A car­ing leader in busi­ness and in the com­mu­nity.

Ge­or­gia Cun­ning­ham’s lead­er­ship and drive get things done, in busi­ness and in the com­mu­nity

Grand Magazine - - CONTENTS - By Carol Jankowski

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.”

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada

© PressReader. All rights reserved.