Innovation

High five

Written by Kim Shiffman

Betty Anne Latrace-Henderson

President
Airline Hotels and Resorts
Saskatoon
Annual revenue: $45.5 million
3-year revenue growth: 109%

When Betty Anne Latrace-Henderson took over Airline Hotels and Resorts from her ailing father in 2000, she didn’t waste any time putting her stamp on it — including dismissing her dad’s entire board of directors, an aging, all-male group assembled in the 1970s. “Dad had respect for his leadership from his peers,” says Latrace-Henderson, president of the Saskatoon-based hotel owner and operator. “When I stepped in, it started to break apart.” She felt strongly that because of her gender and the fact that she’d been given the job without having to apply for it, the board would never support her decisions. “I knew I’d always have to be watching my back, because there would come a time when they would try to jeopardize what we were doing,” says Latrace-Henderson.

She created a new board by analyzing her needs and finding experienced people with matching skills. “I sat down and did a matrix,” she says. “What did we need to grow? Where are our weak spots?” Among others, she found an expert in construction, an engineer, another hotelier and a lawyer. “We now have a board of directors guiding us on a path of sustainable growth,” she says. Latrace-Henderson went on to replace the company’s management team — hiring “young, energetic, strategic” talent — as well as its auditors.

The results: the family business has expanded from owning and operating a single property — a Travelodge Hotel in Saskatoon — to presiding over four large, full-service hotels and a hotel-management division. Airline Hotel’s annual revenue topped $45 million for the year ended Oct. 31, 2008, up from $18 million three years prior, and it enjoys an operating profit that Latrace-Henderson describes as “the envy of our industry.”

With the right people in place, Latrace-Henderson is now applying her strong belief in empowering them. “We encourage an entrepreneurial spirit, not only in our managers but all our 800 associates,” she says. “If someone in housecleaning has an issue with an upset client, we want those people to say, €˜I can solve your issue right now. I’m comfortable making this decision.'”

But the initiative comes with challenges. Mid-level managers can feel threatened by the decision-making power of their direct reports, says Latrace-Henderson. Airline Hotels recently hired consultants to help encourage adoption of the philosophy, which is a key element of its vision statement: “Respect, Integrity, Teamwork, Entrepreneurship.”

With a solid foundation of carefully chosen advisors and strong, empowered employees, Latrace-Henderson says she feels more comfortable following her instincts — and thinks more entrepreneurs ought to follow theirs: “One of the biggest things responsible for our success is that I’ve learned to respect my gut.”

Gabrielle Chevalier

President & COO
Solutions to Go Inc.
Mississauga, Ont.
Annual revenue: $709 million
Three-year revenue growth: 234%

A third of companies don’t make it to their fifth birthday, but when Solutions 2 Go Inc. reached that milestone last summer, president and COO Gabrielle Chevalier celebrated more than mere survival. The Mississauga, Ont.-based distributor of video-game products, including hardware, software and accessories, reached  sales exceeding $700 million.

Why do such major retailers as Walmart, Loblaw, Costco and EB Games choose Solutions 2 Go? Chevalier says it’s due to her company’s dexterity and willingness to listen. “Our organization is a high-performance culture that recognizes continuous change in the marketplace and in our customers’ needs,” says Chevalier. “Our commitment to service excellence, the ability to meet different logistic requirements and the strong, motivated workforce creates significant business value for our customers.”

Chevalier says her employees, which today number 100, are her firm’s No. 1 asset, and she’s a big believer in treating everyone equally — which includes how she distributes the firm’s profits. Solutions 2 Go’s profit-sharing plan compensates all staff, regardless of position.

“This concept of equality is a powerful way of acknowledging respect for the individual and rewarding employees for corporate success,” she explains. “The theory comes full circle when the good employee is recruited, respected and rewarded, and thus will remain with the organization for a long period of time.”

