It wasn’t so long ago that the business of running a business was left to the men. In the landscape of today’s job market, however, that concept is simply archaic. The following women are just three examples of why women are making a difference in the business world. Whether starting from scratch or stepping up to the helm of existing local companies, these women have skill sets that bring a fresh and unique approach to business, and even though they still occasionally have to fight against gender stereotypes, they show no signs of slowing down.
CEO, SAN ANTONIO SHOE
In an SAS retail store located behind the SAS factory, a customer approaches a sales associate and asks her for help with, of all things, purchasing a pair of socks. Not only does the denim-clad associate help the customer, she engages her in friendly conversation, never once revealing that she is not a sales associate but is in fact SAS CEO Nancy Richardson. One might be tempted to assume that this level of service is strictly for show; after all, Richardson is being trailed by a reporter. Evidence to the contrary is presented, however, in the form of hugs, friendly waves and authentic smiles from the real sales associates, who seem genuinely pleased to see their boss roaming through the aisles of shoes, bags, and accessories, and Richardson greets them all by name.
This family atmosphere has been a part of SAS since its inception in 1976, when partners Terry Armstrong and Lew Hayden set out to manufacture a comfortable, high-quality line of shoes in the United States. Since stepping into the established shoe biz as CEO in March of 2012, Richardson has made it a priority to keep and even enhance that family environment. For starters, this userfriendly executive offices at the factory rather than at the office complex, and she maintains an “open door” policy with all employees. She tries to steal 10 to 15 minutes out of every day to do something fun with her staff, such as celebrate a birthday, anniversary or other achievement. Richardson first came to SAS in 1986 as head of the finance and accounting department. She left in 1992 to “see the world,” get her master’s degree and work overseas in the technology sector, but she returned at the request of the family after the last founding SAS partner passed away. “Spending 20 years away made me realize what a great place this is to work,” she says.
It also gave her an advantage when it came to insight about the company, and as CEO she has some very definite ideas of where she wants to take SAS, a company known for comfortable but not necessarily fashionable footwear. In an effort to alter that perception, Richardson has implemented some changes, including redesigning the look and feel of the retail stores located at the Quarry and the Rim shopping centers. Gone is the rustic interior that has been the hallmark of this brand, and in its place is a boutique-like atmosphere complete with light, airy colors and hidden stock. New styles have been created, including the first-ever SAS pump with a one-inch heel, the first ballet flat style and a colorful line of sandals, some of which even have “bling.” Most are available in 73 sizes and four widths, and a line of men’s dress shoes offers 84 sizes from which to choose. Although the new styles are manufactured with the same attention to detail and with the three pressure point cushions for which the brand is known, one of the biggest challenges Richardson has faced in her role as CEO has been getting people on board with the production changes. “Initiating change can be difficult, even when it is for the best,” she says, adding that she plans to keep the line evolving in terms of colors and fabrics. “Everybody loves progress, nobody loves change.”
And while Richardson says that you will never see a five-inch stiletto from SAS, she is committed to making sure that people understand that you don’t have to give up style to enjoy comfort. “You can still maintain elements of style,” she explains. “But you spend your entire life on your feet; you deserve to be comfortable.”
BRENDA VICKREY JOHNSON
PRESIDENT, VICKREY & ASSOCIATES, INC.
When Vickrey & Associates founders Ken and Norma Vickrey asked their daughter to step in and help with the family business, Brenda Vickrey Johnson agreed to give them one year. That was 28 years ago. “My sister is the one with the engineering degree who always planned to take over the business,” laughs Johnson. “I’m the one with the business degree.” Johnson quickly learned that business knowledge is critical in running an engineering firm, and she brought a much-needed skill set to the table. She also fell in love with the business. “Every project is different, and I never get bored,” she says, citing an 85-acre expansion at the ARC, and the City of San Antonio’s Hardy Oak Boulevard extension as just a couple of the company’s successes. Elected president of the company by the board of directors in 1993, Johnson has worked diligently to maintain the high standards and level of excellence established by her father. In her first seven years as president, she increased the firm’s business by a staggering 400 percent, and over the course of her career the firm has received several awards, including four Engineering Excellence awards and the distinction of becoming a Woman-Owned Business Enterprise. However, engineering is typically a man’s world, and competition is steep. Johnson says that the biggest challenges she faces are trying to meet the clients’ demands of faster and more efficient work, thanks to technological advances, while still maintaining high quality standards. And San Antonio is growing quickly, with new companiesmoving into the city and forcing this small business to compete at a national level.
