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Weekly Conversation: Tiara Rubio, project manager for Suffolk Construction

Tiara Rubio of Suffolk Construction is the project manager for the new Hard Rock Casino Hotel tower in Tampa. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]
Published Aug. 21

Tiara Rubio grew up in the Dominican Republic watching her father oversee the construction of Texaco gas stations.

The family followed him from city to city, and Rubio grew more fascinated by the work with each project. Yet it wasn't the architecture as much as her father's work with different people that left her intrigued.

"He never had any fancy computer equipment," Rubio said. "It was all personal interaction. I really fell in love with that aspect."

Now, she serves as a project manager for Suffolk Construction and recently headed up the work on the Seminole Hard Rock Casino's new hotel tower. Thanks to her roots, she is as comfortable in a hard hat on site as she is in a conference room with clients.

She recently spoke to Times columnist Ernest Hooper about the hotel, slated to officially open in October, adjusting her approach to different people involved in the effort and why she has fallen in love with Tampa. The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

There's a lot of excitement surrounding the opening of the new Hard Rock Hotel. What's it like to see the project come to fruition?

It's exciting. So, we've been on the property for three years now and we're almost at the end of it. The exciting part of that property is that every day there's something new. So, the project is three big phases. You have the hotel tower, you have the expansion of the existing casino, and then you have the renovation of the property. So, every time you go onto the property you see a new area that has just recently opened. That's really the exciting part. You see the people, how they transfer from one area of the casino into the new part of the casino. And you see their excitement to use the new machines and the new architecture and design that's in this space is just transforming the space every day.

Were there any particular challenges you encountered as project manager for the hotel tower?

Absolutely. This is the first time that I've personally worked with the client. So, the first challenge was getting to know our clients and learning how they like to work so that we can adapt to their ways of working. Also, I had to get to know the subcontractors. I personally had never worked with any of them before. Really that is the exciting part of the industry and having this position. You're working with so many different people that you get to experience different personalities and you have to figure out how to work around them and adapt yourself to their personalities as well so you can work together.

And you're good at that?

I think I've mastered that.

You grew up in the Dominican Republic watching your father build gas stations for Texaco. How did you end up coming to the United States?

In the Dominican Republic, you really did not have a construction management program per se. You were either an architect or an engineer and you ran the job. So I went into architecture and I went to an American school in the Dominican Republic. So, culturally, I was more adapted to the American way. I always wanted to come and study in the United States. And my dad made that dream come true for me. As I was here studying, I found out that I really couldn't draw at all and that was one of my insecurities. I came upon the construction management program. I didn't know anything about it, but there was one gentleman that I met that kind of led me to it and explained what it was. He is now my husband for 10 years and I switched my major (at Florida International University) to construction management and pursued that career.

How difficult was it adjusting from the Dominican Republic to Miami. You know, Miami is "Lights, Camera, Action."

It was a dream come true. To me, it was amazing. It was as busy as you can imagine. Traffic was horrible, you know, but there weren't really any adjustments to be made. I spoke the language, so English is my second language. I spoke the language. Miami is the Hispanic central of the United States, so I really did not have to make that much of an adjustment.

But it's so fast-paced, so diverse.

I think that's what has helped me to adapt and to be more open to different ideas and different personalities. You know, you have so many different cultures in Miami that you really cannot just focus on who you are in your own ways. You have to adapt.

This is a male-dominated profession. Are the waters more difficult to navigate being a woman?

I have never experienced any difficulty. Being a woman in my industry, I think it's an amazing advantage. You are treated differently, but that's definitely an advantage. You're treated with more respect. People take a second and they actually listen to your ideas as a woman. Because there are so many other men in the room. It's almost like, "Okay, we do have a different perspective. Let's listen."

Did you feel compelled at all to prove yourself, to show that you know what you're talking about?

Absolutely. Not necessarily just because I was a woman, but because this is not my home. I'm a stranger to this state, to this nation, so I felt coming here, I needed to prove myself, needed to prove that I deserved to be here. I needed to prove to my parents and my peers that I'm not just here to make a paycheck. I'm here to make a difference.

You say you've fallen in love with Tampa and you don't plan a return to Miami. Tell me about that.

I've met so many amazing people, not just in the industry, but I've gotten involved in the community in an extremely fulfilling way. Hopefully, people know about the nonprofit Starting Right, Now. I have a passion for their work helping unaccompanied teens. There's nothing like helping the generation that's coming after us and I think what (executive director) Vicki Sokolik doing is amazing. There's not one day that I walked into that place that I don't just get out of there in tears. I am so proud of those kids and everything that they overcome. Hearing their stories has definitely made me stronger and has taught me to stop whining about the insignificant things in my life and to really be stronger, not just for myself but for my kids.

How proud is your dad about your work? The casino is a little bigger than a gas station.

Oh, my goodness. He is just ecstatic. We do talk very often and, in our conversations, it's always about what's going on with the job and how did we build something? And I'm always asking him, "How do you guys do this over there?" It definitely gives me something to connect with him about.

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