Rebecca MacDonald

Executive chair
Just Energy Income Fund
Toronto
Annual revenue: $1.9 billion
Three-year revenue growth: 57%

Its name keeps changing, but the strong leader at its core doesn’t. Rebecca MacDonald started Ontario Energy Savings Corp. in 1997 after seeing an opportunity to market deregulated natural gas to residential and small commercial customers. She took that firm public as Energy Savings Income Fund in 2001 and, two years later, with more than a half a billion in revenue, she found a home atop the PROFIT W100 ranking — where she resided for six consecutive years. (The ranking used to be based on revenue alone, and she’s still No. 1 by that score.)

With 2008 sales approaching $2 billion, the firm now called Just Energy Income Fund, a retail marketer of natural gas and electricity, is among the biggest woman-founded and woman-run companies in the country. While MacDonald stepped down as CEO in 2005, she remains executive chair and the firm’s most senior decision-maker.

MacDonald has had plenty of success, but she is also quite candid about failures: “I failed when I was at the brink of not making payroll. I failed in how I structured my gas purchases. And we’ve had an enormous number of challenges over the years with different regulators.”

The last item refers primarily to the Ontario government’s 2002 snap decision to re-regulate electricity prices, which precipitated a 25% drop in MacDonald’s  company’s stock price. Her solution: diversification into other provinces as well as the U.S., where she is “moving slowly and steadily rather than trying to dominate the market immediately.”

The winner of a Canadian Woman Entrepreneur of the Year award for lifetime achievement, MacDonald says the qualities every entrepreneur needs are laser focus, a sense of humour and perseverance: “I don’t like the word €˜failure,'” she says. “We are constantly facing challenges. You only fail the moment you give up.”

Tarara Nina Gupta

President & CEO
Greenlite Lighting Corp.
Point Claire, Que.
Annual revenue: US$26.7 million
Three-year revenue growth: 128%

People weren’t talking much about saving the Earth in 1993. Still, that was the year Tarana Nina Gupta’s instinct told her that North America’s lighting business was going green. When research confirmed the opportunity, the Pointe Claire, Que.-based entrepreneur founded Greenlite Lighting Corp., and began manufacturing and distributing energy-efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs). Her instincts were right: green products are now hot sellers, and the company’s revenue has jumped accordingly, from US$300,000 in 1996 to US$26.7 million in 2008.

Greenlite’s strategy from the outset was to partner with Canadian and U.S. utility companies, which were eagerly partnering with manufacturers to sell CFLs to utility customers at discounted prices. Greenlite also markets directly to consumers. As eager as people are to befriend the environment, many are skeptical about CFLs, since first-generation products tended to buzz, flicker or hiss. To prove these issues have been resolved, Gupta has focused on giveaways to get CFLs into the hands of customers, handing out thousands at events such as parades and consumer shows.

Gupta isn’t just an entrepreneur but a committed social activist who embraces her product’s cause. “I strongly believe in educating others about the environmental crisis our world is facing today,” she says. “I believe every one of us has the capacity to make a difference and should not waste away our talents.”

Sylvia Benchimol

President
Stone Tile International Inc.
Toronto
Annual revenue: $32.5 million
Three-year revenue growth: 111%

Like many entrepreneurs, Sylvia Benchimol started her company, Toronto-based Stone Tile International Inc., when she noticed an untapped niche. Few Canadian companies were importing exotic, high-end limestone, marble and slate from around the world, but demand for such flooring materials was rapidly growing among contractors, builders, developers and architects. Founded in 1991 — during a recession, no less — Stone Tile has grown steadily, opening showrooms in Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver, and now boasts annual revenue of more than $32 million. Perhaps more impressive is the 26% revenue growth the company recorded in the year ended March 31, 2009 — despite the recession and concurrent plunge in real estate development.

Over the years, many competitors have sprung up in Benchimol’s industry. But, she says, Stone Tile has differentiated itself by staying on the leading edge of design and taking a chance by sourcing “tomorrow’s” products rather than following the pack. It also offers specialized services, such as a highly trained architectural salesforce capable of offering technical knowledge to its architectural and commercial-design clients.

Although Benchimol’s firm has grown to include 98 full-time employees, she strives to remain approachable and engaged in day-to-day operations. “I am very involved in all aspects of the business,” she says. “I lead by example.”

Originally appeared on PROFITguide.com
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