Headshot of Cindy Richter

Cindy Richter is President and CEO of Vanguard Fire Systems, a leading fire and life safety contractor in Central Texas. Cindy has also previously served as President of the National Association of Women in Construction.

I talked to Cindy about her journey in construction leadership and adapting to the quickly changing technological landscape — including an evolving mindset in regards to having employees who work from home. Cindy also gives some professional advice for young women looking to make their way in or break into the workforce.

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Lori: So, why don’t you tell us about your career journey — what made you decide to get into construction, and how you got where you are today.

Cindy: So my journey is a little bit different. My husband and I bought a Vanguard Fire Systems in 2003, so I didn’t grow up in the industry — before that, I was in consumer product sales. The similarities are that they’re both very male-dominated industries. So I started my career being the only woman in a district of a lot of men, most of whom were older than myself. But in 2003, my husband and I bought what at the time was Honeycutt Fire Systems, and we’ve owned it for the last 18 years.

Can you describe what Vanguard does, and what you do on a day-to-day basis?

What we like to say is we provide peace-of-mind for our customers. So in the event of a fire, our systems will protect the buildings and their occupants. So, we install fire sprinklers, fire alarms, and security systems in commercial buildings. Our customers are general contractors, property managers, and building owners. We design those systems, we install them, and then when it comes to annual maintenance and service testing, we provide those services, as well as the monitoring of the systems. 

My role is President and CEO. But when you work for a small business or run a small business, you do a lot and wear many different hats. So, my primary role is operations — I’m very involved in the sales and acting sales manager — but my love and where I think my real strength, and where we excel, is in process improvements. 

We’re very involved in all of our processes: getting them written down, clearly defined, and just ensuring that everybody follows those steps. So, personnel development, HR, and marketing are all part of the things I do. And safety is a big deal being in the construction field, so I’m on the safety committee and work with that as well. So I can say lots of things!

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So is COVID having an effect on your business at all?

You know, it has. Thinking from a financial and revenue standpoint, we had the largest or best year we’ve ever had last year. So our jobs were not affected, and that’s been very good. But, just thinking about employee health and feeling supported, communication has been a big deal. 

One of the big changes for us was that we weren’t really at the forefront of technology. And within a week, we had to figure out a way to send everybody home with laptops. We installed Microsoft teams, so now even if we’re in the building, we hold all our meetings on Teams. Technology has been a big part of it, so that’s been a positive thing. 

As a company, we’ve got 50 employees, and we’re a lot more connected, even though we physically don’t see each other on a daily basis. We’ve probably got maybe a quarter of our workforce working in the office, and the rest are working from home. And then of course our guys are in the field every day, running the construction jobs.

It did kind of force companies — that hadn’t got into the technology side yet — to make that change. It seems that people do like it, and it does work, so a lot of companies are going to let people stay at home for the long term. So it’s a good thing that came out of the bad thing, I think.

I mean, it’s amazing — the mental shift, you know? I was one of those that thought “If you’re not sitting in the office, I don’t see you working, so I don’t know if you’re working.” And now it’s really been a pleasant surprise how everybody’s embraced this. 

You know, as long as you meet your deadlines and your work and product are at the same level that it was before, you know, things are running well. 

I think it says a lot that we had our best year we’ve ever had during a pretty crazy time. So we’ve learned a lot from it for sure.

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The importance of a support network

Is there any person or group coming up through the 20 years that you’ve been doing this that kind of stood out and helped you through your career?

Yeah, so there’s a couple! For sure, the National Association of Women in Construction — and we can talk more about that — but out of that group came kind of a small set of, I’ll say mentors, or other women that own construction companies in the Austin area. 

We have a kind of a text group. We email each other back and forth sharing best practices. Anytime we have challenges or just need resources, that’s my core group of about four women and their companies that we rely on. 

It has really been instrumental during COVID because in other situations, everybody either has just talked to an attorney, or they’ve had that same situation in the past — but with COVID, nobody had ever dealt with it before. So to have that sounding board as an entrepreneur, people that you could rely on, has been very instrumental in navigating this last year.

I’m a member of Vistage International, which is a CEO peer leadership group. I’ve been a member for 11 years. We meet monthly with a business coach for two hours, and then meet with our peer group of about 12 companies in other industries — not specifically in construction — and we process issues. We have speakers that come in, and we talk about anything from finances to how to hire a salesperson, to personnel issues, whatever. It’s really been my trusted board of advisors that has been transformational to our business. 

I would never be where I am today without having that accountability and those resources and people to rely on, if I didn’t have that group. So some sort of peer group, and then my small industry-related group, have been two things that have made a huge difference.

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So many people share the same type of problems regardless of industry. And then if you can get a group within your industry, it just saves the research and the legwork and really the sleepless nights. We respect each other so much. If somebody reaches out and asks a question, the answers are immediate.

I had a specific situation just recently: Our credit card processing company, we’re not very happy with them, and within 30 minutes I heard from the group who they’ve used, what the pitfalls were, and who they recommend. And you know, that just saves a lot of time and headaches.

Navigating gender discrimination at work

Have you had to deal with — especially in the beginning — much harassment or discrimination because you were the only woman in the field?

I mean, two different types of discrimination. You know, owning your own business you don’t get as much, because the consequences of somebody not treating you fairly can be more severe to them because of the position of power you have when you’re the owner. 

