Melissa Collar’s career in law and construction was born out of key opportunities, and she now strives to make those opportunities possible for others.
Collar is Chief Counsel and Vice President of Strategic Partnerships at Rockford Construction, a position she has held since May 2020.
As head of the company’s legal team, Collar provides advice to the real estate development, architectural, construction, brokerage and property management arms of the company.
Although she may not originally have imagined herself working in the construction industry, Collar’s interest in law stemmed from a young age.
“My mom was initially a court reporter when she was going to college to become a paralegal, and that’s kind of where my love of law started,” said Collar, who “helped” her mom proofread court transcripts and became fascinated with the cases. .
However, Collar was never able to find out how the cases played out. She wanted to follow her mother’s path, but her mother suggested that she strive for a greater goal.
“As a paralegal, my mom would always hear the end of the story, so I was like, ‘Oh, I should do this,'” she said. “And my mom kept telling me, ‘Oh, you gotta aim higher — be the advocate. “”
Organization: Rockford Building
Position: Chief Counsel and Vice President of Strategic Partnerships
Place of birth: Big Point
Residence: Great Rapids
Family: Husband, Brad, and two children, Kyle and Courtney
Business/community involvement: the Grand Rapids Downtown Market Board of Directors and Rental Committee Chair; Women’s Resource Center Construction Committee; Inforum’s Board of Directors; the Cascade Hills Country Club Board of Directors; Counsel to the Real Estate Law Section of the State Bar; American College of Real Estate Attorneys Secretary of Leasing Companies
Biggest career break: “My biggest career break came early in my career when I was asked to work on large-scale real estate and construction projects usually reserved for more experienced lawyers. These projects required me to learn how to both the law and how to get a “yes” on agreements that lead to win-win projects.”
Collar also said she was influenced by her father, who worked as an engineer and was very logical and determined to find solutions to problems. According to Collar, she found herself thinking the same way.
She decided to pursue a BA at the University of Michigan and enjoyed subjects such as Women’s Studies, Law, Sociology and Psychology – and how they intersect. She also spent time volunteering at a men’s prison, which she says was a rewarding experience.
“I’ve always been very interested in how people think and make decisions…and that has a lot to do with the options available to them,” Collar said. “I think back to my younger years and passion for solving problems and it bothers me that when I read the court transcript I didn’t know what the answer was and how they solved it. And then as I was going through my undergrad and trying to understand people better and what their lives were like…I think those two passions cemented each other.
After graduating from the University of Michigan, Collar attended Wayne State University Law School. To earn money for school, she decided to help her parents, who had transitioned into the real estate business, and got a realtor’s license.
Looking back, Collar said the license and real estate experience paved the way for opportunities later in life.
After graduating from law school, Collar and her husband, Brad, moved to the western Michigan area. She worked for a judge who recommended she tie up with Warner Norcross + Judd.
She bonded with former senior partner John Cameron, and his mentorship helped launch her 25-year journey with the firm.
“He definitely went out on a limb for me,” Collar said. “He had this view that I certainly didn’t have of myself.”
During his time at Warner Norcross + Judd, Collar gained an understanding of real estate law. She also spent 13 months helping Cameron write a book for the American Bar Association on construction law.
“He said, ‘We’re going to make you a construction law expert,'” Collar said. “And he was right – by the time I was done, the book was being published and I had a passion for construction law.”
While Collar spent time with the company, she managed projects with several construction companies, including Rockford Construction. From civic projects to educational efforts, Collar has seen the Rockford team in action.
She said that while projects can run into problems and delays without quick and collaborative thinking, she’s never had a problem with Rockford Construction.
“When you’re working on these transformational projects, they’re usually more risky by their very nature than they are transformational,” Collar said. “When Rockford was on the other side of the deal, I was more comfortable.”
Still, she said she was surprised to get a phone call from the company one day.
“When the chief attorney here decided he was ready to retire, I got a phone call,” Collar said, “which was obviously a little surprising when you think about the fact that I didn’t hadn’t actually worked as a lawyer. But I knew them, so I said, “Well, let’s talk about it.”
She said the move to Rockford was a natural progression building on her previous experiences.
As part of her work at the company, she also co-chairs an internal women’s support group with Construction President and COO Shane Napper. Outside of Rockford, her passion for mentorship reflects her work with the Women’s Resource Center commission and with Inforum, a Michigan-based organization that works to accelerate women’s careers.
Although the construction workforce has traditionally been dominated by men, statistics show slow but steady growth for women in the industry. According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, the percentage of women working in the construction industry in 2020 was just over 10%, an increase of one percentage point from 2018.
Collar sees the gap not as a men versus women issue, but as an opportunity for more collaboration.
“The most important thing for us as women leaders is never to suggest there is a problem with men,” she said. “Sometimes people say, ‘Oh, if you’re supporting women, you’re not supporting men.’ And that’s not true. For me in particular, I didn’t come here without men and women. The idea is that we collaborate and build together.
Through her volunteer and mentoring experience, she strives to be a resource for young women and to train the next generation of leadership, just as others have done for her.
“I think it’s incredibly important that those of us who have been so blessed with opportunities continue to give them similar opportunities and be that support for them,” Collar said.