Susan Howell was working a corporate marketing job when she and her husband, Steve, decided in 1992 to build their own timber-framed house on a two-acre plot in Boxford. As the home progressed, Howell says, neighbors were taken with the workmanship and starting asking Steve if he could do similar projects for them. He began to consider leaving his own office job to start a construction company.
“That’s when he decided to make the leap and convinced me I should join him,” Howell says.
So, in 1997, Howell left the corporate world behind and threw herself into launching Howell Custom Building Group with her husband. The risk paid off: Today, the Lawrence-based company is a widely respected, award-winning firm with a portfolio of high-end projects throughout eastern Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and southern Maine. And Howell is able to use these successes as the foundation of efforts to give back to the community.
In fact, Howell was recognized in September at the YWCA Northeastern Massachusetts’ Tribute to Women event, an honor given to women notable for their contributions to business and community.
“It’s always been a priority in my personal life and in our business to be giving back to the community,” she says.
Growing up in Huntington, New York, on Long Island, Howell was always taught the importance of service, she says.
“I grew up in a house where my parents were always involved in giving back,” she says. “I just grew up with that as part of my life.”
Growing a business and giving back
Howell attended Cornell University and studied psychology. College was also where she met Steve, after the pair was set up on a blind date. When she graduated, she followed him to the Boston area, where he was working as a software engineer. She took a marketing job at Addison-Wesley, an educational publishing company then headquartered in Reading.
Marketing, she says, was a natural fit for her personality and her interests. Communications had always been a strength of hers, and she loves helping people learn more about ideas and products she feels passionately about.
“I just love people, and it came naturally to me,” she says. “Marketing gave me a way to use all those skills.”
The couple settled into their careers, began building their home, had a daughter, and then a few years later, a son. When the pair decided to start their own company, their routine was upended, and they had to adapt, figuring out how to use their established skills in a whole new milieu.
“I would never have imagined I would have ended up in this industry,” Howell says.
For all the uncertainty, however, building their own business did give the couple the flexibility to integrate the three most important aspects of their lives: parenting, working, and charitable activities. Steve coached soccer and basketball for many years; Susan led her daughter’s Girl Scout troop for a decade.
From 2010 to 2014, Howell was a board member for the Merrimack Valley chapter of Habitat for Humanity. During that period, she and Steve were co-chairs of two Home Builders Blitzes—intensive, weeklong efforts to build an entire house, from foundation to finish work, for a family in need.
Today, Howell’s charitable work focuses mainly on organizations that help support women. She works with the Women’s Fund of Essex County, a group that provides grants to organizations doing proven, valuable work to help women and girls. Recipients include programs working in the areas of domestic violence, immigrant support, homeless assistance, food access, and art therapy. Howell is part of the grants allocation committee, which assesses applications, visits programs, and decides where to direct money each grantmaking cycle.
She is also a board member for Uncommon Threads Boutique, a nonprofit the provides low-income women with clothes, styling advice, and personal development coaching to help improve their self-esteem and confidence. Using her marketing background, Howell has helped the group plan its outreach strategy and upgrade its online presence. “We use an inside-out approach to help women see and feel their true potential,” she says.
Through all of this change and growth, one thing has remained constant: the house in Boxford. It has expanded and evolved over the years. The kids have grown up and moved out. A few years ago, a renovation overhauled the kitchen and opened up the space for better entertaining. But at its heart, it remains the home that launched both a family and a business.
“We really love what we do,” Howell says, “and love that we’ve been able to combine our passions for both our business and community engagement.”