The best advice I ever got: Rebecca MacDonald

Written by Susanne Baillie
Rebecca MacDonald

Chair & CEO
Energy Savings Income Fund

Xchange asks Canada’s top women entrepreneurs to share their most meaningful business lessons. Each issue brings you the advice that has helped shape the lives and companies of these winning businesswomen.

Rebecca MacDonald is chair and CEO of Energy Savings Income Fund, a Toronto-based natural gas and electricity retailer. Founded in 1997, the firm provides five-year fixed-price contracts to residential and commercial customers in Ontario and Manitoba. With sales topping $733.1 million last year, the company ranked 18th on the 2004 PROFIT 100 list of Canada’s Fastest-Growing Companies.

BEST ADVICE: “Become a specialist in your niche.”

Don’t stray too far from your core business, says MacDonald: “Whenever you lose focus, the business goes south.” She received this advice more than 20 years ago from a German businessman and friend. “Europeans are generalists, but North America is a continent of specialists,” he told her. Over here, “the specialists are always the most successful ones.”

The bonus of becoming a master in your market? “You become way more efficient,” says MacDonald. “You streamline, vertically integrate and you don’t have repetition of costs — it really works.”

The strategy worked for Energy Savings. Staying focused on retailing natural gas and electricity insulated the firm the last three years, through what MacDonald calls “the biggest purging the energy business has seen in the last four decades.” But she points to competitors, such as U.K.-based Centrica plc or even Sears, which have tried unsuccessfully to branch out too far. “They reinvent themselves on a monthly basis. They don’t know whether they want to sell natural gas, electricity, insurance, or get into pipelines, storage, maybe credit cards, maybe furnace service,” she says. “All of a sudden the focus is gone and the whole company starts slowly coming down.”

To keep the Energy Savings and her executive team on track, MacDonald holds a strategy session every month. “My favorite saying is, ‘We’re planning where we’re going to be two, three, five years from now, but let’s not forget our focus — let’s stick to the basics’.” So far, so good. Energy Savings has grown its annual revenue by 3,088% over the past five years, largely by expanding geographically rather than adding new products or services. “I could not be happier,” says MacDonald. “We are not everything. If you want to be everything, you’ll end up doing nothing.”

© 2004 Susanne Baillie

Originally appeared on PROFITguide.com