A caring leader in business and in the community.
Georgia Cunningham’s leadership and drive get things done, in business and in the community
WATERLOO CONSTRUCTION executive Georgia Cunningham had an early call to the business world. As a recent high school graduate, she was considering her options when her father, George, said he needed help at his general contracting firm for a few days.
Keeping the office in order had been her mother Laura’s part-time job once George opened his own business in 1976, but by 1984 illness prevented her from continuing. With their older daughter Beverley at university, Georgia became the logical replacement.
First she sorted invoices and paperwork at S.G. Cunningham Ltd. Then she began to see more she could do.
“I love to organize,” Georgia said in an interview. “When I was growing up, whenever my parents went out I’d reorganize the entire house, move the furniture around, even rake the orange shag rug. I like things to look nice and have an order to them.”
Within six months she realized she was on the job to stay: “I’d become the office engineer.”
“She has a quality that’s hard to find,” her father said. “She really cares about the people who work for us. She’s also very firm. Once she makes up her mind she calls the shots and she always follows through. You never have to ask if something is done. I say, ‘I work for Georgia. She’s the boss.’ Georgia looks after me very, very well.”
Business increased slowly and steadily over the next three decades and Georgia’s responsibilities grew with it. Today there are 23 employees and Georgia is chief financial officer and vice-president. Beverley started on a part-time basis five years ago and is now director of marketing communications.
“I’m well blessed that I have my family with me,” George said.
Earlier this year Georgia received a Leading Women Building Communities award from the Ontario Women’s Directorate in recognition of her volunteerism, advocacy of non-traditional careers for women, positive role modelling, and other aspects of community leadership.
Among her personal milestones is the day in 1986 when a Xerox computer salesperson walked into the office and told her she should have a computer. “I agree,” she replied, having admired the look of them on desks at the Waterloo Chronicle. It was a bonus that Xerox had an agreement with Conestoga College that people who >>
>> introduced computers to their offices were eligible for free computer training.
Even today, it takes Georgia just seconds to retrieve a red file folder of typed and handwritten notes provided by the course instructor. The notes are so good she still consults them occasionally.
Another milestone was a 1997 invoice for a client’s new office that she preserves at the back of an accounts payable file. “That job started a lot of good things for our company,” Georgia said.
In retrospect, it wasn’t so much that the job was remarkable as the fact it came at a time when she was moving past personal and business challenges.
“For some reason, from that project on, I steered myself forward in a really positive direction, and I changed the way I thought about everything in my life,” Georgia said. “I keep the invoice handy to remind myself of my many blessings, how far I have come, how much I have learned, and how in one moment, with one thought, with one project, your life can change.
“I have not met a single businesswoman or man who has not had to overcome some difficulties in their personal or business life. I know it sounds very cliché, but those hard times are what we learn most from, that teach us gratitude and keep us grounded, and they are definitely a big part of what inspires me to want to give back to our community. I feel so fortunate to live and work here ... anything is possible with hard work and a positive attitude.”
Lacking formal education in office management, she never hesitated to ask questions. “It never entered my mind that I couldn’t do something; I just picked up the phone and asked someone how.”
The way she acquired management skills was not unlike the practical, hands-on learning that George relied on to become a skilled carpenter in his native Ireland. In 1968, he immigrated to Canada with “two suitcases, two children, one wife and $70 in his pocket,” Georgia noted with pride. He’d lined up a job in advance with Ball Brothers Construction, a Kitchener company “he still thinks the world of,” she said.
Eight years later, on June 6, 1976, he opened S.G. Cunningham. Georgia vividly remembers “dad making us breakfast and saying ‘This is a new day.’ With his skill in managing people, we always believed he would be successful.”
Although she took a few accounting courses at Conestoga, her father never suggested she return to school full time. “When I’m 60, maybe I’ll enrol at Laurier and take business because I’ll have more time,” she said.
“Our accountants have little to do when they come in once a year because Georgia has everything in such perfect order,” George said of his daughter’s aptitude with numbers. “At another business like ours they might spend two weeks, but they just need a couple of days with us.”
This year, for the first time, Georgia interviewed accounting students with a view to
offering co-op terms at the firm.
“It’s not about becoming the biggest contractor in town, although we like to be the best,” she said. “I wanted to be able to do big things, but still stay small. We’re like a boutique contractor; we can build anything, and there is no job too small for us to do. Our employees enjoy moving on to new projects.”
The firm is best known for its commercial office projects, building new space for companies such as Desire2Learn, Descartes and Cambridge’s Education Credit Union, rehabilitating old Tannery space for clients like Google, and supervising office renovations for firms including Gowlings, Open Text and Sun Life Financial.
One of her responsibilities is the final pricing on projects. “My name is on the contracts that go out. We have project managers and estimators to give us information — they know what they need to cover costs. I wouldn’t sleep at night otherwise,” she said.
“We’re proactive in preparing for problems that crop up on any job; that’s why we’re not the cheapest contractor in town. Every day we’re problem-solving. Project managers on site email us requested changes, and we emphasize keeping paperwork organized and on schedule.”
She’s proud of the company’s stable workforce. “I’m always brought into the hiring process or consulted about site managers. In our industry it’s rare not to have high turnover. I’m always open to meeting new sub-trades; we usually have half a dozen pricing for us on a project. Who gets the work is always based on performance — who we want representing us on a project with our clients.”
