My retail career
After my first year at college, I ran into the human resources (HR) manager from Zellers one day. That discussion led to a job with Zellers in Ottawa.
I continued to work there part-time during my second year at Algonquin. I found myself learning about business from two different worlds: the somewhat outdated management strategies of my teachers and the realities of working for the Hudson Bay Company (HBC), which owned Zellers and had established lots of its own systems, checks and balances for day-to-day operations.
After graduating, I stayed on with Zellers in management and got transferred around a lot to their different stores. I found I could get handsomely rewarded for accepting promotions that involved moving elsewhere to fix a store that wasn’t doing well. Following my first few years in Ottawa, my career took me to Smiths Falls, Brockville, Brampton, Burlington and Mississauga, Ont.
During this same period, I started a family. Both of my sons were born in Ontario.
I left Zellers during the turmoil of an ownership change, moved back to Ottawa and became an area manager with Builders Warehouse in Orleans, Ont. It was like Home Depot, back before Home Depot came to Canada, and I spent just over two years there.
It was an amazing work experience. For one thing, the owner was there every day, orchestrated our point-of-sale (POS) system and was good at keeping up with Home Depot’s marketing efforts. For another, there was a mix of commercial and retail sides to the business that made for a really interesting dynamic. I also got to do a lot more, like purchasing patio furniture and flooring from remote suppliers, whereas at Zellers all of our deliveries had been automatic.
My next move was to Staples, which was still Business Depot in Ontario at the time. They were at the cutting edge of the office supplies industry back then. I started in Ottawa and bounced all around, opening their first store in Winnipeg and ending up getting a promotion to district manager for British Columbia.
I did that job from Abbotsford, B.C., for 10 years, during which time the company’s growth was huge, expanding from 30 stores across Canada to more than 300. I oversaw 25 in my territory alone. My third child, a girl, was born during this time.
With Staples, I was able to accomplish a lot because British Columbia was a new market for them, where I could really put my people skills to work to grow the business. That led to me being named regional vice-president (VP) for Western Canada, a position I held for 10 years.
Motivated toward entrepreneurship
At that point, I had learned a lot from business books, but over time, I found they were all saying the same things, regurgitating the same theories over and over again. I had a hard time finding anything new to learn about management.
Instead, I started learning more about human behaviour and motivation. You can understand people better when you know how the brain works.
I have always had an entrepreneurial streak, which could come through as stubbornness at times. Whenever someone told me one of my ideas could not or should not be done, I would work all the harder to prove them wrong!
Working for a large corporation for a long time, for example, I saw lots of cost-cutting measures. I always felt you cannot save your way to prosperity. And over time, I was proven right. You have to spend money and take risks to build your business.