Top of their game: Ottawa's Entrepreneur 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 Entrepreneur Businesswoman of the Year category.

Carolyn Bickerton: Diving in

Current job: Owner of Purewater Home and Leisure

Hometown: Manotick

Education: Master’s degree in Spanish literature

First job: Manotick Gifts and Stationery

“They expected to see a guy in a suit; they got a woman in painter’s overalls.”

Purewater Total Home Leisure has always been a family business. Carolyn Bickerton has owned the company since 1994, when she and her husband bought it from her mother, who founded it in 1985.

One of the first things she did was change the name from Manotick Pool And Spa to Purewater.

“We wanted something that wasn’t geographically limited,” she says.

It was part of a larger plan to take the business citywide. Since then, it’s gone from being a two-person operation to a company that employs more than 30 people.

Ms. Bickerton says she tries to combine the best elements of being a family business with sound corporate-style practices.

“We don’t have a big hierarchy,” she says, but at the same time, “we’re big believers in having systems and procedures, solid business practices.”

Part of this involves helping younger employees develop their skills as sales professionals. Ms. Bickerton says she “loves to see” when a summer staff member “grows into a full salesman” and makes a career in the pool business.

Part of what attracts her to pool and hot tub sales is what she describes as the “constant renewal.”

“We go through a very busy season and work very hard,” she says, but as things reach their slowest point in the winter, the samples for next year’s pools and hot tubs arrive “and it feels like spring, even though it’s minus 40 outside. There’s something about that cycle.”

That’s not the only thing that draws her to the pool business, Ms. Bickerton says – she also likes the fact that she has “to wear a lot of hats.”

She enjoys interacting with customers, along with the more technical aspects of service and installation.

But like many other businesses, the pool sales and services space is changing. Ms. Bickerton says the business is “more competitive than it ever was,” with many people shopping online.

“It forces a brick-and-mortar store to get better and better,” she says.

Service has always been a big part of the offering at the business; Ms. Bickerton says her mother, who has a PhD in biochemistry, always focused on educating customers.

“She’s now 82 and can still fix anything,” says Ms. Bickerton. – Jacob Serebrin

Terri Storey: The business of caring

Current job: Founder and president of Terrace Youth Residential Services

Hometown: Woodstock, Ont.

Education: B.A. in psychology from Queen’s University; graduate studies in community psychology at Wilfrid Laurier University

First job: Worked at a camp for children

“We believe that youth need the right help at the right time.”

When Terri Storey was 24 years old, she opened a residential treatment home for girls who had been sexually abused.

“It wasn’t a career I planned for,” says Ms. Storey, who originally wanted to be a teacher. But that treatment home was a success.

“We did it so differently from everyone else and we did it well,” she says.

Part of her advantage was that she didn’t know what other people were doing wrong.

“I hadn’t worked in a group home for long. I wasn’t burnt out by the system,” she says.

Now, 15 years later, her private, for-profit company runs 11 homes across the province, 30 foster care beds and two school programs. Her company has a staff of more than 110 people, growth that required careful planning.

“As you get larger, the overhead gets larger,” she says. Roughly 70 per cent of the company’s budget is eaten up by staffing costs.

With ever-changing government priorities, Ms. Storey says she’s had to diversify.

“We offer a one-stop shop for agencies,” she says. Staying on top of her business means not only watching trends and legislation but also maintaining strong relationships with government agencies.

“We need them to trust us to make the right decisions, even when we make mistakes,” she says.

Ms. Storey adds she’s also expanding into areas beyond the scope of child protection agencies and is currently in the process of opening a wellness centre for young people.

Even though she mostly serves as a manager, Ms. Storey notes that she works closely with psychiatrists and the directors of her group homes and stays on top of challenging cases. She also talks to the young people in her company’s care.

“I want to hear them,” she says. “Their voice is the most important.”

While Terrace is a business, and one that Ms. Storey takes seriously, she doesn’t always think of it that way.

“I always wanted to take care of people … ever since I can remember,” she says. – Jacob Serebrin

Elizabeth Kilvert: A slippery slope

Current job: Owner of The Unrefined Olive

Hometown: Halifax

Education: Studied international development and marine biology at Dalhousie University; currently studying for a master’s degree in gastronomic tourism.

First job: Worked at the Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History

“When you start a small business, it takes so much time and energy. If it’s rooted in passion, it makes it worthwhile to work so hard.”

Specializing exclusively in olive oil and balsamic vinegar, The Unrefined Olive isn’t like most other businesses in Ottawa. But then again, its owner, Elizabeth Kilvert, hasn’t had a particularly conventional career trajectory.

She studied international development and marine biology and spent 10 years in the federal civil service before opening the store nearly a year and a half ago.

While her products aren’t made in Ottawa, Ms. Kilvert says she’s a big supporter of local businesses and tries to form partnerships and jointly promote her wares with her peers who “are producing complementary products.”

She also looked locally when she fitted out her store. Her dishware, furniture and lights come from local small businesses and artisans.

Ms. Kilvert says she’s even found ways to collaborate with a neighbouring knife store, Knifewear, performing cooking demonstrations in which food is cut with her neighbour’s knives and served with her oils and vinegars.

A big part of what sets the store apart is the fact that customers can sample everything on offer.

“I have over 60 different products (and) you can taste everything,” she says.

She describes olive oil as an “affordable luxury” and says there are some similarities to wine.

“You can get a bottle of wine for $7 or $700,” she says. “If people can taste it, they’ll understand. It’s a very honest way to sell things.”

She says the tastings also give her a chance to engage with her customers and talk about how olive oil isn’t just “absolutely delicious,” but also has health benefits and is grown in a sustainable manner, something she’s been interested in since university.

“How many things hit all those marks?” Ms. Kilvert asks.

And, she points out, interest is growing in the products she sells.

In the past two years, sales of olive oil have seen “800 per cent growth in North America.”

“Olive oil and balsamic vinegar make a lot of sense,” she says. – Jacob Serebrin

Organizations: Wilfrid Laurier University, Dalhousie University, Museum of Natural History

Geographic location: Ottawa, Queen, Nova Scotia North America

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