The power in public works: Maureen McCauley

Editor's Note: The March issue's Member Profile features Maureen McCauley, P.Eng., Principal, McCauley Nichols & Associates, Goderich, Ontario; former member of APWA's National Nominating Committee (2002-03), Engineering and Technology Committee (2001-03), Congress Program Review Committee (1998-99) and Projects of the Century Committee (2000); and Past President of the Ontario Chapter (1999).

Tell us about your background: I was raised in Goderich, Ontario. When I was growing up the population was about 6,500. So I'm a small-town girl. I come from a small family as well. We just had two girls in our family, and I'm the eldest daughter. We were a close-knit family, but both my parents come from very large families so we always seemed to have a large number of people around us, between grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins. So that's sort of the environment I grew up in, with lots of family activities.

As a kid growing up in Goderich it seems like there were always activities and lots of fun, adventure and trouble to get into. I had quite a group of friends and we seemed to be creative in coming up with activities for ourselves, and we were always involved in school activities and sports and all the various clubs that you can get involved in at school. I think we made the most of it, and some of that education I rely on today for some of my interests. Being from a small town you come to be pretty self-sufficient, and I'm pretty average in that area.

While I was growing up my parents owned a dry cleaning business. They worked really hard at it, and my sister and I were always involved as well. Some of my first memories are holding a flashlight for my dad when he was busy working on machinery, so my job was to keep the light focused so he could keep working. Of course, a family-owned business means that you've always got a job after school. So one of my first accomplishments is that I was the first delivery girl in Goderich. No one else knows that, nor is it a highlight in our town's history, but that was my first foray into the business world.

Branching off after high school, I went to university in civil engineering, and I was able to choose a university that had a co-op program which I was quite intrigued with...I liked the idea that you would have the opportunity to work while you were getting an education at the same time. It was a great way to test out some of those directions that you think you might want to take. I made an effort to get as many different jobs as I could. Some of my jobs ranged from working north of Edmonton in Alberta up in the tarsands for a company called Syncrude. That was probably my farthest assignment away, and then of course I had the desk jobs in downtown Toronto working for some engineering firms. Again, I was just trying to experience the broadest range of jobs as possible.

When I graduated as a civil engineer I worked for Bell Canada for a couple of years, and then I moved to the Toronto area and began work for a large land development firm called Bramalea Limited. I worked with them for fourteen years, and I just loved the business. It was quite a volatile and exciting environment. I was able to advance to the position of Vice President with the company and got my first taste of management.

The late eighties came along, and a number of Bramalea's companies ran into some difficult times. At that point I thought about moving on and possibly joining another land development company. As it turns out the decision to leave Bramalea was a good one, since the firm eventually went under. But more to the point, I eventually decided to just go with a very different route, and that's when I joined municipal government and got into the public works field.

During the nineties I worked for two really great municipalities. I was the Director of Engineering for the City of Burlington, which had a population back then of about a hundred thirty thousand. And I eventually went to be Commissioner of Engineering and Public Works for the Town of Richmond Hill. And at that time Richmond Hill was known as the fastest-growing municipality in Canada. Each municipality certainly had a number of various challenges and that was my first exposure to both municipal government and to public works, and I fell in love. It was just great work.

I was in municipal government for approximately ten years, and then in 2000 my husband and I made what I call the "Green Acres" decision and we decided to move back to Goderich. My husband, fortunately for me, fell in love with Goderich, and he talked me into moving back home. So I find myself in the position of being back where I started, which actually is a lot of fun. That move also, I guess, was the trigger for me to think about changing career paths again, and at that point I decided to devote full time to McCauley Nichols & Associates, which is the company that my husband and I had actually put together about fifteen years ago for other purposes. And so the move back to Goderich gave me an opportunity to take another path.

So here I am, sitting in my office which is less than five minutes from my mom and dad's old business which my sister now owns. I can see my old grade school. My high school is just down the street. So it's really been kind of fun coming back...certainly from a different perspective, but enjoying that small-town living once again.

Favorite Movie: I have to think about this one. It's not very often that I watch movies a second time, but I must have a favorite movie if I can figure out which one I've watched more than once. I guess that would be The Last Emperor, the one about the last emperor of China. I've watched that movie a number of times, and I just find the story fascinating...the fact that it's history and actually true, and the fact that the movie itself made history when the Chinese government allowed the filming to be done within the Forbidden City. I find all that intriguing, and on top of that I have had the opportunity to visit Beijing and was in the Forbidden City and saw some of the locations that are noted in the movie. So I would have to put that one forward as my favorite.

