Short Business Description:
Ardmore Associates LLC is an engineering consulting firm specializing in complex infrastructure, transportation and major building projects.
Cherryl Thomas is a true pioneer, and her career reads as a series of firsts in both the public and private sectors. She was the first woman Building Commissioner in Chicago and then the first and only to serve as Chair of the US Railroad Retirement Board. After working her way up in the Federal Government during the Clinton Administration, Cherryl transitioned into the private sector with the launch of her Civil Engineering firm, Ardmore Associates. She remains a majority owner, with two male partners, and continues to fight the uphill battle that is helping to pave the way for women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) fields. She does it all with aplomb, and she does it unapologetically. She is an ultimate example that we as women can be anything we put our minds to, as long as we are willing to work for it. Read on to discover some valuable insights from Cherryl, what it is like being one of the only women in an industry of men, and how her ultimate desire to help people has guided her career.
Before launching Ardmore and Associates, what did you do?
Cherryl Thomas: I had a full career in the City of Chicago’s Government and then the Federal Government. When I left the Federal Government people thought I was going to go back to work for the Mayor of the City of Chicago. As I was thinking about it, two friends called me up, independently, but almost at the same time. We decided that we would put a company together that would use our knowledge and experience in infrastructure and engineering. So that is what I did; that was almost 14 years ago.
What does Ardmore Associates do?
Cherryl: Ardmore & Associates is a full service civil engineering firm. We do program management, project management and construction management on large complex engineering projects. We work for the city, the county and the state of Illinois. We have also opened offices in Florida, have done work in a couple of other states and have been looking at offices in other places. We do engineering work: roads, bridges, inspection of roads and bridges, construction management, and surveying.
Why did you transition from the public to the private sector?
Cherryl: Sometimes you get a push and you’re prompted to do something different. I certainly am not going to say that I totally planned it; I did not. I had a wonderful job in the Federal Government, but it was one of those jobs that was tied to the Executive Branch of government, and when they changed there, there was massive political change, and it was time to move on. I thought, “What would I like to do?” I was going to come back to Chicago. I always like to be in the public sector, because you are serving people. I could still serve people in Chicago by doing something in the engineering field.
Your Glass Ceiling Turning Point
How did the time you spent in the public service impact you as a CEO and business owner?
Cherryl: I think that being on both sides of an issue really helps you to see it clearly. When you work in government you don’t always understand how the private sector is run, and I certainly didn’t. Once I transitioned, I understood. I kiddingly say sometimes, “Huh, if I had known I was going to have to use those building codes, I would have written them differently.” It gives you a broader perspective.
Did you have any formal business training before you launched?
Cherryl: I didn’t own the departments I ran, but I certainly had to run them for someone else. The difference in the public sector is that you are working for a government. When you are running a business for the government you have a safety net, so to speak. In private industry, when you are running a business, if you own it, that gives you a whole different set of views and worries. Did I go to business school? No, I did not. I have advanced graduate degrees for public administration.
What was your biggest fear before starting the business?
Cherryl: The unknown. The unknown is scary. When you leave college, and you start working in a job, the unknown is that you have left the comfort of college life and your friends and are going into “the business world,” whether it is government or private. Initially you are a little fearful, but then you get into a routine. You try to utilize your discipline of learning things, and looking things up, because that is what college really teaches you: how to find answers to things. So, you utilize that, and then you are on your way solving problems and learning somewhat new things. So when you go forward and transition out of somewhere that you have been for a long period of time, you have a new set of fears. When you are older you are more concerned about failure when you are in a business. When you start a business and you are young, there is such a wonderful comfort that you know you are going to do well because you can just forge ahead, there is time. When you are older, you think, “Do I take this risk?” You become a little more risk averse. Some people don’t, but I think most people do.
You were the first woman Building Commissioner in Chicago, and then the first and only to serve as Chair of the US Railroad Retirement Board. How did you navigate working in such a male-dominated industry, and how has that shaped you as a business owner?
Cherryl: Many times I have been the only woman, and in my time people could be a little more vocal about why they did not want you there. And you had to decide whether you were going to roll with those punches, whether you were going to retreat or whether you were going to find a way to let them know that you had a right to be there. I chose to just really let the men whom I was working with know that I was there to learn something. I wasn’t there to spy on them. I wasn’t there to become a part of their club or anything like that. Was it easy? It was not. Did it get easier? Yes. Some of them became my good friends, and we are still friends to this day, but we didn’t start out that way. By the time I got to the building department, and by the time I got to the railroad, I had really been swimming upstream a long time, so it wasn’t that difficult. Early on when I was young, it was.
