CEO Spotlight: Reflections on Leadership and 20 Years of Family Business Success with Sarah Meehan Parker

For two decades, AlphaGraphics Pittsburgh has worked as an extension of both large and small businesses to help them develop effective and engaging marketing and communication solutions. As we celebrate 20 years in the business, we caught up with our CEO, Sarah Meehan Parker, as she reflects on our journey and looks ahead to the future and carrying on her parent’s legacy.

When Sarah looks back on the past 20 years, the first thing she says comes to mind is gratitude.

“Twenty years for a business is a significant milestone,” she says. “I am proud of the team we have assembled, I am proud of what we have accomplished, and I am excited about our future. We were founded just after the start of the 21st century, and over the last 20 years, I am proud of how we have grown and adapted to an ever-changing workplace, changing customer needs and ever-evolving technological changes.”

We believe that delivering the best projects and highest client satisfaction starts with a strong, high-performing team and collaborative culture. As the head of this team, Sarah pulls from both the pillars of our business—Team First, Customer Excellence and Innovation and Development—as well as her career experience and role models, especially her parents and AlphaGraphics Pittsburgh founders, Clare and Bill Meehan, to build an exemplary model of leadership.

Building on experience

Before joining AlphaGraphics, Sarah spent 13 years of her career in the financial industry. Most notably, she worked at Morgan Stanley both in Sydney, Australia, as well as in New York City. She says that John Mack, former CEO & Chairman of the Board of Morgan Stanley, is one of her biggest role models for company leadership, noting his ability to persevere through the difficult credit crisis and save thousands of jobs at the company.

“Locally,” she adds, “maybe it is my financial background lens, but the CEO of PNC Financial Services [William Demchak] seems once-in-a-lifetime—work ethic, brains and incredibly philanthropic. One of my favorite parts, too, that differentiates him from a lot of other leaders is that he comes across as being very quiet. In contrast, John Mack at Morgan Stanley was often photographed at most NYC haunts, which goes to show that there is no one style to being a successful leader. But what both possess is an unrelenting commitment to their company, to growth and innovation, to adapting to an ever-changing environment, and a commitment to high ethics. These are the lessons of leadership.”

PNC’s successes have led the company to be philanthropic to the local community—another angle of leadership Sarah finds admirable.

Business strengths are not the only elements that make up a good leader, though. Sarah says that Mike Tomlin, head coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers, demonstrates many leadership qualities applicable to business—particularly his saying, “The Standard is the Standard.”

“A CEO, like a coach, must keep their team working together toward a common goal, motivate them to constantly improve, develop and implement a strategy for success, and assure that everyone has a positive attitude,” Sarah says. “As my team knows, I am legend for saying 'Attitude is everything.'”

But Sarah’s biggest role models, her parents, are much closer to home. They have been two of her standout mentors throughout her entire life—so much so that she’s followed in their footsteps and has taken the helm alongside her mother by leading the top-notch team that her parents poured everything into building.

“Most notably, I have also been mentored by my parents, who are the founders of AlphaGraphics. Before founding AlphaGraphics in 2000, my father, Bill Meehan, worked his entire career in banking, both with an international bank and for the Federal Reserve. He is a consummate teacher and avid reader who has provided me with what has accumulated into 10 three-ring binders filled with articles about leadership that he has clipped from numerous well-respected business publications,” Sarah says. “My mother, Clare Meehan, has similarly served as a role model and leader in our company. While perhaps not classically trained in corporate America, she has the innate people skills often lacking in business. She is a natural with clients and colleagues—that filter-free charm! She cares so deeply for everyone. It’s not ‘sales’ to her, nor to our core culture.

It’s still so rare to find women at the top, but I started this with gratitude and, being raised by super mom, I am very grateful to have my biggest role model across the desk from me.”

Sarah recalls how her father was a champion for her mother, and the pair made the business’s transition to be women-owned and -operated early on. Sarah was immensely proud to take on that role when she became CEO in 2018. And, upon joining AlphaGraphics, she found much more than a print and marketing business.

“My husband and I wrote our own vows, and mine led with a quote from Paolo Coelho: ‘The world conspired for us to meet.’ This holds incredibly true to the entire Pittsburgh chapter,” she says, “meeting the Leadership Team at AlphaGraphics—a second family I didn’t really know well—and then them meeting me. And then all the great things I didn’t realize AlphaGraphics was able to do. Unlimited creativity, entrepreneurship, solutions, work ethic…It was love at first sight, the most impressive client roster.”

Bigger and better

From her role models, Sarah has gleaned many valuable lessons about leadership. However, many others have contributed noteworthy advice over the years, all of which has culminated in a culture of strength, innovation and success as she pushes AlphaGraphics toward bigger and better things.

One piece of this advice is that building a successful team is a never-ending process. Sarah has found that investing the time and energy into training every single employee well positions the entire business for success.

“At AlphaGraphics, our team is our strength, and this strength is the result of an unrelenting commitment to empower every single one of our employees to have the skills and training to be great at their job,” she says.

Moreover, it is this emphasis on continual training and technological innovation that has allowed the business to flourish under changing circumstances. There is no better example than the changes that came about during the COVID-19 pandemic over the past year. In spite of operating in an industry full of innovation and adaptation, our quality and commitment to customers has never wavered.

“Continuing education is the hallmark of our culture. Long gone are the days when any one of us can rest on the coattails of a formal degree and hope to achieve a long, fulfilling and prosperous career,” Sarah says. “As we celebrate our 20th anniversary, I am proud of how our team has adapted to the constant change in technology and business, perhaps made all the more evident lately as we have pivoted with our clients to an increasingly virtual world. Yet it is this transition that reminds me of the importance of continuing to instill in our employees the fundamentals of success, which include assuring that [we] do the small things right and that we not be tempted to cut corners.”

Over the years, Sarah’s leadership has helped AlphaGraphics Pittsburgh keep pace with a growing industry while never sacrificing the three core tenets of the business—our commitments to team, customers and innovation. In part two of our spotlight series, Sarah explores these three pillars and the role they’ll play in the future of the business.

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