MACLEAN’S HONOR ROLL

Advising by example

The first woman of Quebec business constructs a Canadian success story with plain old hard work

JEANNINE GUILLEVIN WOOD December 31 1990
MACLEAN’S HONOR ROLL

Advising by example

The first woman of Quebec business constructs a Canadian success story with plain old hard work

JEANNINE GUILLEVIN WOOD December 31 1990

Advising by example

The first woman of Quebec business constructs a Canadian success story with plain old hard work

JEANNINE GUILLEVIN WOOD

Jeannine Guillevin Wood has often been called the godmother of Quebec’s businesswomen. It is a sobriquet that the 61year-old chairman and chief executive officer of Montreal’s Guillevin International Inc. dismisses with a skeptical chuckle. But she has blazed business trails during a career so remarkable that it has entered boardroom lore in the province and beyond. In 25 years, the silver-haired, five-foot-tall grandmother transformed a small family appliance wholesaler in the city’s east end, inherited from her late husband, into a multimillion-dollar electrical distribution empire spanning Canada and stretching into the United States. “It is true that I was one of the first to show that women could do certain things around here, and for that I am glad,” she said, leaning her arms upon a large desk in a modest office in suburban Montreal. “But the battle is not

yet completely won, for there are still a few people who will not accept us.” Leaning further across her desk, she added with a note of determination, “Those kind of people I find it best to ignore.”

Few colleagues or competitors have managed to ignore Guillevin Wood. The company of which she is chairman, chief executive and principal shareholder is Canada’s third-largest distributor of electrical products and a major vendor of automation, security and safety equipment. It employs 1,300 people in 124 offices, distributing 82,000 products to 33,000 customers. Annual sales in the company year that ended last Jan. 31 exceeded $428 million, profits $5.9 million. Guillevin Wood also sits on the boards of several major concerns, including Hydro Quebec, BCE Inc. and Sun Life of Canada. In October, in the face of a recession, her company expanded in the Maritimes—part of a commitment to Canada-wide growth and community service. Also this year, she became the first woman appointed to the policy committee of the blue-ribbon Business Council on National Issues. “You might say that I have won some recognition,” she concedes.

Guillevin Wood’s life might have taken a far different course. Until 1965, she led an obscure but comfortable existence as a Montreal housewife and mother, content to spend the summers golfing and the winters in Florida. But her first husband, François Guillevin, died suddenly, leaving her a 15-year-old daughter to care for, as well as control of the family business. At that time, F. X. Guillevin & Son Ltd. was an electrical wholesaler with 35 employees and annual sales of $1.5 million, mostly from the distribution of household appliances. Rather than sell the business, she decided to take the reins into her own hands. “I had no other choice,” she recalls. “It was a good old family firm with a lot of good employees who had given their lives to the company. How could I let them down?”

It was a brave decision, given that she had no business experience of any kind. But over the next 20 years, she acquired 11 other companies and forged working partnerships with firms in France and the United States to fashion what is now Guillevin International. Along the way, she married businessman Keith Wood. She also gained wider recognition. By 1976, she had been twice named “Man of the Month” by Montreal business organizations. Other accolades followed. “There really is no secret to my success,” she says. “It was just the result of plain old discipline and a lot of hard work.” It is advice that she offers by example to others, male or female—the kind of advice expected from a godmother.