Eight Women at the Top
To reach the pinnacle of corporate success takes drive, brains and a sense of humor
Ask Sheelagh Whittaker about life at the top and she responds by talking about the many times men presumed she played a lesser role. At a meeting once, she was seated next to Eric Jackman, brother of financier Hal Jackman. When Jackman asked where she worked, Whittaker named the firm where she was then president, Canadian Satellite Communications. Said Jackman: “I understand they have a crackerjack woman running that company. Do you know her?” Replied Whittaker: “I am her.”
Laughing, Whittaker says she apparently did not fit Jackman’s image of a woman boss. “You have to take that kind of accidental slight in stride.”
Whittaker, who prefers floral dresses to power suits, is now president and chief executive of EDS Canada Ltd. The company is a subsidiary of Electronic Data Systems Corp. of Dallas, which was founded by Ross Perot in 1962, bought by General Motors Corp. in 1984 and spun off as an independent company in 1996. EDS provides data processing services for banks, government departments and a wide range of other clients.
Whittaker likens heading a company to running a big family.
Sheelagh Whittaker EDS Canada Ltd. Toronto No. of employees: 2,800 1996 revenues: $457 million
‘You have to make sure everyone is working and playing well,” she says, “and make sure everybody feels they’re being treated fairly.” After earning an MBA from Toronto’s York University, Whittaker became a combines investigation officer for the federal government in 1975. Next, she worked as a consultant, followed by a stint at the CBC as vice-president of planning and corporate affairs. In 1988, she joined Canadian Satellite Communications, becoming CEO in 1989. She left four years later to head EDS. She sits on the boards of five other companies, including the Royal Bank and Imperial Oil.
Remarkably, she has achieved her status while still having a busy family life. Her second husband, William Morgan, a former CBC ombudsman, has two daughters from a previous marriage; Whittaker has three children aged 12 to 21. Together, she and Morgan had Nicholas, now 4, in 1993, when Whittaker was 46. “I never pretended that I didn’t change diapers before I came to work,” she said in 1994, when she was named to the annual Maclean’s Honor Roll of Canadian achievers.
Whittaker says her success is partly the result of being in the right place at the right time. “It’s rare you succeed on merit alone.” The trick is to recognize opportunities, she says. “I’ve always been bewildered by somebody who is offered a new project and says, ‘I don’t think so, I’m already kind of busy, or will you pay me more money or promise me a big title,’ all things that are turnoffs.” Since taking the top job at EDS, Whittaker says, her management style has become less subtle. In the past, she sometimes tried to avoid conflict by declining to tell people when their work fell short of expectations. Now, however, “I’m a lot tougher and more direct. It’s better for the people who work with me and for me.”
To improve EDS’s competitive position, she recently merged the company’s sales and operations departments. “It keeps us from having that dichotomy where operations people say, ‘I can’t run this job at a profit because the sales people cut it too skinny,’ and sales people say operations guys are just duds.” Shaking things up a bit has another benefit: no one around EDS these days forgets that Whittaker is boss.
Maureen Kempston Darkes General Motors of Canada Ltd.
Number of employees: 30,000 1996 revenues: $28.1 billion
In the male-dominated auto industry, it was inevitable that Maureen Kempston Darkes’s appointment to the top job at General Motors of Canada Ltd. in 1994 would turn some heads. Not only was she the first woman to rise to such a lofty position at the giant automaker, but she had come from the legal and governmental affairs side of the business—not the usual path to a senior executive post at the world’s largest industrial company. Regardless of the reaction on the shop floor, however, Kempston Darkes’s promotion marked a turning point of sorts in the history of Canadian business. Sheelagh Whittaker, president and chief executive officer of EDS Canada, and Diane McGarry, chairman and chief executive officer of Xerox Canada, were having lunch at a restaurant in Toronto on the day GM made the announcement. “We thought it was fabulous,” Whittaker says. “Now there is a critical mass.”
A lawyer by training, Kempston Darkes, 49, says she achieved her current position through determination, energy and an appetite for hard work. “I’ve always been one to enjoy a great challenge,” she says. As head of a company that employs 30,000 people, with a history of strained labor-management relations and a productivity rating that is one of the worst in the auto industry, Kempston Darkes obviously faces challenges aplenty. Her ambition: “I want every employee to come to work at General Motors every day and say, ‘I can make a difference. I can contribute to this business.’ ”
Neil De Koker, a one-time director of business development for GM and former head of the Automotive Parts Manufacturers’ Association, characterizes Kempston Darkes as tenacious: ‘When she gets on an issue that’s important to her, she hangs on.” Her
colleagues, however, describe the GM Canada president as a team player who places great store in open communication. Flexibility “and some informality” are critically important qualities in business today, she says. ‘When you work in a rigid, hierarchical structure”—a description that for years applied to GM— “that limits opportunities for people to communicate.”
