Ms. Partner recently spoke with Fenix Solutions Inc. CEO Jennifer MacKinnon, who writes a monthly column, Ottawa Women of Wonder, to profile and celebrate local women in business.
How does a woman as busy as you find time to volunteer with so many organizations?
The saying, “if you want to get something done, ask a busy person,” is very true. The busy people are the ones who are able to find out how to get things done efficiently. And it has always been very important for me to give back. In fact, I didn’t feel like I was a complete person and completely satisfied unless I did give back. You make time for it and figure out ways to be creative with your time.
I ended up running the Stittsville Minor Hockey Association among other volunteer activities.
Where are you currently volunteering?
I am volunteering in the role of president for a not-for-profit that is about to become a charity called Face2Face. It is a project intended to capture a living history of Canada. It creates a living history by allowing everyday Canadians to record their life stories, which we will publish online for everyone to experience. Much like a story bank. It’s a way to preserve the stories of generations across the country.
Face2Face is a completely volunteer organization and has a number of wonderful people involved, including Brenda Robertson.
Tell me about Partners Inc.
I am self-employed through my company Partners Inc. And I really offer change management for my clients. I help companies change. Usually these companies want to grow but don’t know how, need to be turned around or want to go in a new direction. I usually start helping them with marketing or revenue growth and extend it from there with corporate strategies, infrastructure, and so on.
Are they startups?
Right now I am working primarily with two very different startups in tech. They are fascinatingly different. Both are about $50 million in size; one is public the other is private; one is in massive turnaround mode and the other is in steady growth mode. In both cases I am able to contribute because my experience tends to be in the small to medium-size business and in high-growth areas and startups.
I am also working with two associations. This broadness teaches me things I didn’t know which I can use for my clients.
Tell me about your career history.
I started at Gandalf years ago as a sales analyst and ended up in sales management. It was a high-growth startup.
From there I went to First Mark Technologies, which we sold.
I then went to TMI Communications which was a satellite division of BCE and that was a $500 million startup because they were launching a satellite. I started in marketing and ended up as the vice-president of sales and marketing.
I had a great mentor while there named Bob Ferchat who is one of my heroes. He was the former CEO of Nortel and Bell Mobility. He was really responsible for me taking that step into the executive ranks at TMI.
I then went to Caravelle as CEO. I was recruited by Mike Potter of Cognos. The company was in complete turnaround mode. We turned it around in two years and sold it quite successfully.
You were recruited directly by Mike Potter?
Had you met him prior to him recruiting you?
I don’t remember. Since then we have become quite good friends.
That’s a lot of responsibility to come in as CEO to a floundering company. The onus is on you, and you didn’t say no!
I never occurred to me to say no. But given my personality, my thinking at the time was “of course I can do it. I can figure it out.”
I wasn’t doing it by myself; I had a team, a board (and) Mike Potter. How can you go wrong having Mike Potter advising you?
It was such an exciting opportunity. And when Mike Potter calls with this type of challenge you are excited and you immediately say yes. He constructed a great team it wasn’t all left to me.
So it sold successfully within two years.
Yes. And since we sold it successfully I was able to start my first “real” startup. I was able to go to the same Caravelle investors and got funding for my Got Marketing initiative. I worked on that for a number of years until my husband was bedridden with a serious back injury, and I couldn’t keep up my work pace.
I then went to In-Touch Survey Systems. I went in to help them with marketing, ended up helping them develop their business plan and then accepted the role of president. It was fun because it was a public company. It fit my niche: small, high-growth, struggling slightly and very exciting.
Do you network well?
Here’s the funny thing. I always thought I was well-connected and networked well. But when it came time to start my own company (Partners Inc.) I realized that you’re only as good as the last time you communicated with someone. Other people won’t think of you otherwise. So I had to learn to sell myself for service, which was much more difficult than selling products or the companies I worked with.
How long have you been doing Partners Inc.?
I’ve always had Partners Inc. And I focus on it when I am not actively participating in another company. And what I’ve learned is that the distinction between employee and contractor isn’t as severe as it once was. Many organizations are inviting contractors, often long term, into their workplace and I think this keeps people on their toes. The concept of employee/employer is shifting.
