Electrical Contractors and Governance and Volunteers and Philanthropy and Real Estate & Retail

Obstacles couldn't stop community-minded Shaheen

November 6, 2006

At the corner of 30th and Illinois streets, a dinosaur crashes through the wall of The Children's Museum of Indianapolis' Dinosphere, threatening to overtake traffic as she leads her two children out into the world.

Thousands of motorists pass by the dinosaurs every day, but most likely don't know the trio is named after Yvonne Shaheen and her children, Diana and Greg.


The unusual tribute to the retired CEO of Long Electric Co. is an apt metaphor for Shaheen--winner of the 2006 Michael A. Carroll award, given annually in memory of the former deputy mayor to a person who embodies determination, devotion, humility and community.

Shaheen, after all, "crashed through the wall" when the 1987 death of her husband, Riad, forced her to suddenly go from part-time clerical worker to chief of Long Electric, one of the city's largest electrical contractors.

Through sheer determination, she rose to prominence in a male-dominated industry, whose executives initially tried to pilfer her workers and shut her out of bidding for big jobs.

She became a respected leader in her trade. In 1987, Long and two affiliated companies that were later divested had had $25 million in sales. By the time Shaheen retired in 2004, Long alone had reached $40 million in revenue.

That same determination led to her presence in the not-for-profit community.

She offered to take over her husband's place on several not-for-profit boards, but they all turned her down. She kept at it, recognizing that community service was a key factor in reassuring the business community that Long Electric was still a going concern with capable leadership.

Before long, she landed a spot on the predecessor of the Indy Partnership, and her community service soon took on a life of its own. At least three dozen central Indiana organizations have since benefited from her leadership.

Tenacious leader

Like the raptors at the Children's Museum, Shaheen, 67, has a certain reputation for tenacity: Particularly in the early years as CEO of Long, "I was a screamer and a yeller," she said.

To dismiss her as a bully, though, would be wrong, say those who work with her in the not-for-profit world.

"She's so incredibly supportive of the staff in every way," said Gregory W. Charleston, CEO of the Arts Council of Indianapolis, on whose board Shaheen serves. "[The Arts Council] has grown and developed so much in the past 10 years, and she's a huge part of that. I probably wouldn't say that about too many people."

The remarkable thing about Shaheen, Charleston and other not-for-profit leaders said, is that she brings that same level of involvement to every organization she works with.

Shaheen, they said, is one of the rare board members who shows up for every meeting, asks questions, and takes on whatever task needs to be done, whether it's planning an organization's future, leading a capital campaign, or moving boxes.

During the NCAA Women's Final Four in 2005 and the Men's Final Four in 2006, Shaheen led a "bag-stuffing brigade" of volunteers who assembled goodies for teams, coaches, players and other dignitaries, said Susan Williams, CEO of Indiana Sports Corp.

"She had that place running like a factory assembly line," Williams said.

'Give to get'

When Shaheen took over Long Electric, she didn't know how to read blueprints or manage workers in the field, much less how to read and comprehend financial statements, she said.

To run the company, the Miami University of Ohio graduate relied, in part, on her background preparing lesson plans as a schoolteacher.

But mostly, she compensated for her lack of electrical contracting experience by working long hours and asking questions. In the 18 years she ran the company, she never took a vacation.

"My people believed in me only because I worked so hard," Shaheen said. To reward them during a rocky transition, she used her husband's life insurance to pay bonuses to the workers who stayed with the company.

Shaheen sold Long Electric to the local Chlystun family in 2001, but stayed on as CEO three more years, meeting her longtime goal of retiring at age 65.

For years, Shaheen balanced her volunteer efforts with the demands of running a successful company. Now that she's retired, she devotes at least 40 hours a week to more than 20 not-for-profit boards and committees.

She has no plans to slow down and even talks of perhaps getting back into the business world, albeit not running a company on the scale of Long Electric.

For now, however, she brings the skills she learned running the company to the boards she serves on.

Shaheen said she likes to learn every facet of an organization's operations with the goal of making not-for-profits more effective and accountable.

"She asks the tough questions that I think a lot of board members want to know but don't want to ask," said Children's Museum of Indianapolis CEO Jeffrey Patchen. "It's her assertiveness and sense of accountability that really makes our job easier."

Typically, Shaheen's questions might include--but certainly aren't limited to--"Can we really afford this?" and, "Are we getting the best value for the donor's dollar?" said Patchen, who was hired in 1999, when Shaheen was serving as chairwoman of the museum's board.

Even though Shaheen is now considered an honorary trustee, she still attends meetings of several board committees and chairs a planning group for the museum's campus.

The museum is among her favorite causes, and she's involved with everything from the product selection in the museum shop to mentoring volunteers.

Without her leadership, Patchen said, the museum might not have been able to build a parking garage, which is connected to the museum with a walkway across Illinois Street. Shaheen lent her expertise in the building trades, but also co-chaired the committee responsible for raising enough money for it that Children's Museum patrons wouldn't have to pay to park there, Patchen said.

"I've spent my entire career in the not-for-profit sector," he said. "She is absolutely one of those rare individuals who gives it her all."

Dedication to the Indianapolis community motivates Shaheen to give back to it, she said.

Often. the tasks she takes on, such as strategic planning or reorganizing board structure, aren't the most glamorous, but she considers them among the most important to ensure that not-for-profits are successful and accountable to their donors.

"It's not for the credit," Shaheen said of her volunteer efforts. "I get so excited when something's been accomplished. In the not-for-profit world, you have to give to get--I think in life you do, too."

Another of her goals is to foster a greater spirit of volunteer leadership among the city's business community.

"There are a lot of people who don't give," Shaheen said. "This is a wonderful community. Anybody who doesn't like it doesn't appreciate what we have."

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