Still, Kempston Darkes dismisses the notion that she might deal with things differently simply because she is a woman. “The challenges that confront chief executives are the same whether they are men or women,” she says. “Once you get to the CEO spot, you’re focused on the same kinds of issues that men would focus on. That’s why you’re in the job.”
Although the GM Canada president can appear stiff and formal in public, Whittaker says Kempston Darkes is a jocular woman who calls friends “kiddo,” the type of person “I’d expect to punch me on the shoulder.” If that side of her doesn’t always come through, Whittaker says it is perhaps because Kempston Darkes is overmanaged by too many handlers. “The real Maureen is a thoughtful, determined, funny woman—and very smart.” Not surprisingly, the head of the Canadian Auto Workers union sees her in a less flattering light. “She would never think of sitting down and talking to us,” says Buzz Hargrove, who led a bitter three-week strike against the company last year by more than 20,000 hourly workers. Before that dispute, Kempston Darkes enraged assembly-line workers by sending them letters explaining that the company would have to contract out more work to stay competitive, which meant some would have to lose their jobs or work for less money. “She wants to drive everything from the top down,” says Hargrove, “rather than capturing the skills and opinions of people to make things work.”
After graduating from the University of Toronto and working for two years at a Toronto law firm, Kempston Darkes joined GM Canada’s legal staff in 1975. From 1980 to 1990, she moved rapidly up the ranks, doing stints as head of the tax department, director of public affairs and vice-president of corporate affairs. In 1991, she joined GM Canada’s board of directors and inl992, she added the titles of general counsel and corporate secretary to her responsibilities. She and her husband, Larry Darkes, also a lawyer, have no children.
Looking back, Kempston Darkes says the greatest influence in her life was her mother. Her father, a credit manager for a paper company, died when she was 12, leaving Vera Kempston to raise three small children on her modest income as a bank secretary. “My mother was determined that we would all have a very good education because that was the route to opportunity,” she recalls. “She used to tell us that if you set your sights high enough and work hard enough, you can achieve whatever you set out to do.” Today, one of her two brothers is a doctor and the other is a dentist.
Her advice for other women hoping to climb the corporate ladder echoes her mother’s. “Go at everything with a purpose. Be there to make a difference. And never lose a sense of balance in your life, because it’s important.”
Bobbie Gaunt recalls the time she was approached by the producers of Sesame Street about co-sponsoring the children’s television series. Gaunt, who became president and chief executive officer of Ford Motor Co. of Canada Ltd. last April, was then general marketing manager of the Ford division of parent Ford Motor Co.
She thought the idea was brilliant.
Sesame Street would get the money it needed and Ford’s reputation for safety would be enhanced. “You wouldn’t see Big Bird out there saying, ‘Come in and buy now—best price ever on the Ford Windstar,’ ” Gaunt says. Instead, the popular character would say: “Children in the backseat and buckle up.”
Some of her male colleagues at
the world’s second-largest automaker, however, failed to share Gaunt’s enthusiasm for the proposal. Said one executive flatly: “Kids don’t buy cars.”
To Gaunt, that exchange illustrates one of the ways in which women managers think differently from men. Women, she says, tend to show more concern for their company’s image and are more open to “soft” ideas that might not generate an immediate payback. The Sesame Street sponsorship, which ultimately received Ford’s blessing, is a good example. Such endeavors may not influence sales over the next 30 days, but they will eventually, she says.
Gaunt, 50, was born in Washington, Pa., and graduated from the
University of Pittsburgh with a bachelor’s degree in business administration. Starting out at Ford in 1972 as a stenographer in the Pittsburgh sales office, she worked her way up the organization. She was the first woman in Ford’s management training program. In 1979, she helped form a women’s marketing committee, allowing women from various Ford departments to discuss how the company could make its cars more appealing to female customers.
Gaunt’s appointment to the top Ford job in Canada marked her 11th relocation since joining the company. While she moved around, her husband, Bob, who has two children from his first marriage, stayed in Detroit, where he worked as an industry consultant. In 1987, when the
company sent her to California as western regional manager, Bob took early retirement “and we relocated together for the first time.” After every move, Gaunt felt she had to prove herself all over again. “Every time, it was, ‘Show me.’ ” like other women executives, she has occasionally been mistaken for a secretary. Not only is the glass ceiling still firmly in place, she says, but “I’m not even sure I’ve broken through it.” Even so, Gaunt says her experiences at Ford Canada so far have proved a refreshing change. “Here in Canada,” she says, “there has been no skepticism or questioning whatsoever.” Big Bird would surely approve.
