By Tami S. Scott
When Susan Heffernan was presented with a chance for change, she grabbed it. It wasn’t part of her plan though it certainly served its purpose.
Heffernan had just enrolled at the Whitman School of Business at Syracuse University to further her education. She had been working as an accountant but felt an inner tug to do something different. Earning a master’s degree in her field was a sensible, safe route to start.
One phone call changed everything.
She learned through a friend that the owners of Wilkins Mechanical were looking to retire and sell their business. Her friend, who was aware of her current discontent, encouraged her to inquire. And so, she did.
“The broker asked if I’d ever considered owning my own business and I said ‘well, not consciously,’” Heffernan said, noting that for years she always worked hand-in-hand with business owners. “I guess you could say in a way, I’ve always been in training for this very moment, it didn’t take long for me to realize that this was the right path to take, so I gladly accepted the challenge and the process began.”
On Dec. 30, 2021, Heffernan became a business owner. For 11 months leading up to that moment, she embraced every occasion to learn from the people who built it.
“I worked alongside the previous owners for a few months with the intent of hitting the ground running a little faster upon closing,” Heffernan said. “That experience certainly helped me gain some insight on what challenges they faced and what I might expect.”
Heffernan credits her mom and grandmother — her biggest heroes — for instilling the strength to take challenges and leaps of faith because, “if you don’t you never really know what you are capable of, and without risk, there’s no reward, right?”
Looking back, Heffernan said never once did she feel like she couldn’t do it. “I had the attitude of ‘yes, you can do this.’ The experiences I’ve gained over the years have prepared me for this.’”
Heffernan is in the process of working on obtaining her WBE certification, which she hopes to achieve by the end of 2023. “Through research, webinars, and speaking with other certified WBE business owners, I know the process is quite extensive,” she said.
Challenges and rewards
When asked what are the challenges and rewards of this new venture, Heffernan responded by saying that everything is rewarding and challenging all at once.
“They feed each other,” she said. “It’s exciting to be faced with a challenge or obstacle, and finding the solution or resolution to those situations are the reward.”
Before pursuing a shift in her career, Heffernan worked in finance for almost ten years at Martin-Zombek Construction. “We were all encouraged to “think like a business owner,” “think like an entrepreneur,” she said. “At that time, it was practice; now, it’s the real deal.”
Stopping the “I’m an employee” thought process was one of Heffernan’s biggest challenges. Her background at Martin-Zombek, however, prepared her well for the new path she walks today.
“I’m grateful to have had the experience at Martin-Zombek,” she said.
Though Heffernan is the new leader of this female-owned business, she’s mindful of each team member’s purpose within the establishment.
“We all have a very important job to do here and none of us can do it [alone],” she said. “The kind of culture I’m trying to create and build off of [is] the foundation that the Wilkins’ [had] so tirelessly built. We’ve got a solid crew, in the field and in the office.”
Aside from the employee-to-employer transition, Heffernan is also conscientious of continuous learning and the value of networking. The Construction Financial Management Association (CFMA) and the Syracuse Builders Exchange (SBE) — had both served as substantial resources for her in the past. She plans to engage with each again.
“[CFMA] and [SBE] were huge for networking and were resources when I was in my previous position in construction,” she said. “I miss that education because [not only] would I learn something new, but it also validated what I knew [already]. That’s how I can be most helpful to my team, by making sure I’m continually learning and knowing the best way to account for all the hard work my team is doing.”
Though it’s been less than a year, the rewards so far, she said, are seeing the teams come together and watching the business develop.
A little history
Wilkins Mechanical Inc. was formally incorporated in 1997 and family-owned for 41 years. That’s a history that would make anyone who succeeds the founders feel both secure in their acquisition and apprehensive about filling their shoes.
“Many people dislike change,” said Heffernan. “There are times when it’s even uncomfortable for me. So, I understood there was going to be some apprehension [and] potentially some resistance.”
Heffernan noted how oftentimes when a new owner takes over, they decide to build their business from scratch. “It makes sense that there would be some concern,” she said, “but that was definitely not my plan.”
In fact, the only changes she sees on the horizon are newer technology and more staff. For herself, Heffernan implemented an accounting software program within the first six months to keep organized in job costing and project tracking. Her next focus will be organic expansion — growing the business in a way that makes sense.
“I hope to increase employment over the next few years,” she said. “New York State has been a very good customer; we have had success in bidding OGS, DASNY and SUNY projects. ”
Heffernan looks forward to having internal conversations with employees on exploring other gainful avenues, too.
What should their customers know?
Sometimes change can shake up customers’ confidence if they’re uncertain about what to expect. At Wilkins Mechanical, Heffernan exudes a commitment to excellence.
“I carry the same values, work ethic, and pride that the former owners had,” she said. ”I respect that. I want to continue to preserve the reputation that the previous owners worked so hard to build — that’s my goal.”
Does that mean there won’t be any “oh shoot,” “oh darn,” or “I’m sorry” moments? Of course, there might be, she said, because learning curves are a natural — and healthy — part of a new process, and show humility. Heffernan advocates for customer conversations to bring her up to speed on current happenings.
“I appreciate our customers and I am thankful for their patience in our growth,” Heffernan said. Our customers have been wonderful to work with. I’ve very much enjoyed getting to know them.”
In essence, Heffernan’s view on success for everyone is about collaboration. “We’re very prideful in the work that we do because we do a knockout job. We’re welders, we’re pipefitters and nobody can weld as good as we can,” she said. At the same time, feedback is critical, too. “If our client is unhappy with a certain situation, we entertain that. We’re open to that conversation.”
“I see everything as a team,” she added. “Everybody needs support, whether it’s on a project from a project manager to the foreman to the client’s project manager — we all need to work together and that’s the kind of culture and philosophy that I’m trying to build.”
Heffernan may not have ever consciously thought about owning a business, but her experience, philosophies, and can-do attitude, together with team-building principles, appears to have put her on the path she had been seeking from the start.
Breakout Box or Sidebar
Wilkins Mechanical Apprenticeship Program
The Wilkins Mechanical Apprenticeship Program is accredited through the National Center for Construction Education & Research (NCCER), which is recognized by the New York State Department of Labor.
“We encourage anyone, at any age, to join our organization and learn the plumbing, pipefitting, and steam-fitting trade,” Heffernan said.
The typical program is five years. The work processes that an individual is trained on and the minimum required hours are set by the DOL. A newly hired individual who enters the program will “test in,” which will determine their knowledge and skills to influence their entry level.