Marnie Walker, Founder
Student Express Ltd.
Richmond Hill, ON
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.
Marnie Walker is the former president of Student Express Ltd., a Richmond Hill, Ont.-based firm that provides student transportation. She founded the company in 1989 with eight buses, and by the time she sold the firm in fall 2004, it had grown to 250 buses, 295 employees and annual revenue of $11 million. Now a consultant to Student Express, Walker was one of 10 finalists at the Enterprising Women Awards held in May 2004 in New York, and is a Canadian Woman Entrepreneur of the Year Award winner.
BEST ADVICE: “Ask your frontline people for input and feedback,”
“The best information that I got about my business — the market, where we should be going, how to resolve issues, what customers think — I got from my frontline people,” says Walker. Funnily enough, this valued advice was unintentional. “I was sitting down with my safety supervisor working on operational issues [in 1993] for a new contract, and in frustration she said something like, ‘We should just ask the drivers, they’d know’,” Walker recalls. “Eureka! I thought, why don’t we?”
From that point on, Walker solicited the thoughts of drivers, dispatchers, receptionists, order takers — all those who deal directly with the company’s day-to-day issues. “They knew what worked and what didn’t work,” says Walker. “But no one had ever asked them before.” Through informal chats, meetings and employee surveys, Walker sought staff feedback and advice on everything from what prevents them from doing their jobs to the likes and dislikes of customers. “By asking these questions,” she explains, “I found that it sparked my thinking process, it sparked my creativity, and I think it kept us ahead of the competition and aligned with our customers.”
That interaction helped reduce employee turnover. “I got tremendous loyalty because I listened,” says Walker. Staff are happier and more engaged, and that impacts service levels. Asking employees to help solve operational challenges also generated commitment. Typically, says Walker, ideas come from the top and nobody wants to implement them. “Here, it’s coming from the bottom up. They’re anxious to implement ideas and make them work.”
“I found [this advice] very powerful, and I think it was one of the reasons the company did so well,” says Walker. “It became part of the way we operated, part of our culture, and I think it was one of the most important things that I did through the years.”
© 2004 Susanne Baillie-Ruder