SANTA CRUZ — Every once in a while, Melanie Dion gets a quizzical look when she shows up at a job site.

Dion owns Santa Cruz-based Cardinal Construction, one of a small but growing number of women-owned contracting businesses in the industry.

"Occasionally people will say, ‘Oh, I thought the boss was going to show up!’ " said Dion with a laugh. "But they get over it pretty quick."

Dion, 43, who has been licensed since 1998, started the business in May. Cardinal Construction does residential contracting jobs including framing, drywall, repairs from floods or fires, finish work such as trim or painting, and some roofing.

"We do everything, for the most part," said Dion, only occasionally subcontracting out difficult or tricky jobs such as technical electrical work.

Though women-owned firms are a minority in the construction industry, their numbers are growing quickly, according to the Center for Women’s Business Research, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C.

As of 2004, there were 652,807 privately held women-owned construction businesses in the United States, making up nearly 24 percent of all privately held firms, said Lizzy Boucher, communications project manager for the center. That number represents a 30 percent increase in the number of firms from 1997.

Dion is the only female among nearly 150 licensed general contractors belonging to the nonprofit Santa Cruz County Builders Exchange, according to executive director Kim Hogan.

The Santa Cruz-based exchange, which counts nearly 345 members, is an association of contractors, subcontractors, architects, engineers, suppliers, manufacturers and others related to the construction industry.

"I think anything women do that’s unexpected is pretty awesome," said Hogan. "I have a lot of admiration for Mel. She’s new, and I can see she’s doing everything that needs to be done to find out how to become successful. That kind of diligence is not often seen in this industry, or anywhere, really."

Odd jobs Dion started doing odd jobs while she was handling the administrative side of a contracting business she ran in the ’80s with her then-husband in San Jose. The couple moved to Santa Cruz in 1987 and eventually moved their business, too.

When Dion and her husband divorced in 1997, she decided to get her contractor’s license and went to work for commercial contractors.

During that time, she worked on a two-year project building a prototype store for Apple Computer at its warehouse in Cupertino. She then built Apple’s store at Valley Fair Mall in Santa Clara and helped with the process of building 27 others across the country.

"It was like getting my Ph.D. in construction in two years," she said. "It was awesome."

In 2002, she opened a Santa Cruz branch office for DMC Construction Inc. of Pacific Grove and operated it until the company consolidated in March last year. She began looking for other work and then decided to open her own business. The architects, insurance agents and others she had networked with began calling her with jobs.

"I knew it was an option, and it was something I knew how to do," said Dion.

She thinks her combination of office, people and field skills is helpful to her business now.

"I think it’s a job women can do well," she said. "If you start in the office, you learn the customer-related things first — listening to the client, showing up on time, things like that."

Showing up on time was one thing that impressed repeat client Richard Randolph of Santa Cruz.

"I like the fact that if they said they were starting at 8, there was always somebody here at 8," he said.

In fact, being present at all in the notoriously hard-to-pin-down contracting industry is one way Dion says business has come her way.

"Half of it is just showing up," she said.

Nailing it Business slowed some during the holidays, said Dion, but has been on a steady growth track otherwise.

"I see, already, return clients and referrals," she said.

Cardinal Construction employs six full-time workers, including carpenters, drywallers, painters and generalists.

Current jobs include building a deck, doing some finish work to put a home on the market and fixing flooding problems for a house in escrow.

Occasionally, said Dion, though she enjoys working with men, the atmosphere at jobs can get a little too "guy" for her. Then she simply goes to another part of the project.

"But everybody’s pretty respectful, and I can give it as well as I can take it," Dion laughs.

Being a woman contractor does feel "a little lonely some days," said Dion. "I’d like to find another (female contractor) for mentoring, and to have lunch with."

There are some advantages to her position, though.

"I don’t ever have to load my own lumber or materials into the truck," she joked. "And a lot of the places I go, people know me because I’m one of the few women in there."

Dion would like to see other women follow in her footsteps.

"Women approach it differently than the guys," she said. "They’re more detail-oriented, and more customer- rather than construction-oriented, so I think it’s better for their customers that way."

That kind of attention to detail didn’t go unnoticed by client Randolph, who was impressed not only with Cardinal’s craftsmanship but its record-keeping, itemized bills and on-time payment of subcontractors.

"I like doing it," said Dion. "I enjoy it — that’s the best part."

Contact Gwen Mickelson at gmickelson@santacruzsentinel.com.

Cardinal Construction WHAT: Woman-owned general contractor.

OWNER: Melanie Dion.

LOCATION: Santa Cruz.

LICENSE NO.: 751849.

SERVICES: Residential contracting jobs including framing, drywall, repairs from floods or fires, finish work such as trim and painting, roofing.

INFORMATION: 420-1720; flyermel@cruzio.com.