Cristina Heaney

Whether it’s at the Alamodome, the Convention Center, the River Walk, The Pearl, a park or a fun run, if you’ve ever been at an event in San Antonio and found yourself in need of medical help — or just in need of a Band-Aid — you’ve most likely been treated by a capable emergency medical technician from U.S. Safety Services. “We’ve probably given out a warehouse full of Band-Aids to women who come to events in heels,” laughs Cristina Heaney, CEO and owner of the company.

From simple bandages to basic and advanced life support coverage, U.S. Safety Services provides EMTs for the majority of community sports and entertainment facilities in the city, as well as temporary medical staffing for corporate and manufacturing settings throughout Central and South Texas.

What Heaney refers to as her “specialized staffing service” includes providing medical first responders for conventions, corporate functions, parades, Fiesta, farmers markets, sporting events and more. It’s not a service industry that’s well known, but one that serves a vital role. “We’re a unique business. We provide the EMT, the supplies, we have insurance, we operate under a medical director,” explains Heaney, meaning that businesses and events that hire U.S. Safety Services don’t have to cover those specialty needs themselves.

Heaney jumped into business ownership after a successful corporate and nonprofit career, taking the plunge and purchasing a small San Antonio business from a local fireman and his wife. “They ran the business out of their home and wanted to sell,” she explains. The opportunity seemed like a good fit and gave her the chance to spend more time in San Antonio after years of being on the road as a consultant.

But not everything was what it seemed. “I purchased a monster of a company that was out of compliance and didn’t carry the insurance that they should have at the time,” she says. “I had to take a business that was being operated out of a shoebox and bring it to a professional level. It was like the Titanic. You don’t know what’s under the surface that you can’t see.”

In spite of the work it took, Heaney keeps things in perspective and urges others to do the same, explaining, “What might have looked like a huge, big thing six years ago or two years ago, it doesn’t look like that now. There’s always a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Heaney also stresses that you have to weather the inevitable ups and downs, like losing clients or contracts: “You might lose something that you think is substantial to your company, but a lot of times it’s a blessing in disguise.”

Based on her experience, she also emphasizes that others interested in business ownership should look before they leap. “Doing your due diligence is important to any new business owner or someone purchasing or starting a business. Even when you’ve done all of your homework, there can still be surprises.

“If I knew then what I know now, I probably wouldn’t have ever chosen that [buying the company], but it’s my baby. You can’t give your babies back, and I couldn’t give this business back,” Heaney says with a smile. “I got into this company that I knew absolutely nothing about. Now I sleep it, I eat it, I drink it, I dream it, I talk about it. It has been a wild ride.”

Part of that wild ride included expanding her areas of expertise. Along with developing standard operating procedures and building the company’s infrastructure, one of the challenges Heaney faced was proving herself to both the employees and clients. To help with that, she decided to become an EMT. After getting her BBA and MBA while working full time, she thought getting her EMT certification would be a breeze. “I wasn’t even CPR-certified. I’m not sure what I was thinking,” she says.

She immersed herself in an intensive, month-long EMT boot camp — and a lot of studying, training and tears — then passed the national registry exam and rolled up her sleeves. “I worked all of the events —AT&T Center, Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre, you name it,” she recalls. That meant she could be driving home from an event at 2 a.m., then heading into the office early the next morning. It also meant being involved in a number of life and death situations — and being karate kicked by an intoxicated fan after a Spurs game.

Then there’s the glamorous side of the job: She’s also been thrown up on numerous times. But she gained the respect of both her clients and her employees, many of whom are still with U.S. Safety Services today.

Thanks to Heaney’s tireless efforts and dedication, the company is now a state-certified first responder, with 85 employees offering contract medical services and first-aid coverage for businesses and high-profile events. The nature of the industry means that her doors never close. “We work 365 days a year, evenings, weekends, holidays — it’s an enormous amount of work,” she explains.

Hard work is nothing new to Heaney. She and her four brothers were raised on the family’s cattle ranch outside of San Antonio. 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, and lists her mother, who works for U.S. Safety Services a few hours a week, as her inspiration.

Heaney was able to take a step back — or really forward, taking on a broader role and delegating more of the operational details to her staff, to embrace the true CEO and owner role once her husband, Jim, came to work for her following his retirement from a 35-year career in banking. “We’re together all the time now. And I love it. I wouldn’t have it any other way,” she says.

She counts Jim, who urged her to buy the business, as her biggest cheerleader: “He wants to see me be more successful than he is. He really is my pillar of strength.”

