Meet Susan Mailman of Coghlin Electrical Contractors; a rebel WITH a cause
When most of us think of what the owner and president of a successful electrical contracting company might do to unwind after a busy week of dealing with a host of demanding and often daunting challenges associated with running a business, having a manicure or a facial probably would not be at the top of the list.
In truth, even in this age, which sees women owning a much larger slice of American companies across a broad range of industry disciplines, a female owner of an electrical contracting company is rare. But then, so is Susan Coghlin Mailman.
As the fourth-generation owner of the 130-year-old Coghlin Electrical Contractors and Network Services, Mailman admits she was a rebellious teenager. Well, that was then and this is now, and today that once-rebellious teenager runs her own business and has immersed herself in a variety of community endeavors that include serving as an active member on the boards of the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce and Worcester Business Development Corp and as a trustee for Reliant Medical Group. If this weren’t enough to keep her busy, in 2012, Mailman was also elected to the board of directors of the Quinsigamond Community College Foundation.
Of the rebel label, she said, “Some years ago, Worcester Living did an article about me and my dad [Mailman’s father, Ted, turned over the company to her when he retired], along with other interesting mother-son father-daughter co-working teams across the city. The article about us was titled ‘The Boy Scout and the Rebel,’ and my Dad was the Boy Scout. I think the rebel persona is part of the view of who I am, but I think that when people begin to know me, they learn that I sometimes have a tough exterior, but that I’m also an empathetic, compassionate softie who is quite impatient.” She added, “I feel like it’s a short life, and we all have to get moving. I think that my Dad was comfortable in naming me as the next generation to own and lead Coghlin Electrical Contractors and Network Services, as he was comfortable that I understood and embodied the values of our company.”
When this rebellious teen was growing up, a career in the family business was not her first love. In fact, at that point in her life, Mailman did not even see it as being in her future. Owning and operating the family business was not the path that she had wanted to set out on in life. “I wanted to be a psychologist or a lawyer when I was young, and in my later teens, I was very interested in political science and was headed to Northeastern when I was sidetracked by my first husband.”
Easing into the family business from the ground up, Mailman said, “I worked at a bank for five years and then came to Coghlin’s. Our general manager at the time – the wonderful Jim Duffy – told me, ‘Why not give the family business a try?’ My plan was really to get a job at Hanover because they gave three weeks of vacation, which I never get anymore. Funny how life happens.” As it turned out, Hanover’s loss was indeed Coghlin’s gain.
What is conspicuous by its absence in Mailman is any sense of arrogance, conceit or self-importance. She is down to earth, quite approachable and appears to live up to her public persona in every way. In short, where Mailman is concerned, what you see is exactly what you get: someone who brings a sense of purpose, caring and urgency to what she does.
Not only does she run her own business and maintain a direct hands-on involvement across a variety of organizations that are playing a pivotal role in the economic growth of city of Worcester, the Northborough resident, in the midst of a punishing schedule that would have most of us running on empty, also has the wherewithal to somehow find time for a full personal life with her husband. This speaks volumes about Mailman’s values and who she is at her core.
Asked about what made her want to become involved with the Chamber of Commerce, Mailman said, “I believe I’m fortunate to be asked to get involved with many different organizations in the city. Oftentimes, I believe that I’m asked as I represent a woman-led business. Many times, I’ve worked with someone or other on other boards, and that is how networks are formed and how interests become known. I was asked to be a member of the Chamber board by Dick Kennedy. I had a lot of respect for Dick and admired the fact that he made a decision to step up and serve the community as CEO of the Chamber after a full career at Norton’s. I hope that others think about opportunities like that as we live longer and want to contribute longer.”
At heart, Mailman is a practical businesswoman who also dares to dream about what she can be part of achieving: “To work with Tim [Tim Garvin, president and CEO of United Way of Central Massachusetts] and the rest of the staff and board to build Chamber membership, to help sell the value equation, to be an ambassador and talk about the work that’s being done and the energy and new vision that Tim and his team are creating so that we can achieve the dream of a vibrant and growing Worcester; to recruit, retain and incubate.”
When she thought about her own challenges in the business arena, Mailman said, “I love the work of our business. Construction is ever-changing, and the people who work in our industry are, by and large, hard-working, high-energy, multi-tasking personalities with a lot of attention to detail. I’m proud of the tradespeople. They remain many of the smartest people I know. I’m proud of the work that we do as a union employer.”
She is quick to expand on union issue, however. “I tire of the defensive posture that employers of organized labor have to assume because ‘union’ is such a dirty word. I think that many are just uneducated, as union can – and still does – mean quality-trained, a fair and living wage and high standards,” Mailman said. “Unions evolve, and those that are leaders in the union world can facilitate that evolution, and I hope to assist in any way I can as an employer.”
So what does this 53-year-old whirlwind really do to enjoy her precious slivers of free time? “I like gardening, although time has been against me in recent years in this endeavor.” She also enjoys reading history and politics and spending time with friends and family. “I’m fortunate to have several very close friends and a very large extended family. We enjoy each other’s company.”
With respect to advice she has to impart to young aspiring business people, Mailman is philosophical: “Be patient. Do whatever’s asked. In small and mid-sized businesses, we have to do a lot of different things. Get involved, show up, engage and (with a smile) listen to your elders.”
As for what path her own future may take in the days ahead, she said “I was happily remarried five years ago and moved to Northborough after living 30 years as a Worcester resident. I grew up in Shrewsbury. Jim [her husband] and I will be moving back to Worcester in a couple of years, and we are both looking forward to community involvement and experiences.”
And what is the one thing that she would change if she could live her life over again? “I would try to be more patient,” she said.
And as for the future of Worcester itself, Mailman said, “I love our city. I see lots of growth and room for young people to pursue their dreams. I think that we are physically positioned as the heart of New England and are building the infrastructure to fully play that role.”
So when all is said and done, who is Sue Mailman? Well, when the veil is pulled back, what is revealed is very definitely not a person who was born with a silver spoon in her mouth. Rather, one sees a talented and successful female business owner who works and competes in a male-dominated profession and who came up through the ranks to assume the reins of power. Perhaps of far greater importance is the fact that she uses her drive, energy and smarts to give back to her employees and to the community.
Paul Collins is a freelance writer from Southborough.