Refined Talent Arrives to the Fire Protection Industry
As fate would have it, some things are just meant to be. At least, that’s how things played out for Katie Meehan, director of marketing at VSC Fire & Security, Ashland, Virginia. Growing up with a father who was already in the fire sprinkler industry, one could understand how Meehan could follow in her father’s footsteps one day. However, Meehan herself did not join the fire sprinkler industry until just four years ago. Still, since her arrival, Meehan’s work has been nothing short of impactful. Since joining VSC, Meehan has hit the ground running with her involvement in the American Fire Sprinkler Association’s (AFSA) NextGen Workgroup, Public Education & Awareness Committee, Convention Committee, as well as AFSA’s Virginia Chapter. What’s more, is that Meehan’s dedication to the industry has helped pave the way to her success.
For these reasons, AFSA is pleased to announce that Meehan has been elected by her peers as the recipient of AFSA’s 2022 Young Professional of the Year (YPY) award, which highlights the efforts of a young and talented fire protection professional under 40 who demonstrates exemplary technical, professional, and inclusive leadership skills in their business and at a national level.
All Roads Lead to Fire Sprinklers
Katie Meehan’s father, Mike Meehan, who has served on AFSA’s Board of Directors since 2008 and was Chair of the Board 2015-2107, began working for VSC as a pipe fitter apprentice, and after years of hard work and involvement, he eventually became the company’s CEO. Despite the many decades Mike has spent at VSC, Katie didn’t have plans to join the industry.
“I did not think I would ever be in the sprinkler business. I grew up in it, my dad was heavily involved, but I was never involved in any way professionally. I had no interest or any idea I would get into it,” Katie recalled.
Meehan graduated with a bachelor’s degree in hospitality administration and management from Virginia Tech in 2013, which led to the start of her career in branding, marketing, and sales. Meehan spent her first five years after graduation in New York, where she helped craft-alcohol companies with their branding and strategy. Eventually, she decided it was time to come home. “I was looking to make a change and get out of New York. I was thinking about coming home to Virginia, and this opportunity came up to work with VSC. I was originally hired, and I thought it would be a quick gig, almost like a contractor’s job, and four years later, I’m still here.”
When asked how she began working at VSC, Meehan explained, “I came home for the Fourth of July one year, and my dad had all of his plans for VSC’s rebrand laid out on the kitchen table. We went over them together, I asked a few questions, and finally asked him who was managing the project. He told me that he and his CFO were handling it, to which I replied, ‘You guys don’t have any business running a rebrand campaign!’”
While Meehan was happy to return home to Virginia and begin her career with VSC, she still had her reservations about working with her father. From the beginning, it was important to both that they had their own identities while working together at the same company. Meehan noted that although the industry is beautiful for harboring many family businesses, she did not want to experience nepotism simply because she was related to her father. “He was definitely excited to have me on board. We work really well together, and I really admire him and look up to him in a lot of ways. It’s been an honor. It’s pretty big shoes to fill having the last name that I do, but I’m thankful for that most days,” Meehan explained.
Still, Meehan credits her father for his guidance in her life over the years. “I have a great relationship with my dad. He’s been a mentor of mine since I was little, through sports as a kid, working high school jobs, and then once I got into corporate America, we really started connecting on business. We’ve always enjoyed talking about work, and [I have always enjoyed] learning from him. I think I get a lot of my business and professional traits from him.”
She continued, “I’ve been very lucky to have some incredible role models, bosses, and mentors over the years. I wouldn’t be here today without all of their guidance. Linda Biernacki has also been a mentor of mine and someone I really look up to. She’s been so helpful with getting more involved and establishing myself within the industry. Linda is always quick to share her experience, and give advice on how to problem solve.”
Biernacki, founder of Fire Tech Systems, Inc., Shreveport, Louisiana, and First Vice Chair for AFSA’s Board of Directors explained how she met Meehan and developed a relationship with her over the years. She reflected on how Meehan’s father would bring his family to AFSA conventions and said, “As the years passed and Katie started working in the industry, we began seeking each other out. Having lunch, dinner, and visiting in between meetings, we were always having great conversations. Being a female in a male-dominated industry, we mentor and encourage each other. We revel and laugh about our adventures.”
Awareness has been and continues to be one of the largest obstacles the industry faces. The million-dollar question that plagues the minds of industry professionals alike is how to recruit new blood and, in turn, keep them around. While those who have been in the industry for years understand the prestige that comes with the territory, this message struggles to be conveyed to future generations. That being said, for marketing professionals such as Meehan, to say they have their work cut out for them is an understatement.
“The fire sprinkler industry isn’t sexy,” Meehan said with a laugh. “It’s true! In general, I think the trade has always had a disadvantage in terms of full-time employment and career opportunities, and we’re starting to see a shift in that, but us being a sub, or a lesser-known trade has always been a hurdle.” Meehan continued on to explain that many people will often think of firefighters or sprinklers in the ground when they think of “fire,” though she hopes to change that.
Further, Meehan suggests that companies need to look inward first. Instead of comprising a completely planned-out strategy for how to increase numbers, sometimes, simplicity is best. “I think everyone wants this magic answer of here’s the formula that we’re putting in place. And we’re really seeing this as an industry-wide problem and a nationwide problem. One thing we are trying to put in place is focusing our efforts specifically on retainment—because retainment is a huge part of recruiting. We are encouraging our members to really examine their company culture and their company atmosphere [to see if] they’re the type of people they would want to work for. So, encouraging you to look at your benefits package, your pay scale, your per diem, all types of elements and really encouraging people to go inward first because I think it’s a little easier right now to look out and say, ‘Okay, how do we get from here, how do we hire them?’”
