Education advocate: Q&A with Tribute Award recipient Fred Cahill
Fred Cahill, B.Eng. ’80, believes that Memorial University graduates are the future of Newfoundland and Labrador.
As president of the Cahill Group since 1989, Mr. Cahill has hired many work term students and graduates from our university, witnessing the quality of their work first-hand. Memorial University helped get him where he is today.
He has given back significantly as chair of the Board of Directors of the Genesis Centre, as a member of the Board of Regents and as an honorary board member of the annual Affinity N.L. Calgary event.
Mr. Cahill is also chair of the Engineering and Applied Science Advisory Council and initiated the creation of the Cahill Engineering One Student Success Centre, a program that has reduced attrition, strengthened Memorial’s engineering programs and better prepared new engineers to enter the workforce.
Contributor Lisa Pendergast spoke with Mr. Cahill, this year’s recipient of the J.D. Eaton Award, which recognizes outstanding volunteer contributions to Memorial.
LP: Why did you first decide to come to Memorial as a student? What was it about the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science that appealed to you?
FC: I’d heard a lot of great things about Memorial and most of my friends were going. We didn’t have exposure to other universities or the desire to go outside the province.
My dilemma was choosing faculties: Business and Administration or Engineering and Applied Science? My father was in the contracting business, so I knew that was what I wanted to do. I had to decide if I was going to choose business to learn how to run a company or engineering to understand the technical and operations pieces.
Initially, I enrolled in business, but switched after my first semester because I was missing the sciences. Looking back on it, I’m happy that I did.
LP: You have had a long and successful career with The Cahill Group. What is your key to success?
FC: Enjoying what I do! With engineering, I liked the idea of putting things together, building things. But to be honest, I was going to do computer science when I graduated. A couple of my last work terms focused in that area and computers were just evolving, so that’s where I started.
Eight months after I graduated, Dad took me to the old Aliant building downtown where Cahill were doing some electrical work. He walked me through what we were doing and it was shortly after that I knew I wanted to be more into the construction aspect. So I quit the IT job and I went to work with an engineering design firm. I was with them five years and then made the jump to Dad’s firm.
Another thing is that you do a lot of group work in engineering. Solving problems in groups is key. Success means surrounding yourself with good people and not being afraid to hire people who are smarter than you.
Over the years, I’ve had good people around me. We’ve worked with good firms. Our growth has been encouraged by partnerships and alliances because we recognize that we don’t know it all. Learning from others has been a big contributor to our success.
LP: The J.D. Eaton Award recognizes exceptional contributions to Memorial University. Why has it been so important to you to volunteer and support Memorial like you have? Why is it important for our province?
FC: I wouldn’t be where I am if it wasn’t for Memorial University. The professors, your classmates, students in other faculties and the infrastructure was all a part of it.
Memorial sometimes struggles with their financial situation. Those of us who can make a change need to step up and give back. It’s satisfying to volunteer and see the impact of your efforts. The things I have been involved with have been very rewarding.
Memorial has a great reputation with an exceptional co-op program. At Cahill, we hire both engineering and business students for work terms. Companies like Exxon Mobil and Suncor rave about the quality of our students.
I can’t say enough about how important Memorial is to the province and sometimes I don’t think the province recognizes that. It’s a bit disappointing. I know how valuable the education and experience was for me. We need strong support for the university. Anything I can do in that regard, I will certainly try.
LP: How did you come up with the idea for the Cahill Engineering One Student Success Centre?
FC: When I was going through engineering, I struggled with some of the curriculum. There was some help from fellow students, but there were faculty members who really stepped up and helped me out. I probably wasn’t the best student in the world. I also wasn’t the worst, but without that help I may not have made it through.
Eventually my son got into engineering and we started hiring more work term students. I went to the dean to offer my assistance and together we came up with the concept of the help centre for first year students.
We have very smart students who just need a little help, and we were losing some of those great students. The university had the space and hired the coordinators. Our funding helped outfit it. Our co-ordinator is excellent. He’s a high school teacher and engineer who came here from northern Europe. He’s also a coach, so he’s just great with the students.
We’ve monitored visits over the years. It started with 40-50 kids coming in each semester. Now we are up to 300 and 400 visits per semester. It was a great initiative and it’s still there today, so I’m pretty proud of it.
At the end of the day, it’s the teaching assistants and the senior students who are digging in and giving back, so it’s great to see everyone involved.
LP: Your contributions have been invaluable to the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science, your alma mater, but you have also lent your time and talents to the Genesis Centre, Memorial’s Board of Regents, and the annual Affinity N.L. Calgary event for Memorial’s alumni and friends. Why are these particular areas important to you?
FC: I see the successes of the Genesis Centre. That really interests me because of the innovation, new ideas and start-ups. It’s really taken off in the last two years. To see some of the great companies the Centre has produced is really rewarding, not only for those involved, but also for the university and the province.
In 2004, our company went out west and it was a game-changer. One day in Calgary, I bumped into the dean of engineering who was there for an alumni dinner. I tagged along.
Our vice-president of business development in Western Canada, who is a graduate of Memorial, got involved with the affinity dinner because of his contacts in the area. There are so many Memorial graduates in Alberta in key positions in some of the top companies in the country. It’s phenomenal!
The Board of Regents is a recent appointment. I’m hopeful I will have an impact on the university in this role. The university has struggled over the past few years with support from the province. That really hit home with me because of the quality of the graduates.
I hear the criticism that’s levied at the university. They are doing so much with so little and are still being asked to do more with less. I hope that through the board I can provide some answers and direction to allow them to grow again.
LP: What was your reaction to being named the J.D. Eaton Award recipient for 2018?
FC: I was humbled by it. And quite excited! I knew Dr. Eaton early in my career. He was very kind, thoughtful and articulate with a passion for the university. It’s especially nice from that point of view.
The J.D. Eaton award isn’t about perceived success as a business person or community leader. It’s about a contribution to Memorial. You don’t do things to be recognized, but it’s nice when it happens.
Mr. Cahill was honoured during the 37th annual Alumni Tribute Awards ceremony on Thursday, Oct. 11, at Memorial’s Signal Hill Campus, St. John’s, N.L.