Built by Association

Cathy Voyer fits right in with her hard-working membership

by Will Lindner

agc_lead9602_HCR42k_fa38k_97Cathy Voyer’s background as a legislator and, later, at the Agency of Human Services has served the Associated General Contractors of Vermont well, as, under her leadership, membership has increased over 12 percent.

If the construction industry decided to choose a mascot, the worker bee would be an excellent candidate. Industrious, productive, community- and goal-oriented, the worker bee, toiling in its diminutive hive infrastructure, bears much in common with the widely assorted member-businesses of the Associated General Contractors of Vermont.

That’s why the AGC is a good fit for Cathy Voyer, who has been the executive vice president of the 140-member trade organization since October 2009.

“The members I have are responsible, intelligent, community development–oriented employers who pay good salaries and good benefits, and have a good humor about them,” says Voyer, 45. “The people I work with on the staff are dedicated, loyal, and committed to the organization.

“And that’s who I think I am. I’m a committed person, and once I commit to something I get it done. I took to this organization because the business owners I work with get things done. They provide jobs for people. They develop things. The infrastructure we have in this state is based on my members. That’s the feeling we have in this organization.”

Despite her leadership role at AGC, Voyer is no queen bee. She’s a worker like everyone else, and deflects credit to her four-person staff: Richard Wobby, director of safety training and member services (“I think the man is a genius,” says Voyer); Tracy Delude, director of administration (“She’s completely dedicated; anything that’s asked of her, she does.”); Beth Hulbert, director of workforce development, whose job entails working with Vermont’s technical centers to develop and provide good jobs for tomorrow’s workforce; and administrative assistant Deb Armstrong, of whom Voyer says, simply, “She’s amazing.”

Voyer identifies with all of their endeavors. If the expression about pulling oneself up “by the bootstraps” applies equally to female workers, Cathy Voyer is Exhibit A.

A native of Morristown, Voyer entered the workforce after graduating from Lamoille Union High School in 1983, clerking at the iconic (and recently closed) Arthur’s Department Store in Morrisville, bartending when she became of age, and learning to make her way in the world.

She speaks with pride of her mother, who was, and still is, a school bus driver, and her stepfather, a logger. They were in no position to extend largesse to their daughter, so she depended from the outset upon her own industriousness.

She married in 1988, and with her husband (they are now divorced) founded Voyer Inc., an ambitious mishmash of a business with interests in bowling alleys, a swimming pool and spa, an apartment building, and a construction company. Clearly, her lack of “the advantages” wasn’t holding her back.

Things really took off for Voyer in 1994 when, at the age of 30, she took a notion to run for a seat in the Vermont House of Representatives.

“I didn’t know the difference between a Republican and a Democrat,” she says. “I hadn’t been involved in any political processes, but I didn’t feel that we were represented in the way we should have been and I said to myself, ‘You know what? I can’t be any worse.’”

She was elected as a Republican representing a district including Morristown and Stowe.

“I took the oath of office in January 1995,” she recalls, “and I realized, ‘I’m standing with lawyers and brilliant, college-educated people, and here I am a little girl from Morrisville, Vermont, with no education.’ But my voice became equal for the first time in my life. Serving in the Legislature changed my life. I was a much different person as a kid than I am as an adult.”

While that is undoubtedly true, there have been consistencies. Betsy Bishop, now the president of the Vermont Chamber of Commerce, was new under the Golden Dome the same year Voyer was, though in a different role. Bishop was a lobbyist; Voyer an elected representative, but the two developed a relationship that began with a mutual interest in policy and politics and grew into a fast friendship approaching 20 years. Bishop says that some of Voyer’s greatest strengths and attributes have been there all along.

“Cathy brings a passion to anything she does,” says Bishop. “She gives her all in whatever setting she’s in, and has a power of luring you in and making you care.”

Voyer cares a lot — about equality, and justice, and people.

