Cindy Leonard Stumpo hears one phrase so frequently that she jokes it could serve as her epitaph: “You don’t look like a general contractor.” Which is certainly true for the Boston homebuilder. Missing the Y chromosome of most of her peers hasn’t put her at a disadvantage, however. It’s the novelty of being a woman in a man’s business, as well as her skill as a builder of multimillion-dollar estates in Chestnut Hill, Newton and Brookline, that landed a role on HGTV’s Tough as Nails last year. Even so, potential clients often stare in disbelief when they first meet the five-foot-five, 127-pound, 47-year-old Stumpo—numbers she shares as readily as a contractor ticks off the dimensions of a room.
Relocating to Newton from West Peabody at age 13 laid the foundation for Stumpo’s future livelihood. “I had never seen houses like this before,” she recalls. It was detail work that first caught her attention, and now this eye for detail is her trademark. It’s hard to drive through the neighborhoods just west of the city without spotting a home bearing the Stumpo stamp, such as stucco facades and imposing front doors. Price tags on her properties range from $1.5 million to the multimillions, and all are customized down to the last vanity.
Stumpo personally oversees all of her projects, and while she might substitute a Gucci belt for a tool belt, this veteran builder can handle any motley construction crew. “When I first started out at age 23, I would try to find that balance of how to be a young lady and still get my point across,” she says. “I don’t care anymore. ‘Please’ and ‘thank you’ don’t work in construction. You have to stay on these guys all of the time. People ask me what I do for a living, and I tell them I own an adult daycare center.” That said, Stumpo cares for her guys like they’re her extended family.
Stumpo says her on-the-job toughness can be chalked up to a few hard knocks—with the death of her brother when she was 26 being most difficult— her North Shore roots and a genetic disposition toward being a strict taskmaster. But what truly sets her apart as a contractor, she says, is the “why factor.” As a teenager, asking her father “why” to the point of delirium while shadowing him in his businesses taught her the ropes. Now, she asks herself the same question dozens of times a day to ensure that her homes are well thought out and not merely a product of protocol.
Meanwhile, Stumpo’s neighborhood nucleus is holding strong in an economic downturn. She has upped the ante, reinventing the outside façades of her homes and using little restraint when it comes to interior bells and whistles—because when the going gets tough, Stumpo gets tougher and her projects become more beautiful.