Top of their game: Ottawa's Professional Businesswomen of the Year

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For more than three decades, the Women’s Business Network has celebrated the accomplishments of Ottawa’s most dynamic female business leaders.

The WBN will hold its annual awards gala on April 24 at the Ottawa Conference and Event Centre. In the lead up to that event, OBJ will profile recipients in the corporate, professional and entrepreneur categories.

Meet the nominees in the Professional Businesswoman of the Year category.

Melissa Clark: Wealth management bonds

Current job: Wealth adviser at RBC Dominion Securities

Hometown: Ottawa

Education: Commerce degree from Carleton University

First job: Bank teller

“It’s all about relationships.”

Melissa Clark says each of her clients has been with her for an average of 16 years.

“It lasts longer than most marriages,” she says.

While many of her colleagues have a portfolio of up to 400 customers, she works with only 100, allowing her to form close bonds.

“The good news is that I work so closely with my clients,” she says. “The bad news is I work so closely with my clients.”

Sometimes that means going to their funerals, while other times she’s there to help celebrate the birth of a grandchild.

Ms. Clark also works closely with their other advisers, like lawyers and accountants. In fact, she shares several clients with her own accountant, who nominated her for the WBN Award.

While she works for a large company, Ms. Clark says “we really do run our own practices.”

She says the bank gives her a lot of “freedom within the rules. I take my job very seriously.”

Ms. Clark’s background includes a foundation in business management. In the late 1980s, she was hired to run a personnel company and she says she took “that firm from me, a desk and a phone to $1 million in revenue and eight employees.”

It was there that she gained her first exposure to the wealth management business, but it was only a stint in corporate HR – and getting laid off – in the early 1990s that ultimately led her to a job as a wealth adviser.

It’s a career that keeps her challenged and interested.

“It’s a business that’s always evolving and changing,” she says. “There’s always something new; it’s very hard.”

Around eight years ago, she says she decided to put her business and investment experience to work in helping the community.

Since then, she’s sat on the boards of WaterCan, a charity that helps provide clean water in developing countries, and Habitat For Humanity, where she’s held several roles, including chair. She’s also led the Anglican Diocese of Ottawa’s investment committee.

Currently, she’s involved with a new Ottawa-based charity named Project TEMBO. It works to provide education and business opportunities for girls and women in Tanzania.

Helping others is a big deal for Ms. Clark.

“I believe that’s why I was put on the planet,” she says. “I do know we’re making a difference in their lives.”  – Jacob Serebrin

Tracy Corneau: Trademark Mentor

Current job: Trademark agent and partner at Borden Ladner Gervais

Hometown: Ottawa area

Education: Trained as a legal assistant at Algonquin College, continuing education at Carleton

First job: Had a paper route and babysat

“I love, not just the job, the profession.”

For the first time in more than 50 years, Canada’s Trade-marks Act is “going to be changing to a great extent,” according to Tracy Corneau. The “compelling” new legislation will have her “going out to talk to clients and explain its impacts.”

Even though the laws haven’t changed much since Ms. Corneau first became a trademark agent, other aspects of the business have.

Increasingly, she works with companies that are doing business internationally and has to “work with different countries that have different laws” when it comes to trademarks. “You get this whole global marketplace,” she says. “Those aspects weren’t quite as apparent when I first started 20 years ago.”

The amount of educational opportunities available for trademark agents has also increased.

“When I first began there wasn’t a lot of outside training,” Ms. Corneau says. Instead, most trademark agents learned on the job, at boutique intellectual property firms.

That’s changed with the Intellectual Property Institute of Canada offering classes – some of which Ms. Corneau teaches – in partnership with McGill University.

She’s also assisted newcomers to the field and was named mentor of the year in 2012 by the American International Property Law Association.

“It was important for me to be a mentor and give someone else the opportunity that I had,” she says.

Along with helping others further their education, Ms. Corneau works to improve her own. A couple of years ago, she completed the Management Development Program for Women at Carleton University’s Sprott School of Business.

“I wanted to get a better sense of management practice outside of the legal practice and legal issues,” she says. “I wanted to become a more rounded businessperson.”

Ms. Corneau also builds on her expertise by taking advantage of the opportunities available at a large firm.

“I get the benefit of tapping into the experience and expertise of our national firm,” she notes. When clients have legal issues, she can also put them in touch with the appropriate colleague. “We can do that worldwide, because we take the time to develop relationships,” she says. – Jacob Serebrin

Elaine Birchall: Ottawa’s ‘clutter coach’

Current job: Owner of Birchall Consulting

Hometown: Ottawa

Education: Master of social work from Carleton University

First job: Teaching highland dancing

“My job is to help people change their relationships with their things.”

Elaine Birchall describes herself as something of a “brain detective.”

Through her company, Birchall Consulting, she helps people who hoard.

“I absolutely love working with people on an issue in their life that gets them stuck,” she says. “Figuring out how they got there and how to get them out of it is so different from person to person.”

Ms. Birchall says her interest in helping people who hoard began when she was a social worker employed by the City of Ottawa in the early 2000s. She then helped to found the Ottawa Community Response to Hoarding Coalition, an organization of community groups that received federal funding to do some of the first Canadian research on hoarding. That led to her starting her own business in 2010.

Hoarding isn’t a new problem, she says.

“We used to call hoarders pack rats,” she says. “We have lots of names.”

She says hoarding isn’t just an issue of clutter. It’s often correlated with mental illness, can be dangerous to the hoarder themselves and may become a fire hazard.

Ms. Birchall says she does most of her work in the field.

“You have to be doing the counselling in people’s homes, where the stuff may be up around their ears,” she says.

It’s not only good therapy, it’s where Ms. Birchall wants to be.

“After working so many years in bureaucracy, I didn’t want to be stuck behind a desk being an administrator.”

While Birchall Consulting is mostly a one-person operation, Ms. Birchall also works with someone she calls a “clutter coach” on bigger jobs. Bringing in a helper allows her to focus on counselling, Ms. Birchall says.

On even bigger jobs, she’ll also bring in a “crew” to help with the cleanup.

“Everyone on the crew is someone who has had to work successfully on their own issues, so they understand the journey,” Ms. Birchall says.

While popular television shows have drawn more attention to hoarding, Ms. Birchall says they’ve also added to the stigma.

“People say, ‘I’m not a hoarder because I’m not that bad,’” she says.

Even so, 85 per cent of her clients are self-referred.

“Most people who hoard, in their quiet moments, look around and say, ‘This isn’t good,’” she says.

Because she’s a licensed social worker, private supplemental insurance plans will help to pay for her services and in many cases family members will also help provide support. She also always carries two cases pro bono.

It certainly keeps her busy. Ms. Birchall, who also works in the Greater Toronto Area, says her schedule is full six days a week. – Jacob Serebrin

Organizations: Algonquin College, Carleton University, RBC Dominion Securities WaterCan Habitat For Humanity Anglican Diocese Intellectual Property Institute of Canada McGill University American International Sprott School of Business Ottawa Community Response Hoarding Coalition

Geographic location: Ottawa, Tanzania, Canada Greater Toronto Area

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