In Barbara Papantoniou’s office, there’s a domed stained-glass skylight in the center of the ceiling.
She designed and fabricated it during her recent renovation of York Industrial, the family commercial/industrial painting business she joined nearly 30 years ago.
Three decades is a long time to work for one company, and after that much service, many people would have their minds on retirement.
But not Barbara. She’s only 38.
“When I was nine, this was my playground,” she says as she gives a tour of the downstairs warehouse. “By 13, I was reading blueprints, and by 16 I was doing office work. My goal was to be the boss.”
She’s not only the boss but also the owner of the company.
York Industrial was started some 45 years ago by Barbara’s father, Elias, who is from the Greek island of Kos.
He’s an artist, and the company’s first offices were in his van. Eventually, he was successful enough to buy the Steinway Street building that is York Industrial’s home.
It was only natural that Barbara, the middle of three children, started helping him.
She’s always been a creative person and hands-on learner, and he was more than happy to teach her everything he knew, which was quite a lot.
“I started out painting the wooden clocks he made,” she says. “I also learned carpentry and welding and gold leafing and glass blowing and construction – I can build a house from the foundation up.”
It didn’t matter that many of the skills Barbara was mastering were generally considered the province of the opposite gender.
“People did question why a woman was doing this,” she says. “When I drive the forklift to move things in the warehouse, people still stare. But I never let anything hold me back, and I have no trouble giving orders or hiring and firing.”
She says her confidence comes from her father, who opened up opportunities – and doors – for her.
The fact that she and York Industrial came of age together facilitated her transition to leadership.
“I grew up with a lot of the employees,” she says. “They are like family. They have never had an issue with my being boss.”
Despite Barbara’s myriad talents, she didn’t have any interest in formally studying art, opting instead to earn a bachelor’s degree in geology from Queens College.
“I love Mother Nature,” she says. “God and my father are my favorite artists.”
She worked her way through school by working full time for York Industrial; she took classes at night.
When she graduated, she never thought of applying to any other companies and has no intention of ever leaving.
Barbara, who is pretty and petite and perfectly at home around power tools, says it is challenging working in a male-dominated profession.
“I’ve gotten kicked out of construction trailers by men because they didn’t think I was the contractor,” she says. “I’ve attended conventions of 300 where I was the only woman. And I did get sexually harassed by one of my own employees.”
Earlier in her career, Barbara did work in the field, but these days much of her time is spent bringing in new contracts and doing the administrative tasks that keep the company running.
The company, which is certified as a Woman and Minority Owned Business Enterprise, has 10 employees; Barbara and her assistant are the only women.
To clear her mind, she pedals on the exercise bike next to her expansive desk for five-minute intervals.
Or she goes upstairs to the art workshop that she and her father share.
It’s a compact space, but there’s a door that opens to the roof.
On one of the walls, there’s a spontaneous mural where Barbara and her father wipe their brushes and write what’s on their minds.
In the center, in black paint, there are the words “God Is Good.”
Barbara and her father often collaborate on projects; right now, they’re working on a round table top that has wood inlays.
“Sometimes I sketch my ideas, and sometimes I dream them,” she says. “Or I think about them. A thought can turn into something physically. But the more I think about them, the less they come out.”
Barbara embraces change; that’s why she renovated her office and installed the skylight.
And for York Industrial and Barbara, the next 30 years are only the beginning.
Someday, she’d like to convert part of the warehouse into a community-style art school.
Of course, she’d continue to run the company.
Astoria Characters Day: The 10th Anniversary is Sept. 15, 2019.
Sponsored by Bareburger, it’s a free, public event.
Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at Nruhing@gmail.com; @nancyruhling, nruhling on Instagram, nancyruhling.com, astoriacharacters.com.
Copyright 2019 by Nancy A. Ruhling