Meehan has exemplified leadership from the beginning. She has not confined herself to the local level and has made sure to branch out her efforts to the national level. “I got involved at the national and local levels as soon as I got involved in the industry. At a local level, I’ve been focused on involving more contractors and getting more contractor support because it can sometimes be a struggle at a local level. Certain chapters tend to have heavier vendor support at certain events.”
Locally, Meehan handles VSC’s social media and represents NextGen for the Virginia Chapter. “At a national level, I originally got involved with NextGen, and I also joined the Legislative and Membership committees at the same time. I then transitioned off of the Legislative committee, and now I’m on the Public Education & Awareness, Convention, and Membership committees,” she said. “I worked really closely with Meaghen Wills, (who frankly deserves most of the credit for where NextGen is today) when she was the chair of NextGen. Meaghen taught me a lot about the industry and the association. She’s been involved from a young age, and was a wealth of knowledge when I first started. I think that we have tried to commit to getting younger people and those like-minded individuals involved in the industry and how we can better promote and help with things.”
A Look Toward the Future
Meehan understands the importance of implementing new tactics to attract new industry professionals. Among these efforts is a program to help sponsor contractor members to attend AFSA’s annual convention. “We are currently working with a couple of other committees to create a sponsor or scholarship program that would encourage individuals under the age of 40 to apply and receive a sponsorship to attend convention. We oftentimes see mid- to higher-level management at convention. Once you’re there, you see the magic and the family that the industry has, and that is something we are working on—trying to get more attendance at convention.”
Efforts such as these don’t go unnoticed. Josiah Bergen, CEO of Heritage Fire Sprinkler Inc., Wichita, Kansas, and nominator of Meehan for this year’s award, stated, “Katie has been a fantastic chair of NextGen and has shown great leadership in helping NextGen nail down purpose in the industry. Katie is also a member of several other AFSA committees and is not afraid to question the status quo of the industry, bringing in fresh ideas of how to help the industry thrive in an ever-changing world.”
Meehan’s work and suggestions don’t stop there—she also wants to continue to pay tribute to the past while also being innovative for the future. “Legislation is such a big part of our industry. We are constantly evolving and changing as the world around us does. It’s important that we take the time to do this internally as well. There is a fine line between progress and innovation, while also respecting and remembrance of the past. We need both to have a successful industry.”
“One of my old bosses used to always say, ‘Innovate or die,’ and, although it may sound extreme, I’ve since used it as guiding point. If we don’t capture the knowledge, stories, and history that exist with the dying industry that we have, then we’re going to lose it. It’s really important that we all create, speak out, and mentor—that we are investing in ourselves, and we’re speaking out to people to invest in our generation as well,” Meehan explained.
Bergen adds that the next generation has a thing or two that can be learned from Meehan. “Katie’s professional background is marketing, but she has not let that be her only impact on the industry. She has gone far above and beyond her marketing duties through the leadership she has taken in the industry. I think that Katie is a great example of how we all should be striving to go above and beyond what is expected of us in order to positively impact our industry and the communities we help protect.”
Finally, Biernacki credits Meehan for her leadership. “Great leaders listen, and Katie has this as one of her greatest qualities. She hears what you are saying, assesses, then offers ideas and solutions. She has worked relentlessly behind the scenes in a quiet and methodical way, with no expectation of a reward. [Her] future is very bright!”
NEARING A DECADE OF RECOGNITION
This year marks the seventh annual YPY award—presented by AFSA’s NextGen Initiative (NGI), which is on a mission to recognize the outstanding talent and achievements of newcomers in the fire sprinkler industry. These professionals aged 40 and under can be described by a variety of adjectives—movers and shakers, innovators; but by all definitions, NGI’s YPY award winners are most recognized for how they shape the business landscape with their passion and sense of community. The award also seeks to promote the emergence of new talented professionals and inspire companies to invest even more in the development and excellence of the profession.
“Katie is a very talented, driven individual. She is passionate about our industry and our association,” said AFSA Chair of the Board Jack Medovich, P.E., Fire & Life Safety America, Richmond, Virginia. “Her vision in leading NextGen is exciting and transformational.”
“Katie Meehan is an excellent choice for this recognition,” commented AFSA President Bob Caputo. “In her relatively short time in this industry, she has been a shining star with a fresh perspective. Her education and experience in branding and marketing allows her to bring a unique and exciting point of view along with new ideas to our challenges. Katie’s enthusiasm and energy are obvious to anyone who attends a meeting with her in the room.”
The YPY award will be presented to Meehan during the general session on Tuesday, October 18, at AFSA41: Convention, Exhibition & Apprentice Competition in Las Vegas. Learn more and register to attend at firesprinkler.org/AFSA41. For more details on AFSA or its NextGen Initiative, visit firesprinkler.org/nextgen.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Sydney Richardson is AFSA’s Communications Coordinator.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Do you know someone to nominate for AFSA’s YPY award? Nominations can be done online at www.firesprinkler.org/awards. Each award has a specific deadline, but you can nominate now for 2023 awards including Fire Sprinkler Advocate, YPY, Fire Sprinklers Save Lives, and the Henry S. Parmelee awards.