raise awareness of the construction management sector internationally. So she and I, as well as a few others, formed a GCRAA committee to do that, and to see how the GCRAA and the CIOB might support each other, which is how I got to know the CIOB.

At the time, with AA, I was involved in trying to integrate British Airways into JFK Terminal 8. It was a huge help having the CIOB designation because it quantifies one’s global thinking, because the GCRAA is US-based, while CIOB is international.

GCR: Finally, what do you think about being elected to the NAC?

PW: I was absolutely stunned. I’m a humble person. Membership is by invite only. You have to be nominated by a member, then you go through a rigorous interview process and the nominating committee must vote unanimously for you to be elected. I felt blessed just to be nominated and am extremely excited to help carry the torch for so many accomplished leaders in the built environment.

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  1. Great achievement. Great story.

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