People who come and go essentially are working for themselves. And they must always demonstrate their value to the organization, because they want to come back. They know if they do a good job they will get asked back. Think of (Washington Capitals captain Alexander) Ovechkin, who got millions in his contract. Suddenly his performance changed. The idea of always being at your best in order to impress and deliver is a very success based model.
What is your education?
I have a Bachelor of Commerce degree from the University of Ottawa.
Did you know in school that you wanted to run your business?
I just knew that I wanted to do stuff. I can’t say I knew at that time I would start my own company; I always knew I would run a company. But I look at everything as an opportunity and am excited by opportunities and challenges.
When I was younger, I stumbled on a number of opportunities and as they arose I would think “Wow, that seems like fun/challenging/interesting.” I got lucky throughout my career; the challenges came up and I would take the opportunity. And that would lead to something else. That’s how I moved along in my career.
People like to work with people who can get things done. Because I am someone who gets things done I think that played a large part in being recruited for opportunities to run companies, sit on boards, act as president and so on.
Do you have a network of other women you connect with?
I have it now through CanWIT, but I can’t actually say I had it throughout my career. But I did find mentors serendipitously who helped me immensely in my career. Looking back, I may have actively looked for a mentor throughout my career if I were to do it again.
I struggle with the fact that there aren’t enough women running companies. I think some people are wired to believe anything is possible and they just start doing. They understand there are risks and there may be mistakes but they will still go ahead. It doesn’t stop them. It’s the belief that says “do it.”
Do you mentor?
Yes, and I love it. It’s not formal mentoring but rather through people I have met either throughout my work, volunteering or boards. I find a lot of companies don’t recognize that the generation of youth coming out of school now is really different from those of us with 20 years’ experience. Their cultural differences and things they have been exposed to are so different. Their perspective is truly unique and valuable to companies. I am trying to encourage more organizations to embrace youth. Take these young people, help them grow and realize their potential is important to me. Just help them.
I am part of a formal program through Telfer where I member a student. And I do e-mentoring through CanWIT. It’s valuable and important to me.
Do they accept your advice?
Yes. Although sometimes I sit down with them and say “you should challenge me back.” Don’t agree with everything I’ve said; it may not be right. Challenging them is important to me.
Tell me about your kids.
I have two boys, aged 18 and 20.
Do your boys realize how successful their mom is?
I don’t think they really knew until my oldest son was looking for a co-op work placement while in university. He had turned down my offer to help him, and I was proud of that. But he quickly realized that everywhere he went someone knew me!
My son recently asked me to start a web business with him. It is the best feeling on the planet to have him ask me to participate. It is a highlight of my parenting the day he came and asked me to join him.
Was it hard to balance family and work?
I struggled a lot early on trying to be a good mom, and realizing that I am a better mom because I work. But every moment of my spare time was spent with my kids. My son and I have paddled the Nahanni River in the Northwest Territories together. My kids and I have skied every mountain in North America together. We’ve camped; anything you can do with them is important.
I have a vision of a workplace where everyone in the world is a contractor, and thus, they are able to work as much or as little as they need to create a good life for themselves. Meaning they have the time to spend with the family, travel or do whatever their passions are. And if our financial standards came down to a reasonable level, then I think the world would be a better place. If we could have more flexibility in our work life we would be happier. It is hard to do 9-to-5 Monday to Friday, and maybe there is a better/different way.
I share that vision. Let’s implement it!
I don’t think that when I was younger, perhaps 30, that this concept was so important to me. So, I wonder if it would work for everyone. It took me having a family and getting older to realize the value of free time and family time.
How do you spend your free time?
I volunteer a lot. There are a tonne of excellent organizations to get involved with.
And I do a lot of sports.
I play hockey; I just recently started. I also do martial arts, ski and do white water canoeing.
It is important to stay healthy for your kids. If you won’t do it for yourself then stay in shape and stay healthy for them.
You seem like you have lots of energy.
I do have a lot of energy, I am blessed with that.
Quick Facts: I play hockey, I am terrified of heights and I would have had seven kids if I had all the money in the world.