Engineering is a very male dominant sector. As a CEO is there a different type of dynamic then there was when you were in government?
Cherryl: It is different. I want to say kudos to government, because I know so many people spend so much time bashing government. Government was where most people who were different in any way got their start: the first women, the first minorities, the first immigrants, all were hired in government first. Has the government gotten bureaucratic and top heavy? Yes, it has. Is it out of touch a little bit? Yes. There are reasons for that, because of the laws and the rules and the regulations. But government is where I got my start, and I appreciate it very much. I don’t think I would have had the nurturing or had the chance to learn anywhere else besides government so many years ago.
Have any of the experiences that you faced as women changed or shaped policies that you have at your company now?
Cherryl: Yes, absolutely. I view things differently. First of all, I own this company and everybody here knows it. I don’t try to forcefully make that known, but let’s face it, when I started this almost 14 years ago I wasn’t an unknown. I had gone through an entire career in government, where I was promoted to be the first woman in many jobs. When you are a pioneer there are all sorts of things that go along with that. That being said, there were still times when I was the only woman in the meeting and a man would come in and talk to one of my partners instead of me; and he had to be re-routed, usually by one of my partners. So it still happens. But in terms of policies, we are really family-friendly here. I tried to make sure that everyone who works here and has a family gets time to spend with their family.
Is there any one in particular who has your influenced your professional journey?
Cherryl: I give a lot of that credit to two people. First, my mom, who just said you can do and be anything you want to be, and who is very, very supportive, because I did a lot of things. I had outside activities that were passions for me, and my mother really supported me in that. But in my business life, ironically, there were two men who I very much credit. One of them gave me my first job as the Administrative Engineer for the Department of Water in Chicago. He had boys and he always wanted a girl. And then the chief engineer that I worked for had two girls and no boys and he wanted his girls who were younger than I was to know that they could be whatever they wanted to be. So, those two men nurtured me and they pushed me, and it wasn’t always easy. I wasn’t always loving because I just felt sometimes, one of them especially, was a little bit hard on me. Then one day it clicked, that in being hard on me, he was pushing me to do the best that I could, and when I bought in, it was great.
Did you have a formal business mentor, and if so how did you meet that person?
Cherryl: What started to happen was the structure when I was the Deputy Chief of Staff for the mayor and was running the infrastructure departments, was that I had to get somewhat of a sense of the business components. There were a couple of other women that would all network together, and one of them was in the business finance office. She was very helpful and supportive.
The Business of Your Business
How did you finance your business?
Cherryl: My partners and I financed it ourselves. That doesn’t always happen for people, and I wouldn’t want any women to be afraid if that does not happen. My partners and I had had full careers. We made the decision that we were going to grow this business organically, and that we would finance it ourselves. I am a 60% owner of the business.
Has the business evolved into something different than what you initially set out for it to be? If so, how did you handle the change as things happened?
Cherryl: It did evolve. All three of us had been in infrastructure, which is roads, bridges, water, airports that kind of thing, and we thought that was all we would do. We thought we would focus on doing construction management, or civil design for drainage or roads. Then someone was having an issue with a project that they were working on, in a different vertical, and someone on his board said, “I know a new company and you ought to give them this project.” And they did, which got us into doing work for buildings and stadiums and that kind of thing.
What obstacles have you faced that you are most surprised by?
Cherryl: That nobody wants to give the little guy a chance. I often will remind a prospective client that they may want the name of an engineering firm that is one of the top 20 in the world, and they will have 80,000 people to choose from, but those 80,000 people aren’t in Chicago. I have a 100 people, I am here, I know everything about the layout here, the lay of the land and how to navigate. But still, more likely than not, I am not going to get a big project. Another obstacle is many people still think that engineers are men, and that is how it should be. I have got to tell you something, there are some hot-shot women engineers and they do a really good job.
What are the long-term goals for Ardmore & Associates and did you set them out at the beginning?
Cherryl: No, our goal was to work five years, because we felt that in five years we could make a difference. I really did want to continue to serve the people of Chicago and the State of Illinois. Our goal was to work five years, but we were having fun and we were growing and getting into other things; we were doing land survey, and we were overseeing building codes, and that became kind of fun. We have been working on the O’Hare Modernization Program, and we are having fun doing that.