Bobbie Gaunt Ford Motor Co. of Canada Ltd
No. of employees: 14,000 1996 revenues: $25 billion
Diane MOrarry Xerox Canada Inc.
No. of employees: 4,300 1996 revenues: $1.2 billion
At 23, Diane McGarry did not seem destined to become chairman, president and CEO of Xerox Canada Inc. A threeyear marriage to her high-school sweetheart had just ended and McGarry, a college dropout, was struggling to support their infant daughter. On a tip from a friend, the Oakland, Calif., native landed a job as a Xerox sales rep based in Fort Wayne, Ind. It was uphill from there. “I took the tough jobs, the line assignments,” says McGarry, 48, who came to Canada when she was appointed chief executive in 1993. “I didn’t have a master plan for becoming CEO of Xerox Canada, but I did set small goals, and I never let anyone tell me I couldn’t do something.”
Today, McGarry oversees 4,300 employees. She says her biggest strengths are her listening skills, her tenacity and her sense of humor. McGarry says a collaborative approach to managing is the hallmark of today’s leaders. At Xerox Canada, females account for 40 per cent of the executive team and three of the firm’s five outside board members. Elevating women is good business, she says, because it puts companies in touch with their markets. “The world is not made up of white men over 40.” McGarry credits her parents with fostering her fierce sense of independence. Bill and Marty Daly encouraged their seven children to attend college far from home so they would learn to fend for themselves. McGarry went to the University of Redlands in California part time, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in business administration when her daughter, Rachel, was 10.
A single mother, she is trying to teach the lessons of success to her daughter and other women. “If you want the top job, you have to be willing to take tough assignments where bottom-line performance is the measure of your success,” she says. That’s why she often recommends a sales career. “It doesn’t matter what you look like or who you know. All that matters is that you sell.” McGarry adds that women have to take responsibility for their careers. “I’ve had 13 assignments in the past 24 years, and every one of them I’ve personally asked for.” Obviously, she has been doing something right
Dee Parkinson-Marcoux Gulf Heavy Oil*
Number of employees: N/A Revenues: N/A
*to be incorporated in early 1998
In Alberta’s oilpatch, praise for Dee Parkinson-Marcoux runs as thick as heavy oil, the molasses-like substance she has made her business. The 49-year-old metallurgical engineer from Dartmouth, N.S., is one of the most sought-after executives in the field, thanks in part to her stunning turnaround of Suncor’s Fort McMurray, Alta., oilsands plant two years ago. “It’s an interesting environment,” she says. “Not one in which you meet a lot of women.” Parkinson has never shied away from traditionally male terrain. Her technical expertise proved invaluable when she took over Suncor’s money-losing oilsands operation. Among other changes, she ordered the facility’s bucket-wheel excavators, which dug out the oil-drenched sand and dumped it on conveyor belts, to be replaced with crane-like shovels that loaded it onto trucks. That saved millions and made the project commercially viable.
Last fall, Parkinson left Suncor to become president of Calgarybased CS Resources Ltd., which had captured the industry’s attention with a new technology for separating heavy oil from sand. Her career took a twist in July when J. P Bryan, head of Gulf Canada Resources Ltd., launched a hostile takeover bid for CS. Parkinson fought back, code-naming the company’s defence strategy AGB—Anything but Gulf. In the end, PanCanadian Petroleum Ltd. intervened with a friendly takeover offer and Gulf withdrew.
Industry watchers assumed Parkinson would head PanCanadian’s heavy oil division, but instead she quit. Earlier this month, she surprised them again by accepting Bryan’s offer to become president of a yet-to-be-formed company. Likely to be called Gulf Heavy Oil, it will comprise Gulf’s and Stampeder’s heavy oil holdings, with assets expected to total $1 billion when it goes public in about a year. Parkinson stresses that her current position as head of Gulf’s heavy oil division is only temporary. “I have no intention of running a division of anything,” she says flatly.
If the idea unfolds as planned, Parkinson will become the first woman CEO in the history of the Canadian petroleum industry.
She will bring to the job not only a sound grasp of oilsands technology, but the marketing skills she developed as manager of PetroCanada’s western refineries.
By her own admission, Parkinson is an unlikely candidate for Big Oil’s chummy boys club. She describes herself as an introverted outsider, a characteristic that is evident in her eating habits: in the heart of cattle country, Parkinson is a committed vegetarian.