She spearheaded the bill that created a DNA database, which led to the long-delayed conviction of a suspect in the Patricia Scoville murder case. Serving on the House Judiciary Committee, she helped write the civil unions law that passed in 2000 — and led to many supportive legislators’ losing their seats in the following election; Voyer survived.

Her political service also broadened her in ways she couldn’t have envisioned. She traveled to Brazil, Israel, and Jordan representing a new generation of young, female legislators.

In 2002 she gave up her House seat to run for the state Senate. She narrowly lost the election, only to be recruited by the Douglas Administration. Here, she discovered, was a new venue for helping Vermonters with whom she could identify — those without money or power or much else.

Stationed in the Agency of Human Services (AHS), initially as director of the Office of Economic Opportunity, she really made her mark as the government-relations point person for the AHS, a position that taught her more — from the administrative side — about getting things done in state government. Particularly important to Voyer was the Interagency Council on Homelessness, which she chaired.

Also during this period came a personal accomplishment: In May 2009, Voyer — professional woman, former influential legislator, gubernatorial appointee — graduated from college. She earned a bachelor of science in political science, business, and public administration through the external degree program at Johnson State College.

She left state government the following October, taking the executive vice president’s position at AGC, but six months into her new job, tragedy struck. On March 31, 2010, her 19-year-old son, Logan, took his own life while staying in South Carolina where his father now lives. Voyer was devastated.

With grief came embarrassment and shame. “For three months after Logan’s death I wouldn’t go to the grocery store,” she says. “I couldn’t get out of my head what I assumed other people were thinking about me.”

Yet it wouldn’t have been like her to be disabled for long by grief. Not surprisingly, her thoughts turned to others.

“I made up my mind that I can’t imagine any other parent having to endure the pain I’m in, and the pain Logan’s sister, Ashley, has had to suffer.” Voyer’s new campaign became suicide prevention, and as a public person she decided to be very public about it.

She became active in the Vermont chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, a cause for which she, in concert with others, has raised more than $60,000. The money is for schools and programs to teach people — students, teachers, bus drivers, cafeteria workers; anyone who works with youngsters— to recognize the signs of someone contemplating suicide.

Says Bishop, her longtime friend and colleague, “What I saw through that horrific experience was that passion of Cathy’s shining through. She pours herself into that issue and it strengthens her and everyone around her.”

It was a setback for Voyer in her new job at AGC, although her coworkers and board were staunchly supportive, and her brief tenure has been marked by accomplishment.

Under her leadership the association consolidated its operations, moving its offices from State Street in Montpelier to the building on the outskirts, near the Middlesex town line, where its training facilities have been. AGC membership grew more than 12 percent in 2010.

Voyer has been diligent at the Statehouse, representing the association and construction interests in general — the role of contractors in state projects, from Lake Champlain bridge-building to highway construction and maintenance to the vast infrastructure owned and/or managed by government entities.

“We’re the face of the contractor profession in the Legislature and in local communities,” says Voyer. “You can’t have a wedge between the contractors and the state; you have to have a collaborative process for it to work for everyone.”

Voyer promotes the association in its diverse enterprises — not just the lobbying component, but the training and workforce-development programs carried on day-in and day-out at the squat, rambling building just outside the city.

This is where workers learn to operate heavy equipment, climb utility poles, work in confined spaces, control traffic around work zones, and every other aspect of the busy business of creating and maintaining our built environment.

Brent Tewksbury, co-owner of F.R. Lafayette Inc. in Essex Junction, which installs guard rails, fences, sign structures and other features along the state’s roadways, is the senior vice president of AGC’s board of directors. In that role he has watched and admired Voyer’s work with AGC members and affiliates, and the organization’s staff.

“At the end of the day we’re all focusing on one goal,” says Tewksbury, “and that’s creating good-paying jobs for employees and seeing our projects through in a safe and efficient manner. Cathy’s been a great team leader, as well as a player — not just a leader.” •