Hobbies/Interests: First on my list for hobbies would be house renovation. I'm pretty good with power tools and I've done the mandatory aimless wandering in Home Depot many weekends. My husband and I have actually renovated two homes and are in the midst of finishing off our home here in Goderich, so that certainly is at the top of the list. I love doing work around the home and we've become pretty good electricians, plumbers and carpenters.

Golf...I love both playing and watching the pros. I'm a much better watcher than I am a player, but I do love the game. It's my favorite sport. husband and I have had the opportunity to do quite a bit of traveling. I'm probably pretty typical...for most people, the more you travel the more you want to travel. I'm in that boat.

I like to do some girl stuff. I do sewing and painting and beading and make Christmas ornaments. Whenever the television is on it seems like I've got to be doing a little project, so I tend to gravitate to those smaller things.

I do need to say that I spend a lot of time with my husband, my dog and my cat. They're important in my life. It's not exactly that they're a hobby, but they're a pretty big component of who I am.

Role Model: My parents are certainly at the top of my list from a role model point of view. They certainly formed the basis of who I am, and I watched them work hard and become very successful at their business over the years. And they always had time for their kids.

I've always admired strong women, those unnamed women that were the first to venture into new fields...the first women that got into politics, the first women that became doctors, educators, lawyers, or engineers. I certainly admire the strengths that women and people in general would have when they would venture into those new areas.

I like people who take a stand. Rosa Parks, Joan of Ark, Martha Stewart...women like that that just took a stand about something. I include Martha because I think she got a bad rap and I think she's a strong woman and very successful. She's a contemporary example of what women can do.

Lastly, I think on my list of role models, I would have to include people that have been able to manage their lives with a balance between their talent and the other important things in life. Someone like Bobby Jones who was a tremendous athlete, a fantastic golfer, but that was only part-time. He was also a lawyer and a family man and provided input into the community, and he was able to balance all of that. Of course, times were very different then. I'm inspired by some of the stories about people during the Second World War who interrupted their careers to give to their communities, someone like Jimmy Stewart who was a great actor, but was also a family man. He went to the weekend barbecues with the neighbors, but signed up for the war and contributed that to his country...again, that great balance. So I like hearing stories like that and I admire those people. I find them inspirational because they were able to find that balance. It's so rare today to hear stories like that. Our lives don't lend themselves necessarily to being that easy to do that, but I think it's something that we should be striving for.

Career Accomplishments: I have always, in my wandering, been intrigued by variety, change, new ways of doing things, new concepts. So, as you can tell by my background, I have been in various career paths or gone in different directions over time. I'm proud of the fact that I've been able to get into some of these different areas and bring my perspective to the work. I've found that I'm fairly adaptable and can get my bearings fairly quickly in some of these new environments, and I can bring to the table some new ideas and new perspectives of my own. So I consider that an accomplishment in that I've had to use a lot of my background for each new experience that I'm facing, and that's enjoyable for me and exhilarating as well.

I like to think at times I've been a bit of a pioneer. Over and above being the first delivery girl in Goderich (I can't let go of that fact!), I know that with a number of positions I've held I've probably been the first female in that position, and I've been honored to have been allowed to be in those positions. I've tried to bring to the table my take on things, and I haven't tried to copy a male style or tried to view it in the way that a predecessor might have done it...I've tried to do it in my own way. In so doing, I may have tried to shake things up a little bit, too...make sure they remember you, so to speak. Specifically, when I joined municipal government, that was my first exposure to public works. And again, I just fell in love with the business. There's variety right there. You could be in public works for your entire career, and you could move from one area to another. It's a great career for people who like creativity and variety. When I joined municipal government in the early nineties it was a bit of a slow economic time in Canada, so there was a need to be rather ingenious when it came time to spend money, manage nervous staff, and deal with things that possibly had never occurred before in municipal government.

I've tried to influence the environment that people work in. I've tried to create those environments where people are productive, work gets done, but work gets done in an enjoyable way. That's some of the focus that I've brought to the positions I've held, and I think I've been able to accomplish those good work environments. Getting the job done but with that typical public works attitude: "We're here to do a job. Let's do it, but let's do it with style and have a few laughs along the way."

Just thinking back over the nineties there are a couple of key areas that I have been able to participate in that have been new concepts such as alternative design standards or redesign of right-of-ways. Those are concepts that came up during the time that I was working for local government, and I think I was able to contribute in those areas which I believe are essentially North American concepts.

And then lastly, while it's not exactly a pure work accomplishment, in 2000 I was able to initiate with the department that I was in charge of at that time the Millennium Project, where we volunteered our services to a local hospice. And by using all of the talent that public works people develop, we were able to work with the hospice and improve the facilities so that it was better for the hospice and for the patrons that visited. It was one of the last things I was involved in before I left to go full-time with McCauley Nichols. To me it illustrates the power that's in public works, and we were able to use it in a slightly different way.