I think in the beginning there was — justifiably, as I didn’t come from the industry — there was a lot for me to learn, even though I’m the one that’s signing the paychecks and hiring and all of that. So I think some of those lessons are learned regardless of the position, which are: just listen more than you talk, learn and study hard, try to gain people’s respect. And that handles a lot of that discrimination. 

But early on in my career — and again, this is in the mid to late ’80s — you just wouldn’t believe the things that happened. I had a regional manager before he promoted me, asked me what my family plans were in terms of having children.

“Do you stop and say, ‘Hey, you know, I’m not comfortable with that. I’m not going to allow that to continue’? And it takes a lot of courage.”

I had a salesperson throw a bar soap at me and say “Listen, little lady, I don’t know who you are to come in here and tell me where to put my soap.” We were working out shelf space in a grocery store, and he was a 60-plus-year-old man who had been in the industry for 30 years, and he didn’t tolerate a little 22-year-old coming in and trying to push her weight around. 

But nothing too bad. I mean, when I was promoted into management after a couple of years in the sales industry, those were still the days where you would have nightly dinner meetings, and then all the guys would go to the strip bars afterward.

So I had to make a decision, you know, do I play along, or do I stand my ground and what I felt comfortable with? And that’s what I did. I probably missed out on some, you know, conversation there or whatever, but I just thought my own moral standards were more important. 

And I think that message relates to today — anytime that discrimination comes up. You’re in a position where you’re uncomfortable, it’s that moral dilemma. Do you stand up for what you believe in, regardless of the consequences? 

Do you stop and say, “Hey, you know, I’m not comfortable with that. I’m not going to allow that to continue”? And it takes a lot of courage.

It does. I think that’s probably one of the hardest things, is for a woman to speak up.

Yeah, it definitely is. And we talk about this in our association a lot too, being an advocate for yourself. And there’s ways to go about it where you don’t ruffle a lot of feathers, but you make your feelings known — not forcing somebody into a corner, which makes people very defensive. 

You know, you kind of just vocalize where your feelings are and what you’re willing to accept or not accept. It makes it difficult. It’s not easy.

So, obviously networking in your industry has provided you a lot of help in your career.

Yeah, it really has. We’ve done all kinds of things with the organization, whether it’s monthly lunches or, as president, I instituted the first “speed networking.” You’ve heard of speed dating? We did speed networking: We lined up on a table and moved through with a purpose in mind, like “What one word of advice?” or “Who’s one person I could call?” So it’s been really helpful. 

So how did that go over? Everybody like it? 

It was good. It was really, really good. We had about 24 and in a room, got business cards, and some people found mentors, which they were seeking. So it was a cool exercise! I think any organization could do it once a year.

“Study hard, work hard, and try to figure out ways where you can help and go outside of what your normal responsibilities are to make a name for yourself.”

Finding your strengths: Advice for women making their way in business

Do you have any advice that you would give other women in the industry or those that are still going through school and trying to make a career decision? 

Study hard, work hard, and try to figure out ways where you can help and go outside of what your normal responsibilities are to make a name for yourself.

One of the things I learned with my Vistage group was kind of a decision tree. You imagine a tree trunk and the branches and the leaves, and so when you’re learning that you first started a position, you go “Okay, well, I don’t know what I can do.” 

Every company is different and you’re learning those expectations. So with the visual of the trees, the leaves are the decisions that you make every day without telling your boss about, and you need to know what those are, right?

Then the branches are the type of decision that you can make, but you need to tell somebody about it — it might involve money, time, or resources. 

Then finding out those tree trunk decisions: What are the decisions that you are not supposed to make without somebody to bounce off those ideas, or you might not even be a part of making those decisions. 

So if you can think of that visually, as a new employee or a woman in any industry, I think it’s important to know what the expectations are.

A lot of women, even when they’re going through college, they really don’t know there are positions in construction other than just standing on the road holding a sign. What kind of encouragement or advice would you give them?

A lot of universities have career fairs. And that’s great, and not a lot of pressure. You can go by a table and get information. But you know, really looking at what your skill set is — whether it’s construction or another field — where are your strengths? 

Are you somebody that’s really organized and you like planning events or a timetable? Are you really good with money? Project managers can be in any type of field. 

Or you know, do you like the administrative side, being detail-oriented, having a problem or a project? Just working through what went wrong, what are things that I can contribute that I can figure out and find solutions?

Those types of jobs are available and construction, in addition to accounting, sales, or marketing. Social media is a big thing these days, so a lot of companies are looking for that younger generation that’s very comfortable with technology to be able to reach out to their customers — whether that’s their social media or writing blogs. 

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So it’s not just strapping on a tool belt anymore. And for most companies, I think that’s going to be one of the big changes in the future to continue, that we’re going to continue to rely on technology. 

So finding those out, everybody looks for people on either social media or other avenues —  Craigslist, Indeed, and word of mouth. Get a LinkedIn profile, and get a professional picture taken. Don’t do a snapshot in your bathroom, you know? Really work on that, and being a thought leader — and it doesn’t matter if you’re 21 years old, you’re an expert in something.

Keeping construction business up with the times

2020 and the ongoing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have thrown many hurdles at companies like Vanguard, but Cindy has made sure her team is working closer than ever and continuing to succeed despite these challenges. By embracing the benefits of technology and relying on her strong team and network of other industry-leading women, Cindy has continued to adapt and thrive.

As Cindy emphasized, technology is changing fast, and many construction contractors and companies are playing catch-up to stay at the forefront. Embracing technology has benefits for anyone in the construction industry, whether it’s speeding up the payment process or helping professionals from all over the country network and learn from others.