The introversion may stem from her upbringing. Her father, an electrical engineer in the navy, moved the family often: his daughter attended 14 schools in 12 years in three different countries. She graduated from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., in 1970 with a bachelor of applied science in mineral processing and metallurgy, one of four women in a class of 360. To broaden her skills, she went back to Queen’s for an MBA in 1976. She is married for a second time and is stepmother to two adult children.
Parkinson is a communicator who prefers directing employees with questions rather than telling them what to do. During her tenure in Fort McMurray, her knack for dealing directly with staff won the respect of many of the plant’s unionized workers, even when she slashed 400 jobs. “She faced everyone head on,” said Walter Manning, secretary treasurer of Local 707 of the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada. “She didn’t just sit in her office and write memos and say this is the way it’s going to be.” Parkinson agreed to an early retirement package for older workers and an educational incentive, including up to four years of university tuition, for younger ones.
Given her management style, her greatest challenge may be getting along with the gunslinging Bryan, who has a reputation for shooting first and asking questions later. Gulf Canada plans to be a controlling shareholder of Gulf Heavy Oil’s stock, giving it considerable sway over the company. Even so, for Parkinson the allure of creating something new is irresistible.
Carol Stephenson Stentor Resource Centre Inc. Ottawa
No. of employees: 1,000 1996 revenues: N/A
Anyone who keeps an eye on the telecommunications industry may have been surprised a few years ago when Canada’s nine regional phone companies asked Ottawa to allow competition in their local markets. After all, the industry is already suffering mightily from long-distance competition. Why ask for more?
The short answer is that the companies wanted—and got—something in return. In a ruling handed down in May, the CRTC agreed to let Bell Canada, B.C. Tel and their allies across the country into the previously protected cable television business, starting next year Behind the I daring move was 46-year-old Carol Stephenson, president and | chief executive officer of Stentor Resource Centre Inc., the alj fiance’s marketing and development arm. Stephenson counts the 1 CRTC decision among her greatest achievements. “It surprised j everyone,” says Stephenson, whose sales skills helped persuade \ the telephone companies that her plan was wise. “It was radical, I but we did it and had good results.”
Stephenson, who spent 20 years at Bell Canada before moving j to Stentor in 1993, learned the value of salesmanship from a for!
mer Bell vice-president and mentor, Owen McAleer. At one point, she put forward a proposal that her bosses rejected. “If your idea is not accepted, it was either stupid or you didn’t sell it well,” McAleer told her. “Knowing you, it was probably the second.”
Born in Petrolia, Ont., Stephenson started out as a management trainee at Bell Canada in 1973, after graduating from the University of Toronto with an honors BA. One of her early assignments was in a Toronto switching centre where there were 60 technicians, all men. During her first week on the job, I her boss never spoke to her. Finald ly, she walked into his office. "This 1 is no place for a woman,” he said, I “but since you’re here I guess we d better work on it.” Eighteen months later, he recommended her for a promotion. In retrospect, she says, it was one of the easiest jobs she ever had.
While working at Bell, Stephenson became convinced that companies had to change their managerial styles to adapt to a knowledge-based economy. Women, she believes, function well in a cooperative, team-based environment, which makes them ideally suited to today’s business world. “Hierarchy is out. From a pure business perspective, I firmly believe that if you have a diversity of views, you get a better decision.”
Joy Calkin still remembers the pained expressions on the faces of children she cared for as a young nurse in Madison, Wis. Some were the sons and daughters of parents who could not afford the medical insurance necessary to pay for basic treatment, recalls the president and CEO of Extendicare Inc., Canada’s largest long-termcare company. The sight would have moved almost any nurse, but for Calkin, compassion was not enough. The native of Kentville, N.S., set about trying to improve the health-care system. First, she returned to the University of Wisconsin, where she had earned a master’s degree in nursing, and graduated five years later with a PhD in health services administration. Then she started working with the U.S. government to bring together policy-makers and healthcare activists. “I’d had it up to here with kids dying,” says Calkin. “They wouldn’t have died in Canada.”
In 1985, Calkin returned to Canada to head the University of Calgary’s faculty of nursing. Last April, after two years as an
Joy Calkin Extendicare Inc.
No. of employees: 34,400 1996 revenues: $1.5 billion
Extendicare board member, she became president and chief executive officer of the Markham, Ont.-based company.
