Maureen McLarney: Company president goes from health care into fire

For the fourth consecutive year, Security Systems News is profiling women who are making their mark in the traditionally male-dominated world of security. McLarney, president of Pacific Fire & Security, is one of six women featured this year.
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Monday, November 19, 2012

SEATTLE—Maureen McLarney went straight from health care management to heading a fire and security company—and found the two seemingly diverse industries have a lot in common.

The first is keeping people safe, said McLarney, who became president of Pacific Fire & Security, based here, nearly four years ago.

“Being in health care on the supply-chain side for so long and dealing with doctors and nurses and administrators, it’s very intense. You can’t make a lot of mistakes. Life safety is always an issue,” said McLarney, who was VP of operations for Cochlear, a global provider of hearing solutions, before joining Pacific. “So taking that and turning it into fire- and security-related life safety, it all has the same sense of responsibility to it.”

And both are heavily regulated industries, she noted.

“I came from a regulatory background. I was very used to dealing with the Department of Transportation code, Environmental Protection Agency codes, and Board of Pharmacy codes,” McLarney told Security Systems News. “So then when you turn around and deal with your AHJs and the NFPA, I’m familiar with that end of the world, for sure.”

But one of the differences she found between the two fields is that while there are a lot of women in health care, they constitute a small minority in the fire and security industry.

“I’m the first female boss that any of these guys has ever had and I know that was quite a shock to them when I first came on,” McLarney said. “The first three to six months was me bringing a culture to this environment that was very different: a lot of listening, a lot of collaboration, a lot of facilitation versus sort of top-down barking orders.”

Making changes at Pacific, which has more than 30 employees and revenues of about $5 million annually, was why she was hired by a former boss from her health care days, McLarney said. She said that Adam Pinsky, now CFO of SME Inc. of Seattle, an electrical contractor that is one of Pacific’s sister companies, “wanted someone to lead the organization in a much different way.”

Pacific’s work is about 60 percent fire and the rest security-related, but McLarney said she knew little about either when she started in January 2009. But that in itself led to a different management style, she said.

“Because I’m not the expert, I have to really be in a position of facilitating,” said McLarney, who has a master’s degree in organizational management. “It’s easier because I can ask a lot of open-ended questions that will get us to the right path."

There was some staff turnover as the result of all the changes, McLarney said, but she found others very accepting. “Because women are new the guys are very willing to be in a training or an educating mode,” she said. “They’re very willing to walk you through the process, and if you ask questions they’re always ready to give you a response and point you in the right directions.”

Now, nearly four years later, she’s pleased by the end result. “A brand-new culture” is her most significant accomplishment since becoming president, McLarney said.

The company also recently started a two-year mentoring and talent management program for technicians who are foremen, which aims to train them in areas such as project management, estimating, and systems engineering so the company can promote its own people as openings occur, she said.

“My philosophy is the technicians are the most important part of what we do and if we take care of them and educate them and do what we can to make them the best they can be, the customer will always be happy,” McLarney said.

That philosophy appears to be paying off. Among the company’s projects is providing security cameras and a new security system for Safeco Field, where the Seattle Mariners play. “That’s a recent feather in our cap,” said McLarney of the project, due to start in the near future.

She’d like to see more diversity in the industry. “I would love to hire a female technician if I could find one,” she said.

And McLarney believes colleges and community colleges should offer more courses to prepare students for working in the industry and to let them know about its opportunities, particularly on the technician side. “Everyone has a fire alarm, but it’s a hidden industry,” she said.

McLarney also said the fire and security industry could take a lesson from the health care industry when it comes to attracting more women. “In health care,” she noted, “it was always dominated by doctors and the nurses were female, but that obviously has changed over time. So, if we build it, they will come, I think.”