What a General Manager Could Do for You

Hiring someone to handle day-to-day operations freed James MacDonald up to focus on growth and new opportunities

Written by Alexandra Bosanac

Ever since he was in his early twenties, James MacDonald has hustled hard to build his business, Safety First-SFC Ltd. MacDonald founded the company with best friend and business partner Ed Hennessy in the early nineties to bid on government contracts to direct traffic on construction sites. Back then, MacDonald explains, their goal was launching as many businesses as possible in order to grab more market share.

However, in the last decade or so, much of the partners’ focus has been on expanding their company’s high-margin continuing education business. Safety First offers specialized safety training for a number of different trades and the courses are often mandatory for individuals employed in heavy industry. Training has proven quite lucrative, helping Safety First earn the #392 spot on the 2014 PROFIT 500 Ranking of Canada’s Fastest Growing Firms. “There’s so much potential in the courses,” he says. It’s because companies rarely cut back on safety training. “You never hear that. It’s only going up and that’s good.”

With offices throughout Atlantic Canada, MacDonald has his sights set on more ambitious projects. Specifically, he wants to add commercial real estate to his company’s portfolio. That goal is finally coming to fruition now that MacDonald and Hennessy have hired a general manager to care of day-to-day operations. It was, MacDonald says, one of the smartest moves they made last year.


Henessey had been prodding MacDonald for a while to expand the company’s leadership, but he says he put it off because he was too picky about hiring. His view changed as the strain of managing a 350-person operation started to wear on him, leaving him little time to focus on his passions. “I like trying new things,” says MacDonald. “As an entrepreneur, my eyes are always open to new angles.”

Being able to take a step back has been energizing says MacDonald. “Before, I would be directly dealing with planners and their problems all the time,” he notes. “Now Jason [Hiltz, the general manager] is responsible for all that. The buck stops with him.”


In the trades, previous experience is often regarded more highly than a bachelor’s degree. MacDonald appreciates that view. “You gotta be abler to hire and fire,” says MacDonald. “You gotta know how to break a few eggs.”

But when it came time to hiring a GM, a university degree in a related field was a must-have for him. “It shows discipline,” he says, adding that showing that you graduated in four years is even more impressive. “To me, it indicates professionalism.” MacDonald says he was looking for someone with a minimum of four years of on the job experience.


In McDonald’s industry, he’s used to dealing with people who are, well, a little rough around the edges. “We didn’t want a buffoon, somebody who sounds like they just came out of a bar,” says MacDonald. The partners wanted something different in a manager—someone who could interact with on-the-ground employees but also polish up the company’s brand.


MacDonald says he finally feels like the president of a company. “Hennessy and I have almost become mentors,” he says. “[The general manager] comes to us for advice but we’re not nearly doing as much of the nuts and bolts everyday as we used to.” MacDonald is now free to concentrate on the 440-foot-high headquarters they company is building in Moncton. “It’s our oldest office! We should have done it long ago.”


Now that MacDonald feels more content at work, the rest of his employees seem a little cheerier, too. “I think we’re closer knit now,” says MacDonald. “It makes for a happier group of people. Our employees seem to be very content.”


Does your company have a general manager? Why, or why not? Let us know using the comments section below.

Originally appeared on PROFITguide.com