Where do you find inspiration?
Cherryl: Women tend to have more outlets or hobbies than men do. For so many men, their work is their passion and their hobby. There are reasons for that; many times the man is the bread-winner, and even worse, he is seen that way by our society. But I am a spiritual person, so I draw from that, and I am an animal lover. I think there is something that I have gotten from relationships with horses and dogs. And I read and get inspiration from people. I like to see things as a wheel and there are pieces of that wheel that are drawn to your core and bring inspiration.
You do a lot of nonprofit work. Does that influence you as a business owner?
Cherryl: Oh My God! Does that ever. It really does. I am so pleased I am able to make money so that I can share it. I think that is one thing that is awesome about Chicago: the philanthropic community is second to none. It is just wonderful and it is still booming, even when the economy is not good. Chicago philanthropy is absolutely thriving, and I love it. We encourage everyone in our business to participate in charity in some way. We won’t match its magnitude, but we will match if they have a charity they want to give to.
Any business books that you recommend?
Cherryl: The Four Obsessions of an Extraordinary Executive. It was a gift to me from a friend’s husband who has a very, very successful business. He said, “You read this book and when you finish, read it again.”
Are you part of any professional networks?
Cherryl: I am part of two engineering networks and I am part of a Women’s Business Network. I am out every night. That’s something you have to do; you have to be willing to be seen. You have to be out there, and sometimes it’s a grind, but you have to do it.
What do you do stay sane?
Cherryl: I take a trek out to a little hamlet where there is a very horse-loving community. When I drive into that town, all of my fears and worries go away. It’s just fantastic.
What is the best thing about running your own business and the most difficult?
Cherryl: The best thing is that you are your own boss. The most difficult is you are your own boss. You have got to make it happen. You have got to have your finger on the pulse of everything, although you have to let people run their section of the business without being totally intrusive. You also have to be very careful about whom you trust and know what you are doing. My accountant, my lawyer and my advisor don’t know each other, they know me.
What are you most proud of?
Cherryl: I am most proud of the fact that I think in a small way I have helped others. You are no good if you have attained a modicum of success which, okay, I am not going to be falsely humble and say I am not successful. I know that I am, and I gave you two examples of people that helped me, but oh my goodness, so many people helped me along the way. What would I be if I weren’t helping someone else? It has to be part of your DNA to want to help someone else, and I feel that I have, I hope.
What do you wish even before you started your own business?
Cherryl: I wish I had taken the time off to do nothing. I didn’t do that. I felt like everyone was watching and I felt like no one was watching. I felt like if I didn’t hurry up and do something that there would be such a void and an emptiness that I would never get anything else done. And now I look back and I realize I could have taken a lot of time off and just figured that out. But at that point in time there was an administration change, and even though it wasn’t angry, I had to leave. And in some way, you feel a little bit of failure and it is nothing you could have controlled.
At what point did you think, “I made it”?
Cherryl: I thought if we were in business five years we would have made it. And then for some reason, it kept creeping, and now I feel like we have done a really good job because we have 100 people. You start out with three people sitting in a room looking at each other and you end you end up with a 100 people, and you go, wow, that’s okay. Maybe I am okay.
What advice would you give to people just starting out on business?
Cherryl: Have patience. There is a difference between a time to be patient and a time to rethink what you are doing. Don’t ever give up, but maybe re-think. Make sure that it fits you and suits you, and that you are getting something out of it; that you are feeling alive and good about at every single day. If you are doing something and you are absolutely miserable, you will see no fruit of your labor. If you still feel like you can’t give up, because people will think you failed, that’s wrong. You really have to be patient, believe in yourself, and if you believe in yourself and in what you are doing, you are absolutely going to be successful.
Do you have any other advice?
Cherryl: Women are very suited for the STEM fields although they think maybe that they are not. There is more to the STEM fields then just being a doctor. The new head of the planetarium here, which is all astronomy and physics, is a woman, and she is very good at what she does. You just have to whatever you want to do. Just do it. Just go for it. Don’t ever be afraid to ask questions. Ask questions and don’t feel like you are the empty chair in the room. If you are in a room with people there is a reason why you are there. You are there because you should be there. You deserve that seat at the table and you have to give your ideas, and never feel like anything is too stupid or silly to share.
Photography by: Lucy Hewett