Innovation

W100: Canada's Top Women Entrepreneurs

There's never been a better time to be a woman entrepreneur

Written by Jennifer Myers

There’s never been a better time to be a woman entrepreneur. Just ask Marg Hachey. The founder of Richmond Hill, Ont.,-based Duocom Canada Inc. discovered early in life that she had a talent for sales, and after stints selling Avon products and A/V equipment, she and her business partner, Ross Fairholm, struck out on their own in 1974 to sell overhead projectors primarily to governments and educators.

But the move into the boardroom came with challenges. As the lone women in a sea of suits, Hachey had few role models and lacked the business networks her male counterparts enjoyed. As the odd woman out, Hachey had to gain respect by developing an in-depth knowledge of her products and industry. “I always made sure I did my homework,” says Hachey, “and that I was knowledgeable about my products and their applications from a business point of view.”

That effort helped to transform Duocom into a one-stop provider of multimedia technology and services, such as integrating AV equipment into boardrooms and staging live presentations. By 1999, with sales of $36.8 million, Hachey had notched 7th spot on the first-ever list of Canada’s Top Women Entrepreneurs.

But Hachey’s story doesn’t end there. In 2000, the partners got an offer they couldn’t refuse, and sold Duocom to Dayton, Ohio-based MCSI Inc., a now-defunct A/V services firm. When MCSI filed for bankruptcy three years later, Hachey and Fairholm bought back Duocom’s assets. Duocom now has seven locations across Canada, and its annual sales of more $41 million have earned Hachey ninth spot on the 10th annual PROFIT W100 ranking of Canada’s Top Women Entrepreneurs.

When PROFIT launched “Canada’s Top Women Business Owners” (as it was known until 2004), our aim was to celebrate the achievements of female entrepreneurs and highlight their importance to the Canadian economy. Knowing that women are driving some of this country’s most dynamic and durable busineseses, we wanted to put them front and centre on the national media stage. Mission accomplished: since 1999, PROFIT has used the W100 program to tell the success stories of Canada’s Top Women Entrepreneurs, explore the opportunities and the challenges facing women at the helm, and reveal their best business practices. And we believe we’ve made life better for women business owners.

Coincidentally, Hachey says she’s seen more positive change for women entrepreneurs in the past decade than she did in the 25 years prior. She has noticed that women are starting businesses in a wide range of industries, not just stereotypical “female sectors,” such as retail and health care. Hachey also believes there’s higher awareness of the major impact women entrepreneurs make on the economy; more female-centric networking and peer-mentoring groups to provide support and resources; and, yes, even better access to capital for female business owners.

If all that is true, then W100 leaders appear to be reaping the rewards. The average annual revenue of Canada’s Top Women Entrepreneurs rose to $36.8 million in their most recent fiscal year, up from $32 million a year earlier and just 15 million when the ranking was established in 1999. And more of them are growing in sectors historically dominated by men, such as construction, transportation, IT and manufacturing.

Leading the charge is Rebecca MacDonald, executive chair and co-CEO of Toronto-based Energy Savings Income Fund, a natural gas and electricity reseller that offers long-term, fixed-price contracts to companies and consumers. MacDonald has solidified her membership in an old boys’ club, growing Energy Savings’ revenue in fiscal 2008 to $1.7 billion, up from $23 million in 1999.

Joyce Groote is no stranger to growth, either. The president & CEO of Holey Soles Holdings Ltd. (No. 25) spied opportunity in the hot trend of candy-coloured foam footwear. After joining the firm as interim CEO in 2004, Groote jumped in with both feet, writing a new business plan, outsourcing manufacturing and increasing sales and marketing. Today, Holey Soles shoes are sold in 40 countries and the firm’s 2007 revenue reached $17.2 million — a 2,824% increase over 2004.

Clearly, the W100 are role models for the next generation of women entrpreneurs — a position Hachey takes seriously. She’s happy to be a sounding board and to provide advice to the numerous women who cold-call her looking for help and ideas. She has also been a formal mentor for StepAhead, a Toronto-based mentoring group that pairs fledgling entrepreneurs with experienced businesswomen.

A decade ago, such support groups were in their infancy, says Hachey: “Today, women are flocking to peer networking groups for help and access to resources.” Indeed, women-oriented groups, from government funded enterprise centres to associations such as Women Presidents’ Organization, Women Entrepreneurs of Canada and WXN are providing learning and networking opportunities to help women grow their businesses. Such groups provide a non-threatening environment for like-minded women, she says, and there is a certain comfort level in knowing that other women face the same personal and professional challenges.

And while accessing capital is always challenging — for both women and men — Hachey believes there are now more financing options for women. She points to the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC), which has a mandate to support women. This year’s W100 companies have utilized many sources of financing, including venture capitalists, asset-based lenders and factoring firms.

Despite all these improvements for female entrepreneurs, women-owned businesses still are less likely to have employees, grow more slowly and be smaller than those owned by men. Of the 800,000 women-owned businesses in Canada, 85% of them have fewer than five employees and half are sole proprietorships. At $318,000, the average annual revenue of women-owned firms is less than half that of men ($680,000). What gives?

A 2005 report by Industry Canada and Carleton University’s Sprott School of Business says a partial explanation lies in the fact that women are still starting service firms with moderate growth potential. But the report also suggests women may bring to their ventures less education and experience in finance, marketing and operations than their male counterparts. There are also differences in attitudes about growth and risk propensity, which all influence a firm’s performance.

Kim McArthur agrees that women often lack the managerial expertise needed to push a firm beyond the startup phase. The president of Toronto-based McArthur & Co. Publishing Ltd. (No. 44) spent years learning the ropes in various Canadian publishing houses, eventually becoming president of Little, Brown Canada, a subsidiary of Time Warner. The business acumen McArthur gained there proved to be invaluable when she launched her own outfit in 1998. “I had the opportunity to attend board meetings at head office in the U.S. and to learn what it took to manage a company,” she says. Her initial investors, two experienced book-publishing executives, also proved to be powerful mentors.

Then there’s the elephant in the room: while men contribute more around the house than they used to, women still take responsibility for the the bulk of their domestic affairs. Says Hachey: “I joke all the time that I need a wife.”

The resultant time shortage is one reason women are significantly less likely to export than male companies, regardless of size, sector or growth orientation. According to the Industry Canada report, the other primary factors of female resistance to exporting are cost and gender.

While the majority of W100 exporters say their gender has not been a detriment in foreign markets, those that have faced trouble abroad worked around it. Witness Liz Falconer, president of Brees Communictions Inc. (No. 98), an advertising agency in Toronto. “My gender has been an issue in a few isolated incidences. In those situations I instinctively know a male presence would dramatically speed up the sell-through,” says Falconer. “On a few occasions, I’ve hired a male to come out for a meeting, slap some backs, tell a few golf jokes while I take the revenue and run.”

Despite the challenges, perhaps female entrepreneurs need to be reminded of the upside to growing a business, namely, increased stability, the ability to attract better-quality staff and financial security.

That’s why Hachey always set her sights on growth. “I wanted the security, I wanted a better life and to give back,” she says. “Women have so much potential. They have to go for it”

How we ranked the PROFIT W100

The W100 are ranked by gross revenue in their most recently completed fiscal year. Figures were verified through financial statements. PROFIT solicited entries through PROFIT, its sister publications Canadian Business and Maclean’s, and online at PROFITguide.com; direct-mail to past winners and other women business owners.

Originally appeared on PROFITguide.com
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