Melissa Collar’s career in law and construction came from key opportunities, and she now strives to make those opportunities possible for others.
Collar serves as chief counsel and vice president of strategic partnerships at Rockford Construction, a role she’s held since May 2020.
As the head of the company’s legal team, Collar provides counsel for the company’s real estate development, architecture, construction, brokerage and property management arms.
Though she originally might not 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 while she was going to college to be a paralegal, and that’s kind of where my love of the law started,” said Collar, who “helped” her mom proofread court transcripts and became fascinated by the cases.
However, Collar never was able to learn how the cases panned out. She wanted to follow her mom’s path, but her mom suggested she strive toward a bigger goal.
“As a paralegal, my mom always got to hear the end of the story, so I thought, ‘Oh, I should do that,’” she said. “And my mom kept saying to me, ‘Oh, you have to aim higher — be the attorney.’”
Organization: Rockford Construction
Position: Chief counsel and vice president of strategic partnerships
Birthplace: Grosse Pointe
Residence: Grand Rapids
Family: Spouse, Brad, and two children, Kyle and Courtney
Business/Community Involvement: Grand Rapids Downtown Market’s board of directors and chair of leasing committee; Women’s Resource Center’s building committee; Inforum’s board of directors; Cascade Hills Country Club’s board of directors; State Bar Real Property Law Section Council; American College of Real Estate Attorneys secretary of leasing businesses
Biggest Career Break: “My biggest career break was early in my career when I was invited to work on high-profile real estate and construction projects customarily reserved for more experienced attorneys. These projects required me to learn both the law and how to get to ‘yes’ on deals that result in win-win projects.”
Collar also said she was influenced by her father, who worked as an engineer and was very logical and determined to seek solutions to problems. According to Collar, she found herself starting to think the same way.
She decided to pursue a B.A. at the University of Michigan and enjoyed subjects such as women’s studies, law, sociology and psychology — plus the ways in which they all intersect. She also spent time volunteering at a men’s prison, which she said was a meaningful experience.
“I was always so interested in how people think and how they make decisions … and that has a lot to do with the options that they’re given,” Collar said. “I think about my younger years and the passion of solving problems and it bothering 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 went through undergrad and trying to understand people better and what their lives were like … I think those two passions cemented together.”
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 sector, and became licensed as a real estate agent.
Looking back, Collar said the license and the real estate experience paved the way for opportunities later in life.
After graduating from law school, Collar and her now-husband, Brad, relocated to the West Michigan region. She had been working for a judge who recommended she make a connection with Warner Norcross + Judd.
She became connected 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 vision that I certainly didn’t have about myself.”
During her time at Warner Norcross + Judd, Collar gained an understanding of real estate law. She also spent 13 months assisting Cameron with writing a book for the American Bar Association on construction law.
“He said, ‘We’re going to make you an expert in construction law,’” Collar said. “And he was right — by the time I was done, the book was in publication, and I had a passion for construction law.”
As Collar spent time at the firm, she handled projects with multiple construction companies, including Rockford Construction. From civic projects to educational efforts, Collar witnessed the Rockford team in action.
She said while projects can run into problems and delays without quick, collaborative thinking, she never had a problem with Rockford Construction.
“When you’re working on those transformational projects, they’re usually riskier by their very nature that they’re transformational,” Collar said. “When Rockford was on the other side of the deal, I had greater comfort.”
Still, she said she was surprised to receive a phone call from the company one day.
“When the chief counsel here decided he was ready to retire, I received a phone call,” Collar said, “which obviously was a little surprising when you think about the fact that I hadn’t actually worked as their attorney. But I knew them, and so I said, ‘Well, let’s chat.’”
She said the move to Rockford was a natural progression building upon her previous experiences.
In her work with the company, she also cochairs an internal women’s support group along with president of construction 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 working to accelerate careers for women.
Although the construction workforce traditionally has 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% — a full percentage point increase 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 that there is a problem with men,” she said. “Sometimes people will say, ‘Oh, if you support women, you’re not supporting men.’ And that’s not true. For me in particular, I didn’t get here without both men and women. The idea is we collaborate and we build together.”
Through her volunteer and mentorship experience, she strives to be a resource for young women and build up the next generation of leadership, just as others had done for her.
“I feel that it is 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.