Name: Mary Anne Kirgan
Title: Owner/President of Systems 4 Inc.
Educational Experience: Bachelor's Degree in Economics, Wellesley College
Professional Credentials/Accreditations: Forty-Three Years of Training Classes and Certifications, Including Schneider Electric’s EcoStruxure Architecture, Engineering, and Applications; Andover Controls Programming Certifications for All Product Lines; Modicon 484 and 584 Programming; and Trane Training Classes on Pneumatics Basics: Design and Repair.
Organizational Affiliations/Achievements/Awards: Entered and Won Two Design-Build Competitions, the First Was the 1993 National Capital Area Energy Conservation Competition Sponsored By Several Area Utilities and Association Chapters, and the Second was the Maryland Energy Administration (MEA) Demand Response and Building Automation Grant Program in 2016. The Competitions Included Cash Performance Awards of $1.1 Million for Our Two Clients. Additionally, the Resulting Energy Savings on These Two Projects Each Showed a Simple Payback in Less than Two-and-a-Half Years and Increased Net Operating Income (NOI) By $722,000. Thus, the Energy Savings Enhancements Alone Increased the Value of the Two Buildings, Collectively, By More than $12 Million.
What caused you to/when did you fall in love with engineering?
In 1979, I was a regional salesperson for an international sales and management training firm, selling training programs on a 100% commission basis. While I was calling on an energy management company in the height of the “energy crisis,” I became fascinated with energy management systems and their effect on operating expenses and the benefits to the environment. From that moment, I was hooked. All I could think about was designing those systems. With these key concepts in mind, I entered the creative and important realm of engineering and construction, in particular the design-build environment of controls. I have worked in the energy management business since its inception 43 years ago, helping to develop and implement many new technologies in the industry. I love having the ability to create, engineer, and implement something that is good for the environment, shows a fast payback through savings, and results in higher building valuations for our clients.
What has been the most rewarding aspect of working in the skilled trades?
Working with a team of people excited to make the engineering implementation successful for each application is incredibly rewarding. Specifically, building a strong team of professionals for engineering and implementation of our customized energy and facilities management systems (EFMS) has made all the difference. I am especially thankful for the dedication and stamina of my team; my people have also had to deal with the extra challenges a woman-owned business faces in the engineering and construction industries. Our team enjoys winning. Our clients enjoy being provided systems that outperform their expectations. This attention to performance has enabled Systems 4 to do 80% repeat-and-referral business.
My team has fun and enjoys being challenged by engineering and the implementation of new industry technologies — this is what we do, and we are really good at it. It should be noted there are many demanding weeks and months devoted to creating and implementing new technologies — that means very long work hours. We compete against international companies, and, of course, we all want to contract the “prize” projects. The more difficult and complicated the engineering and implementation challenges are, the more likely we are to be awarded those projects. Our systems outperform those of our competitors due to superior engineering, custom-written software, follow-through, and understanding of our clients’ requirements. We take pride in our work. It is a win-win deal for our clients and Systems 4.
People make all the difference. A strong team is vital for success.
Describe the proudest moment in your career.
There have been many times when Systems 4 has been awarded exciting, high-tech projects for notable applications. We are awarded these challenging projects because we engineer and implement superior solutions. These projects are always rewarding and ones for which I am extremely proud. We were even awarded, as the general contractor, a design-build mechanical and controls upgrade project for a nuclear reactor plant facility. How amazing is that? Yes, we did hire a nuclear engineering firm to prepare and stamp the drawings.
The proudest moment in my career, however, was when my clients supported me in a time of great need by believing in me and providing me work so I could start a new company. As discussed herein, I set up and, for seven years, ran the energy management division for a notable firm in the industry. By 1985, building owners had become wise to all the black-box salesmen who had ripped them off by selling components that did not work. Accordingly, building owners tightened evaluation standards, which meant energy management companies had to show “golden references” and often had to provide bonding to even be considered for future projects. The elimination of the incompetent companies that were ruining the trade reputation was great for our business. Our company paid its dues and had done everything right, but our “perfect setup” was about to change for reasons outside of our control.
Our parent company had been growing profitably by approximately 32% each year, and the energy management division I managed was growing even faster. Thus, it was a tremendous surprise when the owner of the company walked into my office one Tuesday morning and informed me I was to fire my staff on Friday because he was going to have to file Chapter 11 because a developer had not paid more than a half million dollars on a design-build, mechanical construction project. At a time of such significant growth, the reduction of cash flow simply strangled the firm, and the damages started compounding even further. In 1986, with the tightened credentials required to be in the energy management trade, the energy management division would not have been awarded projects with the perceived risks of the parent company filing Chapter 11.