Tell us more about McCauley Nichols & Associates: Well, McCauley Nichols is the company that my husband and I formed a number of years ago. He is in business for himself as well. We don't tend to work very much together and we seem to have our own clients. I'm in an enviable position from some people's office is in a small town, but I work in the urban areas. I work for municipalities that are small to midsize, predominantly around the greater Toronto area.

I work for these municipalities in a number of different capacities. Having worked in municipalities I can hit the floor running knowing the lay of the land, the hierarchy, the politics. Sometimes I'm just a spare staff person that you can hire to take on the project management of a job, where you just might not have a dedicated person that you can assign to a project. I tend to get involved in projects that are unique and don't necessarily have a model to have to make it up as you go along.

I would say that in the last few years I seem to be picking up more and more contracts that have process reengineering involved. I like to work with the staff and come up with a tailored approach for a specific municipality. I don't like to bring in a canned program, or try to impose recommendations that work in one place but might not necessarily work in another municipality. It's a real challenge to get a sense of how business is currently being done, establishing goals for improved service delivery and figuring out new procedures to achieve those goals.

Oftentimes my projects don't have a public works focus. But I know I couldn't do the work I do without having had that public works experience. I often find myself thinking back or relying on that experience in the public works business, and either applying it directly to the work at hand or using that experience in some sort of modified way. I'm doing work today that I really love doing, which is coming up with new ways of doing business and working with all kinds of talented municipal staff and doing unique things...again, that variety that I seem to thrive on. It's worked out great for me. I feel very, very fortunate.

You've been a member of APWA's National Nominating Committee as well as APWA's Engineering and Technology Committee. What was your experience like with each of those committees? Just great experiences. With the Nominating Committee, I remember being asked to participate and I accepted and was honored to have that invitation. But then when the information came in, I realized how daunting it was and how unnerving...I thought, "This is really an important job. The organization depends so much on strong leadership that it's really important that the right people get into the right positions." And it was a difficult job because every candidate had some great value to bring. So it was a really good experience, but as I say I found it very challenging and I took it very seriously.

The Engineering and Technology Committee was a little different experience. It was a huge education. I really hope I gave as much to the committee as I got from it. When I participated on that committee, and I'm sure others have felt this way about being on the Technical Committees, I really felt like I was on the cutting edge...hearing these stories, doing the research, contacting members and companies, and the information I was privy to was just amazing. Larry Frevert [APWA Director-at-Large, Facilities & Fleet Services] was our committee chair at the time, and he did a fantastic job in leading us in great directions and inspiring the group to deliver for all the APWA members. I think I was on that committee for two or three years and I enjoyed every second of it.

I felt very lucky to have been so directly involved in some of the business that APWA does, and I think that it gives you a whole different perspective on the organization when you participate in committees like that. You see the staff and how they work, and you see the broad range of activities that APWA is involved in. Working on these committees will just solidify that for you.

Back in 2000 you were a member of APWA's Project of the Century Committee. How challenging was it to come up with the ten projects to win that award? That was tough, and you can put TOUGH in capital letters! Someone a few years ago asked me about that and I said it was kind of like picking the cutest baby and hoping the mothers don't find out you voted against their kid. It was a real eye-opener. I had no idea there were so many projects that were unique. It was mesmerizing. Some of the submissions read like a novel, the way that the stories unfolded and with the history behind some of these projects. The strength that it must have taken for some of these engineers, designers, and public works officials to come up with these projects, and then to build the was absolutely fascinating. It was very difficult to come up with ten and was a lot of work. But it needed to be a lot of work, there was so much on the table. It was a tough selection.

Why do you like being a member of APWA? APWA is such a holistic, well-rounded organization. It's not like being a member of, say, the automobile association or something where you just expect a limited range of services. With APWA you expect so much more. You expect services, you expect interaction, you expect cutting-edge information and research. When I entered the public sector after having spent some time in the private sector I had a very limited background. APWA was the first organization I joined at that point. It was a wealth of information, and I had a lot to be educated in. And it's just always delivered. When I have had a question or there's something new I've been researching or something that I need some background on, the first place I go is APWA. It might not be the only place, but it's always the first place I go to. As an organization you can rely that it's going to deliver for you.

I also think it's a great thing that public works is so well-represented by APWA. I've come to be an absolute believer that the field of public works is undervalued, and having an organization as strong as APWA is one of the best ways we have of getting the message out there that public works people are a true backbone in our society.