How a Newfoundland entrepreneur grew her business from 50 to 750 employees in 15 years
Anne Whelan’s success as an entrepreneur is nothing short of astonishing. In 15 years, she quickly expanded and diversified the Newfoundland-based home-care business she took over from her mother in 2002, growing from 50 employees to 750.
Her St. John’s-based holding company, Seafair Capital, is now comprised of 10 businesses, and its annual revenues have ranged from $30 million to $50 million in recent years. Her businesses include the original home-care business, CareGivers, along with a fire-safety company, a skin-care clinic and a restaurant.
Whelan also chairs the board of Newfoundland Power, sits on BDC’s Board of Directors and was named one of Canada’s 100 most powerful women by the Women’s Executive Network of Canada in 2016.
A veteran entrepreneur with 15 years of experience, Whelan shares these six lessons for success.
1. Always think about what’s next
Whelan’s secret to her rapid business growth: always looking ahead to the next opportunity. “I’m always thinking about what’s next,” she says.
“Those who know me say I’m always moving. I always try to find ways to say ‘yes’ when I see a demand, including when the service is difficult to provide. Once a project is going, I’m already on to the next project. My job as a business leader is to find the next project.”
2. Empower your team to do what you’re not good at
Whelan’s approach succeeds largely because she also relies on a second, equally important strategy: trusting and investing in her team. “I don’t wash my hands of a project once it’s up and running,” she says.
“I make sure I get really talented people to execute it. It’s more than delegating. It’s realizing your strengths and weaknesses and empowering others to do what you’re not good at. You have to invest to get the right people. This has been instrumental to our growth.”
It’s an important lesson in an area that poses challenges for many entrepreneurs, who can be reluctant to give up decision-making in their business.
3. Step outside your business to see what others do
Faced with a difficult setback several years ago, Whelan had another important realization about her approach to business leadership.
In 2013, her business suffered a pair of blows. Just as the Newfoundland economy was taking a tumble, the provincial government cut back on home-care contracts for Whelan’s CareGivers business. The impact on her bottom line was severe. “We were trying to figure out if we were going to be growing in six months or were we going to be closed,” she told The Financial Post in a 2017 interview.
Luckily, Whelan had already realized that her business was overly reliant on government contracts and had started to diversify. That shift helped her weather the hard times and eventually return to growth.
The experience taught Whelan the importance of stepping outside her business to work on the company’s longer-term vision and strategy. “I was so busy running the business that I never looked around to see what others were doing,” she says. “I found myself just steering the ship without thinking about the journey we were on.”
4. Build a network of advisors
Around this time, Whelan also started to expand her circle of business contacts, attending business workshops and professional development opportunities for women entrepreneurs and developing a network that she could approach for advice.
She’s now a member of a dozen business associations and an equal number of volunteer boards and committees. Besides giving back to the community, all these contacts helped improve her business skills.
“I wish I had done a better job of building a network of advisors earlier on,” she says. “Getting more outside advice earlier would have allowed me to scale faster and with less pain. I learned this way too late.”
5. Show up. Shake hands. It really helps.
“When people ask ‘What’s your one piece of advice,’ I say, ‘Show up.’ Go to business association meetings, the chamber of commerce. Shake hands. It can be awkward at first. But even if you have a very small business, it’s extremely helpful,” says Whelan.
It’s advice she believes can resonate especially well with women entrepreneurs. “Women tend to be good entrepreneurs because they have a collaborative way of working. Having those relationship skills is very valuable.”
6. Own your path. Be the change.
Whelan says women are still underrepresented in leadership positions and face biases in the business world. “Women who are decisive and hard-nosed have different words applied to them than men,” she says. “We don’t say men are bossy. We say they are strong and powerful, while women are said to be ambitious.”
She advises women in business to be unafraid of being ambitious. “It’s important that you own your path. Be the change,” she says. “Getting a seat at the senior levels will help remove those structural biases. The more women embrace the role of CEO and business owner, the more that is going to help Canada be a nation of entrepreneurs.”