Last Christmas, Barbara Evans, chief financial officer (CFO) of Thomas Concrete, Atlanta, did something different. She made a gift basket for every senior citizen she knew and visited them. She pays attention to such details.Evans has been a detail person for a long time. Her father died when she was 16 and her high school principal taught her how to make a budget, negotiate a loan, and go to the Veteran's Administration to file for her father's death benefit.

That same principal made the biggest impact on her life: He suggested she go to college. No one in her family had ever been to college so she hadn't even considered it. Evans didn't want to clean houses, be a secretary, or work in retail, so she took his advice.

Evans thought she'd study education but quickly learned that she didn't have the patience for teaching children. "I took an accounting class in college because I loved math," she says. And that set her on her course.

Learning concrete

Evans joined Thomas Concrete 20 years ago as a staff accountant. One night the CEO saw her working late, while her kids lay reading on the floor of her office. When she explained to him that she was studying for the CPA exam, he was impressed. Evans went on to teach the CEO about finances and he taught her concrete—the materials, the equipment, and the processes. She now can speak as easily about concrete as she can about accounting.

Evans can walk into a roomful of men and talk about concrete, garnering their respect because she understands both concrete and the business world. "That's different from 20 years ago. Now when I speak, people listen," says Evans, who became CFO five years ago. "They're amazed by how much I know."

Concrete challenges Evans. "I am inspired by what we can do and about how we can get to the next level and make a change," she says.

Evans also thrives on keeping Thomas Concrete successful. Her secret to success during this recession is proper planning during the good years. "In construction there are always ups and downs. You just have to be ready for the downs," she says.

Evans' impact is widespread. Not only did she attend college, but all except one of her seven brothers and sisters also attended. Plus, both of her children are pursing MBAs. All this from a family that never considered college until Evans dared to try. These are the details of her life that she shares with others, speaking at schools and churches about pursuing dreams. Meanwhile, she remains the steady hand that guides the finances at Thomas Concrete.

Kari Moosmann is a freelance writer based in Woodridge, Ill.