Xchange asks Canada’s top women entrepreneurs to share their most meaningful business lessons. Each issue we bring you the advice that has helped shape the lives and companies of these winning businesswomen.
Debbie Gracie-Smith is president of CRATOS Technology Solutions Inc., an Oakville, Ont.-based IT consultancy specializing in international banking and financial transaction processing. Clients, who include TD Bank, Hudson’s Bay Company and GE Capital, hail from 17 countries around the world. All of the firm’s 40 contract consultants work from home offices. Gracie-Smith ranked 55th on the 2003 PROFIT / Chatelaine list of Canada’s Top 100 Women Business Owners.
BEST ADVICE: “Empathy and integrity are crucial to business success.”
Empathy and integrity are “life standards” instilled by her parents, says Gracie-Smith, but they also provide a practical edge in business.
“[Being empathetic] has really helped me out,” she explains. “If a client doesn’t pay their bill on time, rather than get furious or upset about it, I just step back, ask what the potential issues are and how can we work them out. That way it’s beneficial to both companies.”
In one stubborn late-payment case, instead of breaking kneecaps, Gracie-Smith says her firm was very polite, but very persistent, contacting the client every month. When the client sold his business to new owners in default (taking a poor reputation with him), her firm’s patient, empathetic approach won them the right of first payment and future work from the company’s new owners. It also heightened industry respect. “What goes around, comes around,” she says.
Besides letting her live with herself, acting with integrity also gives Gracie-Smith a competitive advantage. “If you’re going to do work, do something that you’re going to be proud of today, next week, next month, next year,” she says. “That’s missing from a lot of industries today and it sets us apart from other firms out there that do similar types of work.”
Moreover, integrity is not just important when Gracie-Smith has faced large issues (such as refusing to accept a lucrative cash kickback). It is also integral to the way she operates in everyday situations.
“We have claims for Cratos that we never miss a project deadline. We never have. The day I can’t say that anymore I’ll pull it off the website and I won’t mention it to clients again,” she says. “It’s not worth not having that integrity going forward, not being able to say that’s what sets us apart.”
Even though it might be tempting to cut corners, without empathy and integrity, you risk your reputation, clients, even your business, concludes Gracie-Smith. “We’re in a niche market, it’s a small world, and we don’t need anything negative associated with our name.”
© 2004 Susanne Baillie