After a decade-plus of growth and success that has firmly established her general contracting company as a gold standard, one with national cachet, it’s easy to forget that Beverly Raphael took over as president of RCC Associates amid life-altering grief—and patronizing contentions that a woman with zero background in construction should leave the hard-hat business to the men.

The recent recipient of the Wharton Club of South Florida’s prestigious Entrepreneur of the Year award (the first local woman to be so honored) shares more of those early challenges with Boca Raton:

The death of Richard, her husband and RCC founder, in 1998: “Richard was extremely athletic; he played polo in Boca. Every day after work, as long as it was light out, he’d ride his horse and practice.

“He was all work and no play. The horses were his release. I had gotten him polo lessons at Casa de Campo [in the Dominican Republic] for his 40th birthday. Little did I know that he would fall in love with polo and buy many horses. He tried to buy ones that all looked the same so I wouldn’t notice ... but he had seven horses.

“We were getting ready to move into a new house at Addison Reserve. The day we were waiting for the inspection on the house, he kept taking his glasses off. He said he had a tingling on the side of his head, and his speech was off. I thought he had a mini-stroke. He went to the doctor, and I stayed at the house for the inspection.

“They put him in the hospital for observation, and the next morning he was diagnosed with three malignant brain tumors, unreachable with surgery. They said he had four months to live, and they were right.”

A moment of levity amid the grief: “The last few days that Richard was with us, I had him at home. We had planned his funeral arrangements while he was still alive, which was very surreal. Our funeral director suggested to me that I might want to pick out clothes and some things that were important to Richard, so that he could be buried with those items.

“So I pulled out his favorite pair of jeans, an Armani jacket and his cowboy boots. I hung the clothes on hangers so, when the time came, I didn’t have to think about it. The next morning, Richard passed. The funeral home came and picked up everything. A few hours later, the director called me. He said, ‘I know this is a very stressful time, and I don’t want to add to your stress. ... But are you sure you want him buried without pants?’

"I had forgot to give them the jeans. Richard always teased me about being forgetful. If you could find the humor in a horrible situation, that was it.”

Running the business: “When I started coming in regularly, I spent the better part of six months sitting quietly in an office across from the vice president’s office. And I listened. I didn’t come in and say, ‘I own the company and this is how it’s going to be.'

“That [window] allowed me to look at the big picture. I had to stabilize the company. It didn’t matter who was the big cheese. Let’s look at the jobs that are profitable and the jobs that aren’t. Let’s see which employees are assets and which ones are just along for the ride.

“I offered minority stock to Rick Rhodes, who had been with my husband for more than a decade; he knew the construction part of it. I had the business instincts. And little by little, we started making decisions and moving forward. Rick didn’t know for sure what I knew or what I didn’t know. But he was so respectful. As we started to become profitable again, it was easier for him to support my thinking. And then it became both of our thinking.”

On what she’s brought to the company: “I think I have a talent for drawing people in. I can draw a customer in, but I can also do that with our staff. I’m honest with everyone here. I genuinely care about the employees, their children, their spouses. ... People felt proud that this woman was sticking with them. I didn’t take the easy way out, which many people predicted.

“I only quit once in my life, and that was college. And that has driven me to finish everything else that I’ve ever started.”