“It’s not enough to just be good anymore, you have to be great,” she explains. “If you stay focused on the goals and objectives and don’t listen to the chatter, you’ll be fine.”
Some of that “chatter” includes mumblings from competitors about a female as head of an engineering firm, but that just makes Johnson more determined than ever to be the best. She says that women bring a different level of communication skills to the workplace, and she uses hers to work closely with employees and clients and get to the root of an issue more quickly. She has also learned to see the big picture, a skill she says she acquired by joining the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce and serving in several positions including chairman. She is only the second woman to hold that position in the Chamber’s 112-year history.
Johnson credits her family, her faith and her team of leaders for her ability to successfully steer the family company into the future. She calls her team the best she has seen in 27 years and has full confidence in their ability to take the company to the next level. But one of the most important contributors to the success of this dynamic mother of three is her network of female friends. She describes them as her support system and credits them for keeping her grounded. “You have to nurture your female friendships,” she says emphatically. “When everyone is so busy, it requires an effort, but even getting together with my group of friends for an hour is rejuvenating to me.” Supporting women in general is something that Johnson strongly believes in, and she is the organizer of Women’s Opportunity Week (WOW), which celebrates women leaders who are making a difference in San Antonio. Through WOW, more than $40,000 has been raised in scholarships for young women. An award in her name is presented to a small-business owner or CEO who has exhibited outstanding business leadership and has made a significant impact on the community.
Johnson herself has been on the receiving end of many awards, including the prestigious Eva Rosow Award of Excellence in 2001 and the 2009 Ford Tribute to Business Women Leaders Award, and she serves on many boards and is active in various charitable organizations throughout the community. With such a strong dedication to the advancement of women in business, one can’t help wondering what advice Vickrey would have given herself 28 years ago. “Work hard and stay focused,” she says. “Don’t let other things distract you, and above all, always be professional and keep your faith.”
CRISTINA MORALES HEANEY,
CEO, U.S. SAFETY SERVICES
Cristina Morales Heaney was born at the Nix Hospital in San Antonio, and it is now where the majority of her business is done. The vivacious San Antonio native says that for her, it is like coming full circle. “This is where I came into the world, and it’s where I have returned,” she says. The road back wasn’t always an easy one for Heaney, but this daughter of agricultural entrepreneurs isn’t afraid of rolling up her sleeves and getting dirty. She and her brothers were raised on the family’s cattle ranch, and although she says she wanted for nothing, she was taught to work hard, a lesson that has served her well. “I attribute so much of my success to the way I was brought up,” she says. Heaney began her career working with a management-consulting group out of Houston, and when she wasn’t going to night school full time to get her MBA, she was traveling with her company. Entrepreneurship is part of Heaney’s blood, however, and when she had the opportunity to purchase a small, home-based EMT staffing business run by a firefighter and his wife, she jumped at the chance. As it turned out, the business had only a couple of clients, only 20 medics and wasn’t even in compliance with the state. Undeterred, Heaney exerted blood, sweat and tears and turned things around.
“It was like the iceberg in Titanic,“ she recalls. “You couldn’t see what was underneath. But I rolled up my sleeves, and for the first three years I worked from early morning until the wee hours of the night.” With no experience in the medical field, Heaney journeyed to California to attend a one-month EMT training program. Then she worked side by side with her staff to show them and the clients that she knew what she was doing.
Now, eight years later, Heaney has taken that small in-home business and grown it into an online and brick and mortar business that is state-compliant. She counts such large companies as the Pearl Brewery, H.E.B. and the Northside Independent School District among the many clients for whom her company provides first responder services. What she refers to as her “specialized staffing service” includes providing medical first responders for conventions, corporate functions, parades, Fiesta, farmers’ markets, sporting events and more. Heaney says that the difference her company makes to her clients is twofold: It protects and oversees the health and safety of employees and attendees at company events, and it allows the clients to be more efficient because it keeps the workforce safe and healthy. Furthermore, it can save a life, as was evidenced when an attendee suffered a massive heart attack at a local sporting event. Heaney’s team was able to get to him and shock him back to life on the spot. “That’s why companies hire us to be on site,” she says. “Response time in a situation like that one is critical.”
Heaney is quick to acknowledge that her company is only as successful as her team. Therefore she strives to let her employees do their job without micromanaging their efforts. Her approach has helped her retain 80 to 85 percent of the company’s original employees. “Success really is about whom you surround yourself with,” she says with a smile. “I am surrounded by great employees and people I love in a city I love. What could be better?”