In the early years, the firm handled small office and residential projects. One of their first houses was built for former Waterloo mayor Brian Turnbull on a property which then was on the outskirts of the city, but now hosts streets of new housing and busy Ira Needles Boulevard.
Another early project was a swimming pool for Waterloo businessman Glen Wright. With no available access to his backyard, “we craned the excavator over his house,” Georgia said, laughing at the memory. “It worked, and led to us renovating numerous houses and offices for him.”
The Cunninghams try to inspire employees to get involved in the community. Laura Cunningham was diagnosed with cancer a year before her death in 2011, and “it encouraged me to make Grand River Regional Cancer Centre a priority for us,” Georgia said. “We encouraged people to donate.”
A cousin, John Deans, who emigrated from Northern Ireland 26 years ago and worked his way up at S.G. Cunningham from labourer to carpenter, superintendent and now project manager, supports her in many charitable events. “John is like a brother to me and really puts the fun in fundraising,” Georgia said. >>
>> She serves on the board of the St. Mary’s Hospital Foundation and is also a passionate supporter of the arts. For three years, she was a member of the Theatre & Company board, enthused by its move from tight quarters in a corner of a downtown mall to a new custom-built theatre near King and Queen streets in Kitchener.
“It was an amazing space and they had a wonderful story to tell,” Georgia said. But when costs in the new building became unsustainable for the small group of actors, she was grateful that local philanthropists Penny and Manfred Conrad purchased and preserved it for performing arts.
The Conrad Centre is now home base for the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony; Theatre & Company regrouped as the smaller, successful Lost & Found Theatre.
One of her most entertaining volunteer projects has been helping to organize Themuseum’s Studio 54 gala in 2010 through 2012 and again this year.
Through volunteering she met Joan Euler, a dynamic community organizer who became a great friend and mentor. Euler, who died last year, and Georgia launched their friendship while partnering on projects with Theatre & Company and Themuseum.
“She always reminded me of the good things in life,” Georgia said. “We took the Centre in the Square travel club trips together, and we were always buying each other tickets to things and we’d go together. She could really sell tickets, and I couldn’t say no to her!”
In 2012, when Euler told her “you need to meet Ian McLean,” president and chief executive officer of the Greater KW Chamber of Commerce, Georgia invited him to Studio 54. He wasn’t available, but she persevered, inviting him to dinner. Feb. 5 marked the third anniversary of their romance; she smiles as she says he’s her boyfriend.
Last Christmas, Georgia gave McLean a date calendar for one lunch a month somewhere special. One of their first
lunches took them back to the Bauer Kitchen where McLean made sure they had the same table as on their first date.
“We don’t talk business all the time,” Georgia said, “but he gets where I’m coming from.” If she’s at the office at 10 p.m., as she frequently is, “he doesn’t make a big deal of it.”
Last year, three generations of McLeans and Cunninghams shared a vacation house in the south of France for a week, and she planned to spend the 2015 March break with McLean and his two daughters in Florida. But when four requests for proposals arrived early in the month, she chose to stay home to work while the McLeans spent the break with her father in Florida.
She is also events chair for the Waterloo chapter of the International Women’s Forum, an executive networking group she joined two years ago. “It’s a no-stress organization; we try to meet monthly, but there’s no guilt attached to not making a meeting.” Georgia said. “It’s a great group of women who are exciting to be around; we chat about our responsibilities.”
While the group sometimes meets for dinner, she also arranged an evening at the Pink Tartan fashion emporium in Toronto to hear about style trends and to shop. “I try to tap all the avenues of interest in the group.”
At least 15 years of her life were happily complicated by her daughter Julianne Costigan’s devotion to Irish dancing. Julianne was three or four when she first saw a video of the original “Riverdance.” Captivated, she insisted on replaying it daily.
When Julianne was seven, Georgia saw Butler Academy of Irish Dance pupils performing at Kitchener City Hall. The school offered a weekly class at the YWCA on Frederick Street, but all other classes were taught in Toronto, and that’s when mother and daughter became 401 commuters.
“I look back, driving three or four times a week in snow storms and traffic, and I don’t know how I did it,” Georgia said. “But we were told Julianne had ‘natural Irish dancer feet’ and I was too afraid of the teacher to miss a class. We were sometimes a bit late, and I even bought the teacher’s Christmas presents for her because I didn’t want her to yell at me. All of her students were champions, so I drove and drove and drove.”
When the Doyle Academy of Irish Dance opened in Waterloo several years later, Julianne registered there and enjoyed great success at North American and World Irish dance championships. She appeared on television and performed with fiddler Frank Leahy until a snapped Achilles tendon ended her competition days when she was 20.
Georgia doesn’t regret the countless hours she committed to Julianne’s dancing: “It instilled such confidence and time management skills in her. I’m very proud of her.”
Julianne, now 24, studied fashion at Ryerson University and is self-employed in Toronto as a stylist, with Fashion magazine her primary client.
Georgia’s sister, Beverley Cunningham, assembles requests for proposals and oversees health and safety communications, an important part of the general contracting business.
It’s given her an inside view of her sister at work. “Georgia’s very serious and committed to the entire business and to employees’ welfare,” Beverley said. “She’s also passionate about and ambitious for the business, and that’s infectious. She’s committed to doing things right, with integrity passed on from our father.”
Or, as a sign over George’s desk says: “we do it once and do it right.”
“We have numerous repeat clients and I never take that for granted,” Georgia said. “We’re not just builders of offices and buildings, we want to be builders of the community as well, and we surround ourselves with people who have likeminded values.”