Adversity? The women on the 2014 W100 ranking of Canada’s Top Female Entrepreneurs know a thing or two about it. In building their companies, they’ve come up against some serious business and personal setbacks—the kind of things that could easily justify a retreat from the business.
But that wasn’t the path they chose to take. Instead, they regrouped, reevaluated and recovered from the potentially crippling situations they faced and went on to create (or strengthen) the thriving enterprises they lead today. Read on for 10 lessons in resilience from some of the comeback kids on this year’s W100.
1. How to win over detractors
Mandy Farmer (No. 35), Accent Inns & Hotel Zed
Since Farmer took over Accent Inns from her father, she has infused the chain with quirky sensibility (e.g., rubber duckies in the bathtubs). The board and shareholders she inherited have been mostly OK with the changes, but they weren’t sold on Hotel Zed, a 1960s-inspired concept hotel she first pitched a decade ago. “I dove right into selling it, fast and furious,” she recalls. “My partners immediately rejected it.” Only when she stopped the hard sell did she get the approval she needed. “I had naively pushed my ideas without listening to theirs,” she says. “It was an amazing lesson in persuasion and in navigating generational differences.”
2. How to come out of a devastating flood unfazed
Beth Gardner (No. 89), Custom Travel Solutions Inc.
Like so many Calgary firms, Gardner’s business was badly injured by the 2013 Alberta floods. But unlike many, she was prepared for it. Gardner and her team had developed a comprehensive disaster recovery plan in advance. When the flood hit, they put it into effect. That meant moving all technology, including its servers, to a secure location outside the danger zone. And it meant enacting a work-from-home policy that equipped all 70-plus employees to do their jobs remotely. As a result, the business was operating as normal within 24 hours of the flood.
3. How to run a business with your ex-husband
Janine Taylor (No. 57), The Next Trend Designs Inc.
It started out as an entrepreneurial fairy tale: girl meets boy, girl and boy fall in love, girl and boy start a business together. That was the narrative Taylor believed in when she launched The Next Trend with her future husband back in 1991. It didn’t quite work out that way. Within a few years, the business was growing, but Taylor’s marriage was failing. The couple divorced in 1998, which raised a big question: What to do with the business? Ultimately, Taylor says, “we decided to make the company and our employees a priority,” which meant both of them staying on (they remain business partners today). “I’ve learned that I am much stronger than I ever thought I could be,” she says.
4. How to lose a marquee client and come out thriving
Grail Noble (No. 14), YellowHouse Events Inc.
When BlackBerry—which, at the time, represented 65% of YellowHouse’s business—opted not to renew in 2012, it wasn’t disastrous. That’s because Noble had been preparing for the possibility. When the troubled tech titan’s marketing spending started to shrink, she started hunting for replacement clients and saving the firm’s profits to create a cushion. When BlackBerry left, she used the reserves to invest in staff development (allowing her to avoid layoffs) and double down on prospecting, which helped YellowHouse land Google as a client. “It took careful planning, but by looking far into the future, we avoided the pitfalls,” says Noble.
5. How to build a business while battling cancer
Andrea Shaw (No. 23), TwentyTen Corp.
Just a few months after Shaw launched her firm, she was diagnosed with Stage III colon cancer. “Fear engulfed every cell in my body,” Shaw recalls. “But I made a clear decision to not allow it to impact my family or staff.” Shutting the business was not an option, nor was keeping things quiet: “I needed my support system to have positive thoughts about my outcome.” Her optimism was contagious, and her staff kept things going in those early days. And so did Shaw; she recently marked three years of being cancer-free.
6. How to recover from near-foreclosure
Janet Stimpson (No. 2), White House Design Company Inc.
Stimpson’s business almost failed once. Having just made a significant investment to launch the Sympli line, White House Design was hit with the economic collapse that followed the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Soon, the bank posted a foreclosure notice. After the shock passed, the 40-year fashion industry veteran met with her staff to discuss the sacrifices they would need to make. White House employees took a pay cut for several months to keep the business viable, and before long, the company was able to repay its debts. The painful experience made the company drastically more efficient, with a new obsessive attention to budgeting and cash flow. It was a great lesson, Stimpson says: “Even today, with the business so successful, we never forget it.”
7. How to bounce back from a rough expansion
Kristen Wood (No. 81), The Ten Spot Inc., The Ten Spot Franchising Inc. & Get Nailed Inc.
Nearly two years ago, Wood decided to start franchising the business to accelerate growth. But it wasn’t a simple process. “I thought that just because I was great at opening and operating spas, I had what it took to guide franchisees to do the same,” she says. “That wasn’t the case.” Wood didn’t fully understand the franchise relationship at first, which led to several pitfalls. She discovered that franchising is an entirely different model, requiring more standardization and more consideration for franchisee needs. “I’ve learned that I have two sets of clients: those who frequent our spas and my franchise partners,” she says.
8. How to stop hiring people destined to fail
Sabine Schleese (No. 98), Schleese Saddlery Service Ltd. & Saddlefit 4 Life Inc.
As Schleese’s business grew, she discovered that she’s happiest working on the back end and decided to hire someone else to be CEO. But no hired-gun candidate seemed to do a good enough job. So Schleese got the idea to ask one of her two partners to do it. “I see now that outsiders were doomed to fail, since we had the inherent problem all entrepreneurs do—we were loath to give up control.” In the three years since her partner took over, the company has been thriving.
9. How to regroup after a big blow
Elen Steinberg (No. 40), SPP Marketing Services Inc. & Real Style Network Inc.
Eight years after its launch in 1987, Steinberg’s marketing firm developed a new sales and marketing concept (kiosks promoting travel-focused credit cards) that soon became standard in airports across North America. That changed in 1997, when the privatization of Canadian airports saw all of the firm’s kiosks removed. Almost overnight, SPP lost 90% of its revenues. Steinberg took a year off to regroup, then approached the airports with new contracts. Today, SPP has won back all of the business it lost—and much more.
10. How to move past a disastrous succession
Martha Zenker (No. 69), Lisgar Development Ltd.
In the 58 years since Zenker opened Lisgar—facing the serious challenge of being a woman in construction in the 1950s—she’s learned a lot about business. But perhaps the most valuable lesson has also been the most painful: that succession can easily go awry. In the late 1990s, Zenker performed an estate freeze and gave each of her children common shares in the firm. One of the kids had different plans than the others, and it took a decade of litigation, a big buyout and a near-total restructuring to settle things. “Getting a successful business running is extremely challenging, but the battle doesn’t end there,” says Zenker, who, at 92 years old, credits her business with maintaining her health. “The estate freeze seemed wise, but people change for the worse with money. Receiving good legal, accounting and succession advice would have made a world of difference.”