by The Wilbert Group
From fastpitch softball to pitching home-run ideas at Lowe Engineers, we spoke with Riker about her career highlights, biggest challenges and her passion for community service.
The importance of good infrastructure is black and white — at least, it is for Sally Riker. As Partner and Director of Marketing and Business Development at Atlanta-based Lowe Engineers, Riker has significantly impacted the firm’s clientele since joining in 2003 and played a key role in building their signature brand: zebra stripes.
Today, she is responsible for the firm’s sales and marketing, as well as administration and human resources, although the capabilities of her creative mind, entrepreneurial spirit and heart for service don’t end there. So, how did a University of Georgia grad with a degree in communications become such a passionate player in the architectural and engineering field? You could call it a career curveball.
STEPPING UP TO THE PLATE
When Riker was growing up in California, her mom was a teacher and her dad was an aerospace engineer. When the Lockheed Martin plant where her dad worked closed, the family relocated to Georgia. As a high school student, Riker wanted to return to Los Angeles for college, until the HOPE Scholarship was introduced, and she was eligible to participate. Her parents encouraged her to take advantage of the opportunity, and Riker graduated in 1997 with the goal of becoming a broadcast journalist.
“When I got out of school, the job market was very tough, and I quickly changed my mind,” Riker said. “I honestly didn’t even know I wanted to get into engineering until the opportunity presented itself.”
During an interview with an A&E firm, Riker recalls a woman telling her, “We’ve gone through 300 candidates, and we saw on your résumé that you play softball. If we hire you, would you play on our intramural team?”
The amateur fastpitch pitcher and catcher didn’t hesitate to reply, “Absolutely! Yes.”
Riker worked at the firm for five years. “I learned a ton,” she said. “I took the opportunity to really figure out what different disciplines did, and I ended up really liking it.”
She also met Tim Lowe, who brought her over to Lowe Engineers 16 years ago. “I became a partner three years into my career at Lowe and haven’t looked back,” she said. “I love the field I’m in because infrastructure is something everybody touches and sees. If you make changes to it, it makes changes to the world.”
Her work also introduced her to Urban Land Institute (ULI). “What brought me even more to the real estate side was working on a pilot project for the Georgia Department of Transportation,” said Riker. “I realized I really needed to learn more about the commercial real estate space.”
After hearing great feedback from colleagues in the industry, she applied for ULI’s Center for Leadership (CFL) in 2013 before even becoming an ULI member. “I got in and just fell in love with ULI and CFL,” Riker said. “Instantly after graduation, I turned around and volunteered to be involved that next year.”
She became a member in 2014 and has remained connected to the CFL program in different capacities, including serving as co-chair and later chair for the whole program. Last September, Riker was invited to speak about her experiences with ULI at the inaugural Opening Session when the North Florida chapter launched its own CFL program.
And she hasn’t stopped there. After her tenure in those roles, Riker — who is also a member of ULI Atlanta’s Advisory Board — was asked to participate with the ULI Atlanta Women’s Leadership Initiative (WLI). Since then, she has served as co-chair and currently serves as chair.
For the next inning of her career, Riker hopes to become more involved with ULI nationally and said joining a product council would be her next logical step.
EARNING HER STRIPES
Along with her many successes, Riker’s career hasn’t progressed without challenges. When Riker joined Lowe, the firm was focused mostly on residential work and 80 percent of its business was with one developer.
“For sure, one of the challenges was when we went through the recession,” she said. “We were dealing with a whole market section of commercial and residential real estate that was no longer doing work. It was really devastating.”
Luckily, Lowe was also involved with a lot of federal work for the military, which helped sustain the firm in 2008 and 2009. “It taught us that if we’re going to be around for a while as a business, we need to be diverse,” Riker said. “Since then, we have really put a focus on making sure our business is as diverse as possible.”
Today, the challenges look a little different. “Now we have a lot of work, and we’re thankful, but then it’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, who’s going to do all the work?’” she said. “It’s been a struggle the past two years to find good engineers that fit in with our core values and our culture at Lowe.”
One of those core values is for all employees to “bleed black and white.” At Lowe, just about everything is proudly covered in zebra stripes, from client gift baskets to corporate collateral to the CEO’s truck. “It’s something recognizable, and a lot of fun, too,” Riker said.
So, why zebra? Unlike other companies who may begin with a brand on Day One, Lowe Engineers found their stripes out in the field.
“One of the best things we did was in 2005, right after Hurricane Katrina hit,” Riker said. Lowe was working with the Army Corps of Engineers in Louisiana, and one of the hydrographic surveyors came to the firm with an unusual request: to paint zebra stripes on their boat so it was more easily recognizable on the water.
Not long after, the same surveyor asked if his truck could also be painted to match. When Riker began receiving calls from people raving about Lowe’s new look, she brought the idea to a sales and marketing meeting. The CEO at the time loved the concept and added stripes to his own truck to launch the firm’s new brand. Now if you see a zebra-striped truck stopped on the side of the road, you know Lowe Engineers is hard at work in the community.
“The best part of my job is that every day is something different,” Riker said. “You have to take it in stride and you have to have fun.”
You may also spot one of Lowe’s trademark trucks parked outside a local elementary school. In her spare time, Riker is passionate about STEM outreach for students, especially speaking to kindergarteners through 6th graders.
“They are so inquisitive at that age,” she said. “It helps not only to get them thinking about engineering as an occupation really early on, but I think it’s also a strong message as a female that it’s okay if there’s a female out there. They can like STEM fields, too.”
The mother of a nine- and six-year-old, Riker routinely speaks with her children’s classes at Atlanta Public Schools as well as has visited students at Centennial Academy in Midtown, Gwinnett County’s “Careers on Wheels” program, Chattahoochee Christian Academy, high schools and even Georgia Tech, continuing to spread the message engineering can be a great, in-demand career option for those interested at any age.
In fact, Riker volunteers a lot. “It’s more about who I am, especially because I believe so much in ULI’s mission and vision,” she said. Another organization she pours a lot of time into is the Society of American Military Engineers (SAME), where her dedication to the Savannah Post and National work has earned her the distinction as a Fellow. In other words, out of more than 30,000-plus people, she is one of only 1,000 to be recognized for her service to the Society and profession.
“I really believe in everything that [SAME] does as well,” Riker said. “They lead collaborative efforts to identify and resolve national security-related challenges. It’s a multi-disciplined integrator between the military, public and private.”
When she’s not working or volunteering, Riker enjoys riding a Peloton bike to stay fit and planning the next big adventure with her husband and kids.
“I love to see the world, and I want to share that with my children,” she said.” On deck is a trip to Grand Cayman for Spring Break, and next year she hopes to travel to Norway or Iceland to see the Northern Lights.
Despite her busy schedule, you can count on Riker to be at WLI’s monthly morning gatherings, held on the second Tuesday of each month at Empire State South.
“It’s a place you can go to network and gain tools to be successful, and we invite men to come too because we know that they are supporters and sometimes mentors to women and to gain their insight,” said Riker. “I went ahead and registered for all of the breakfasts ahead of time because I know I’m going to be there.”
She’ll be the one sporting zebra stripes.