In the male-dominated field of transportation, Belen Marcos may not look like the road bosses of yesterday. But she may very well be a symbol of where things are headed.
Marcos is only 37 years old, but she is CEO of the North Tarrant Express, a $2.1 billion construction project that includes the makeover of Loop 820 and Texas 121/183 in Northeast Tarrant County.
The Spanish native was named CEO of the year last week by the Regional Hispanic Contractors Association, a Dallas-based group that each year provides a Luna Award to a female senior executive.
"Belen represents the best of the construction profession and is a role model for both women and men in construction, architecture and engineering," association President John H. Martinez said.
Only about 1 in 10 engineers is a woman, according to the Labor Department. But Marcos is doing her part by ensuring that woman and minorities participate in the North Tarrant Express. During the first year of the five-year project, 76 historically disadvantaged companies were contracted to receive a combined $74 million, and the project is ahead of its target for using women- and minority-owned firms, officials said.
"She has done a great job within her organization to promote outreach," said North Richland Hills Mayor Oscar Trevino, who owns a construction company. He isn't involved with the North Tarrant Express but regularly gets briefings from Marcos and her staff. "Any conversation you have with Belen, she talks about minority participation and inclusion. She basically walks the walk."
Building roads may have traditionally been a good ol' boy's profession, but the future is wide open, said Marcos, who was raised in a small city 280 miles south of Barcelona and has lived in the United States since 2003.
"In Spain it was the same. The construction world has always been a guy's world," Marcos said during an interview from her office on the sixth floor of the Frost Bank building in North Richland Hills. "But I have never found an issue, and I have never felt discriminated against because I was a woman."
The daughter of a banker and a stay-at-home mom, she was the first in her family to attend college. She earned a master's degree in civil engineering from Polytechnic University of Valencia and studied transportation infrastructure for a year at Ecole Nationale des Ponts et Chausees in Paris.
After graduation, she nabbed a job in 1999 with Cintra, a global firm that specializes in toll roads, parking and other mobility-related projects -- and she has remained with the company since.
The first four years, Marcos worked as a project engineer, analyzing costs for projects in Spain, Portugal, Ireland and the United Kingdom.
In 2003, she agreed to move to the United States, where Cintra was among the first companies to show interest in privatizing roads in Texas and many other states.
No Spanish concrete
Marcos worked as chief information officer for ITR Concession Co., which paid $3.8 billion to take over the Indiana Toll Road. She also served as chief operating officer for the Chicago Skyway, another toll project that Cintra took over from the public sector, before moving to North Texas in 2009 to take the helm of the North Tarrant Express project.
In Texas, Cintra has taken a lot of heat from critics of toll projects, who say they don't want foreign-owned companies to control public roads.
Marcos said she generally doesn't let such criticism bother her, as long as the integrity of her engineering and other professional work isn't called into question.
"Once people see that we are professionals, our main concern is to do things well, and that plenty of jobs are created, and the talk of foreigners will eventually go away," she said. "It is true that we have Spanish shareholders, but we are an American company. ... We do not bring the concrete from Spain."