After quickly evaluating my options, I decided the best option was to go into business for myself. For the most successful outcome, this meant I only had one week to secure enough work to retain my entire staff, find a business partner, establish banking and insurance, seek legal advice, and negotiate an assets purchase at full value or higher so the negotiation with a company soon to enter Chapter 11 would not be challenged. I was able to accomplish the aforementioned (with very little sleep) and legally established Systems 4 Inc. in February 1986.
That, however, turned out to only be the beginning of the challenges. I had no idea of all the general and administrative (G&A) hurdles I was about to face, inclusive of the tremendous obstacles for securing performance bonding for a new company so we could be the prime on upgrade projects for schools.
The clients, whose projects we had performed so well on over the previous seven years, really came through for us, and we did 100% repeat-and-referral business for our entire first year as Systems 4. I had always known that one day I would own a business, I had discussed buy-in options with my previous boss on many occasions, but I did not expect my company would be started the way it was.
What challenges do women face in this profession? Can you give a personal example? Why aren’t there more women in engineering? How can we increase the number of women in engineering?
I have often joked at my office that we should write a sitcom about both the obstacles and the absurdity of what this company and I have been through being a woman in this industry.
One of the biggest challenges I faced in the early years was that men assumed I knew nothing about the industry. I did understand when I was out on a call with my boss why he got all the attention. After all, I was in my early 20s, and he was middle-aged, well-known in the industry, and had the same last name as the originator of the company. At trade shows, even though I was in a business suit, I still got asked whether I worked for the company. (I suppose there could be some semblance of a compliment in that question.)
Even after I started Systems 4 and had president after my name, if any man was with me, I was never the one addressed for technical questions. The best solution was to not allow anyone to come on surveys or presentations with me. That way, I did not have to fight for positioning, because I was the only one there. This went on for years and still happens.
The perception of what jobs women should and can perform in the engineering and construction trades has been changing. Challenges still exist for women, but not to the same degree as those that existed five to 10 years ago, let alone 40 years ago. I can assure everyone the problem with me being discounted can no longer be brushed off to me being too young! People are always impacted by the world in which they are raised. In the 43 years I have been in this industry, there has never been a time the trade has been more open to women — or any person willing to learn engineering. Change has been slow, but it is definitely happening.
If we want more women in engineering, then one suggestion is to encourage girls who want to learn anything technical — inclusive of math, science, engineering, and even industrial arts — that they can do so. Specifically, girls should be encouraged to participate in what are now called STEM programs. Some boys like English and art, and some girls like science and math. People have different strengths and interests and should be encouraged to pursue careers where they can enjoy their work.
My best recommendation for getting more people into any industry is for those in it to remain excited and to also give back. Contribute in any way you can. For children, encouragement is far more important than extra material things. The foresight, work, and contributions of people I did not know enabled me to move forward from Baltimore City Public Schools to a private high school with college-prep educational standards and then get accepted into an excellent college. In fact, my family was provided scholarships and loans for the education of all three children. My older brother and I give back to our respective industries. Together, we also manage a trust that has provided millions of dollars of grants to schools and colleges to provide financial aid to other families, so students can have the opportunity of getting a good education. Giving back is rewarding for the giver, too.
What does your day-to-day job entail?
My most important day-to-day responsibility is to create the means for Systems 4 to remain a technology leader by employing strong people who find our work exciting. The tasks I like most are meeting with clients, designing projects, and addressing the latest engineering challenges with our team.
In addition to leadership responsibilities, my work includes coordinating with my key people; filling in to provide any type of client support work, which must be addressed immediately to assure efficient operations are maintained; making financial decisions; addressing banking, bonding, and insurance changes; dealership/product relationships; hiring new employees; performing the role of “shrink” and “parent/protector/friend” when needed; and enriching my own skills through training and relationships with other business owners.
Some years, my work has also included dealing with unexpected and undesirable management responsibilities, such as addressing nefarious acts perpetrated by employees and competitors; addressing legal or potential legal issues; acts of God; COVID-19; industry changes; and world, economic, and government changes.
What drives/motivates you every day?
I am very grateful to be able to do the work I enjoy. I love engineering the solutions required to meet owners’ specific needs for different applications and then implementing those designs, especially since the work is environmentally important. We are fortunate to work directly with building owners, property managers, and building engineers to assure success on projects. It is also very rewarding to coordinate and team with people in other parts of the industry who are excited about making buildings operate properly and efficiently. Of course, cutting the waste out of building operations is not only environmentally important but is good engineering.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted you personally and professionally?