With government budget cuts changing the face of health care in Canada and the United States, Calkin’s experience in both countries was important to Extendicare, says deputy chairman Fred Ladly. In fact, the company generates 75 per cent of its revenues south of the border. Extendicare also put a premium on Calkin’s front-line experience: most of the company’s employees are health-care professionals, and 90 per cent are women. Says Calkin, 59: “I know what it’s like to rub backs, to work with families, to communicate with staff.”
Calkin, who has never married, combines a concern for people with hard-headed business sense. Extendicare is relying on that mixture of compassion and canniness to sustain the company’s impressive success in recent years: since Jan. 1,1996, its annual profits have doubled to $81.2 million. After only two months on the job, Calkin helped negotiate a $450-million takeover of Ohiobased Arbor Health Care Co. With a publicly traded company, she says, the bottom fine is clear. “It’s much easier to know by what star you’re navigating in the for-profit sector.” Investors hope Calkin reads their collective pulse as well as she monitored the health of her former patients.
Peggy Witte Royal Oak Mines Inc.
No. of employees: 1,300 1996 revenues: $255 million
Peggy Witte has never climbed a corporate ladder or bumped her head on a glass ceiling. Instead of elbowing her way through a crowd of male managers, the controversial founder of Royal Oak Mines Inc. simply started her own company. For Witte, 43, the choice was easy. Big corporations are rife with “backstabbing and politics,” she says. “You’re always having to prove yourself.” Entrepreneurs at publicly traded companies, in contrast, are measured by the bottom line. “People in the equity markets don’t care if you’re male or female,” she says. “They just want to make money.”
Investors are not complaining. Eight years after she launched the firm, Royal Oak ranks as one of Canada’s largest gold miners, with $255 million in revenues. ‘We like Peggy Witte,” says Normand Lamarche, a fund manager at Toronto-based Altamira Management Ltd. ‘We’ve made a lot of money from her over the years.” Witte’s uncompromising style has won her respect in the rough-and-tumble mining industry. In 1991, the Northern Miner, a trade publication, named her its “Mining Man of the Year.”
But Witte’s critics say her apparent concern for profits over people is a bad example for all CEOs—male or female. In 1992, she hired replacement workers to break a strike at the Giant gold mine in Yellowknife. As tensions mounted, a striker set off a bomb in a mine shaft, killing nine men. A week after the explosion, Witte reopened the mine. ‘We did what we had to do,” she says. But union officials and local politicians say Witte was stubborn to a fault, and that reopening the mine so quickly was insensitive.
Witte’s pugilistic approach to business has brought her head-tohead with some of the industry’s biggest players. In 1994, Witte launched a $2.2-billion hostile takeover bid for Toronto-based Lac Minerals Ltd., a company three times Royal Oak’s size. She lost out to Toronto-based Barrick Gold Corp., North America’s largest gold-mining company—but her willingness to lock horns with an industry titan boosted her standing in mining and financial circles.
In fact, Witte has never lacked for moxy. A farmer’s daughter from Fallon, Nev., she earned a master’s degree in metallurgical engineering and immigrated to Canada in 1979 to take a job with
an Ontario government research agency. Three years later, at 28, she borrowed $30,000 to start her own consulting business. Intent on starting a mining operation, she subsequently bought control of a publicly traded company, Neptune Resources. Although she was ultimately squeezed out, Witte took the $2 million she received for her shares and created Royal Oak Mines, becoming chairman, president and CEO.
As the company has grown, Witte says, her management style has changed. “I started out being very dictatorial. Everybody in head office reported to me.” Now she says she is more of a team player. “I had to learn to trust other executives so we could work out problems together.” Still, she dismisses any notion that women run their companies differently from men. “At the end of the day, the hard decisions are exactly the same.”
With family responsibilities thrown in, women executives face even tougher challenges than their male counterparts, says Witte. “Once you’re the CEO, you can afford to hire help,” she says. “But getting up that line through middle management into senior management, a lot of hard decisions have to be made.” Rather than sacrificing their family life, many women drop out of the race, she says. In her own case, Witte readily acknowledges putting career before family, and has paid a price. In 1993, after 17 years of marriage, she and her husband, Bill, an engineer, separated. They had no children.
Witte says she is still driven by the satisfaction of building something out of nothing. She points to the Kemess mine, a gold and copper property that Royal Oak is developing in northern British Columbia. “When I flew in on a ski plane and walked around, there : was nothing there,” she recalls. Three years later, “there’s a $400million mine, 700 new jobs and $100 million being generated in the B.C. economy. You stand back and say, Wow.’ ”
Witte holds up former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher as one of her heroes: “She’s straightforward and hard-nosed— kind of the way lam.” Even Witte’s enemies would agree with that.