Jim also encouraged her to join the National Association of Women Business Owners. Heaney was deeply involved in the community during her corporate career, serving on the board of directors for the Greater San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, participating in the Greater San Antonio Chamber of Commerce and North San Antonio Chamber of Commerce Leadership Programs, and volunteering with a number of nonprofits, but she’d become so busy at U.S. Safety Services that she’d stepped back from her involvement.

She wasn’t sure that the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO) was a fit. “I have an issue with people who think they are entitled because they are a woman or a minority. I want the same opportunities as others, but I don’t want something just because I’m a woman or a minority,” she explains, noting that her maiden name is Morales.

But after one meeting, she was hooked. She joined, then ultimately became the president of the San Antonio chapter. She now serves on NAWBO’s national board of directors and has been asked to serve on the organization’s executive board. She also serves on the Leadership Council for the National Federation of Independent Business. Heaney believes the time commitment is more than worth it and stresses that no matter what organization you join, “it’s what you put into it. You’ve got to have some skin in the game. You have to get involved. It is what you make of it,” she says.

Heaney is also quick to point out the benefits of a professional organization. “It’s not about networking as much as it is relationship building. If you join to get business, it’s the wrong reason to join. You join for education, to gain those relationships. You never know when it’s going to be good to know this person or that person. Maintaining those relationships, maintaining connections to people who are like-minded or who support your group is so important, ” she believes.

“You’re constantly setting yourself up for improvement or advancement by listening.”

Her involvement with NAWBO has pulled her into the world of public policy. NAWBO and NFIB partner on public policy, and Heaney is a part of that effort. “Both NAWBO and NFIB offer nonpartisan ways to get our stories to our legislators. They look for candidates that are pro-small business,” she explains. She’s had the opportunity to meet with legislators to share stories of her small business and advocate pro-small business positions on issues ranging from health care to regulatory reform.

Her public policy involvement also includes an appointment to Texas’ Office of Small Business Assistance Advisory Task Force. The task force advises and assists the Office of Small Business Assistance with its duties related to small businesses, advising and assisting the governor, lieutenant governor, and speaker of the house with small business-related issues. Bridging to her NAWBO service, she’s working with the governor’s office to start a NAWBO chapter in Austin. “He wants Texas to be a leading environment for women business owners. Right now, we’re number two behind California,” she explains.

Today’s divisive political climate is not one that she enjoys. She loves working with people and building relationships and wants things to be more positive. “I want everyone to play well together. From a politics standpoint, from a friendship and relationship standpoint, family dynamics, organizational dynamics — we can all maintain a level of professionalism, and we can all work together if we give everyone the opportunity to do that,” she notes.

Heaney is refreshingly honest and open and obviously not afraid to speak her mind: “I’m an open book … I’m probably too honest or say things I shouldn’t. But that’s who I am. It works for me.”

She believes that whether you’re working with a board, members of an organization or your employees, “you have to empower the people you surround yourself with. Even if you’re the president, you have to empower your employees, fellow board members or members. You have to be a team player,” she says.

“If you’re the leader, all you can do is lead and direct and put a good team together, no matter what scenario you’re in.”

With all that’s on her plate, it might seem hard to believe that Heaney fits in down time, but she does. “It’s difficult when you start out, but you’re got to make sure you take care of yourself,” she explains.

She emphasizes that managing stress is also important and tough to do in a high-stress industry. “Over time, your skin thickens. Over time, you just become stronger. You have to maintain calmness, which was hard for me at first.

“I had to learn not to sweat the small stuff because there’s a lot of small stuff that I used to make a huge thing out of.” Now she compartmentalizes more. “I really try to separate myself from work. My home is my sanctuary.

“I love to keep up a home. I love to entertain, and I love to cook,” she explains, though she doesn’t get to as often as she’d like, thanks to her schedule and the nature of her industry. “Being in the kitchen, cooking and cleaning, is my therapy.”

She also proudly admits an affection for British television, noting that she loves BBC and Acorn TV. “Though I still can’t enjoy a ‘spot of tea’ because it’s just too hot,” she says, laughing.

The frequent traveler enjoys exploring, but no matter what sights she sees or experiences she enjoys, she’s always happy to be back in San Antonio.

“I’m passionate about San Antonio. When you come home, it’s home. I love our city.”

So don’t be surprised if she hands you a Band-Aid the next time you need to cover a blister at the Alamodome.

By Dawn Robinette

Photography by David Teran

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