COVID has been detrimental to the commercial real estate world. With the uncertainty created for many of our clients’ tenants and businesses and the resulting reduction of building improvements, the flow-down effect has also negatively impacted our core business.
Yet, with every obstacle, there are always new opportunities. Prior to COVID, I had been working on a new venture in our industry. The COVID crisis has helped to accelerate the opportunity timing for this new venture.
Even though we have worked throughout the pandemic, the personal impact of COVID has been especially challenging. I hate the feeling of isolation the pandemic has created for many, including me. I did not realize how much I enjoy in-person meetings — even with traffic.
What remains on your engineering bucket list — what do you aspire to do that you haven’t accomplished yet?
My next big trade breakthrough! Being in a technology industry, we’ve had the benefit of developing and implementing technologies quickly, which has continually put us ahead of the industry. But the giants of the industry will quickly try to replicate the ideas. Unfortunately, we have even had our assets stolen several times in the past.
The most recent venture I have been working on has taken several years to develop, and we want to take full advantage of those pioneering efforts and costs. While it pays to be agile and provide superior technologies and service, at least once I would like to implement what no one else has from a full position of strength. That is what I am working on now. The next new thing is developed and being tested, while I look for a strategic partner to help launch it from a dominating position.
What’s one thing no one knows about you?
I turned down a tremendous career opportunity working for Charlie Cawley in order to do the work that inspires me. For those who may not know, Mr. Cawley was the MBNA giant who changed the entire credit card industry.
I first met him when I worked at Maryland National Bank as a summer job while in college. It was a Saturday and, although this was not my regular job, as a favor to the vice president of security, I had offered to paint the security division office, which I was doing very proficiently. At the same time, Mr. Cawley’s top managers (MBAs) were doing a terrible job of painting the consumer banking division office on the other side of the elevator lobby. After his third or fourth pass through the lobby, he called me “Wellesley” (because of my t-shirt) and asked what I was doing. We talked for a while. The following Monday, I was promoted from my tedious paperwork job. I worked the rest of that summer and the next on special testing and development projects for the credit card division. Even after he knew my name, he continued to call me “Wellesley” which I took as a compliment as everyone else vied for his attention.
The most important take away I learned through the brief initial meeting and then working for him in the summers is that when one is really determined to build something, everyone around can see it in that person. Everybody at the bank knew that about Mr. Cawley; I could see it in him. More importantly, I knew he saw it in me. That confirmation meant the world to me.
List any mentors who’ve helped you succeed and describe exactly how they’ve shaped your success.
My most important mentors were role models rather than individuals who performed coaching or teaching directly. I was always in jobs where I was working on projects and helping to develop/create new technologies. My greatest work mentors were self-made millionaires whose companies I worked for: Charles Cawley, MBNA; Harold (“Hal”) Krause, American Salesmasters; and Harvey and Dick Hottel, Harvey W. Hottel Inc. To the above list, I also include many very successful real estate developers and contractors in the industry, who I have been honored to work with and learn from over the years.
The one person who impacted me the most was my mother — her actions spoke the loudest. My father died when I was very young, leaving my mother to raise three children through the '60s and '70s. She never gave up, even against tremendous obstacles. Children notice what people do. Admittedly, we did not always follow what our mother said. She was very artistic. Meanwhile, my brothers and I were technical thinkers — very math-oriented. There were definitely times my mother and I had very different viewpoints, such as when she pushed me to be a music major in college. (Not happening!) Most importantly, my mother always said we could have whatever we wanted, we just had to figure out how to earn it. Extra work, dedication, and education can help make up for the lack of other beneficial resources.
In my educational studies, I had a few mentors. What separated these individuals is that they actually inspired me, opening pathways to discovery and learning without passing judgement on my starting point. These mentors included my high school math teacher and specific college professors in black studies, political science, and economics. I can self-learn from reading a book, but to open my mind to a new way of thinking, as these teachers did, required leadership and inspiration.
All the above people helped to make me a better person. We may never know how many ways we actually impact certain people’s lives.
What advice do you have for prospective female engineers considering entering the field?
First, do not limit your vision by looking through the lens of someone else’s contradictory viewpoint, especially if it restricts your life. There are many interpretations of “success,” and there are many roads to an outcome. Take risks.
Second, do what you love to do, because you are going to spend a lot of time doing it. One can be successful in any field. There is always something that requires engineering if you love this work. Push forward.
Third, always do your best with a good attitude, even when you do not like the task. No one likes all aspects of any job. (I hate painting!) Actions do speak louder than words, and we all rely on others. Your actions and positioning are constantly paving the way to new opportunities ahead. Be positive.
In closing, I hope you grow from many exciting adventures. Remember to help others.
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