Two years ago, Arti O’Brien was more than 30 years into a high-tech career in the cellular phone industry. She was making good money at the top of her game at HTC, but she said she just didn’t have “that fire in (her) belly” anymore.
O’Brien could have taken her retirement account and moved to some remote locale with her husband. Instead, she opted to fulfill a lifelong dream: She wanted to own a business.
“This thing had just been in my head: becoming an entrepreneur,” she said. “I didn’t want to finish my career with that ‘What if? What if?’ I had to go and fulfill my ultimate goal and dream.”
During the intervening months, O’Brien purchased Advanced Government Services (AGS) — a company that was founded in 2003, is headquartered in Tacoma, and provides traffic control and road safety services on roadway construction projects — and took over day-to-day operations.
— Joanna Kresge
With your three decades of experience in the technology sector, how did you decide on a career in construction?
I knew that I didn’t have it in me to go from nothing to something. That’s what the founder of AGS did. I wanted something established. I knew that I could take it from something to something … (The prior owner) felt she did what she could, and she knew she needed to grow the company. But for various reasons, she didn’t feel that she could and — I give kudos to her for this — she felt somebody else needed to take over.
So it wasn’t about the industry; it was about finding a business that had already set down roots in the business community?
Yes. The founder (and) the business had been established for over 15 years … And (AGS was) extremely reputable in the South Sound area. We say we do so many miles from here to Chehalis to Everett, but we have more projects four or five hours away that we are doing.
How have you gotten up to speed on the construction business?
It’s very humbling, the place I come from and having to shift my thinking because it is a very different psyche … I’m still learning. I’m nowhere close to (knowing everything), trust me. (But I’m) feeling a little more comfortable. I can talk the talk now.
Besides the industry being so different and learning the nuances of the industry and the government side (of things), that’s fine. But from a core, there was so much of the discipline that I already came from that I felt like I can only massage it and make it better.
Coming into this venture, you said you wanted to take something established and grow it. Have you been able to do that?
The growth has happened a little too quickly; (it’s) scary. But it’s all good … I have doubled (the number) of people in the office, and I’m still hiring because we have quite a bit of work going on.
Doubling your staff in 19 months is pretty aggressive. Were there some growing pains?
The (previous) owner ran everything analog, so I turned the world upside down and converted to digital. That’s my background, that industry. And, of course, I had to replace (some staff) to get the right people because some of them could not adapt. They were used to (the way things were), which is fine. As they say, get the right people in the right seat. So I was able to do it.
Where do your drive and motivation come from?
I moved into the country over 35 years ago. I am of Indian decent, born and raised in Africa. I was part of Idi Amin’s (reign). He was in Uganda; I was in Tanzania, but he came and attacked our family, and I was one of the lucky immigrants that was able to move to London. I went to school there, then I came to the States. I think being brought up in a Third World country, you don’t take anything for granted. You always have to fight for everything. Everything.
How has that made you the leader that you are today?
It reminds me that I am a fighter. I have always been an overachiever because being an immigrant, there is something in your head that makes you feel — even though I’ve never felt any prejudice — like (you have) to do better.
As a traffic management company, your workers are responsible for making sure traffic flows through construction sites safely. Do you sometimes get blamed by people who are frustrated by the traffic?
Yes, we get that. But it’s funny (because) before I came in the industry, I didn’t even know there was such a thing as traffic control. I always thought the construction company does it, which they do sometimes. It’s just like a whole new world opened up. I used to get annoyed at the big trucks; you always see them, but you never pay attention. Now, it has a meaning, (I) know what it means.
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