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Wendy McDonald died of lung cancer on Dec. 30, 2012. (Dave Roels)
Wendy McDonald died of lung cancer on Dec. 30, 2012. (Dave Roels)

ENTREPRENEUR, 90

Wendy McDonald was an indomitable force in Canadian business Add to ...

In August, 1950, Robert MacPherson was flying from Vancouver to the summer place when, experiencing a mechanical glitch, he tried to land his single-engine plane at Point Roberts. It crashed and he was killed instantly. His 28-year-old widow had little time to mourn: She needed the company’s cash flow to raise the four children she now had, and she took over the reins of management.

After she restored some order – Robert had been a messy manager with a lot of little deals – she got the company back on track. As a regional distributor, she needed the support of big European bearings manufacturers, such as Timken, SKF and FAG, which deployed networks of outfits like BC Bearing to get their products into the hands of clients.

To reassure these suppliers, she embarked on a European tour, setting up appointments under the name “W.B. MacPherson.” The companies would book lunch or dinner at exclusive male clubs and, when “W.B.” finally arrived, Wendy would enjoy watching them scramble to undo their reservations.

She reassured her suppliers that she intended to stay in business, but when she returned to Vancouver, one of her managers was attempting a coup. “He thought that it was time that I went out and played golf and looked after the children,” she recalled in a 1999 interview.

But she meant to run the place, and fired the rebellious manager. He eventually set up a rival shop, bidding for customers and drawing away branch managers and key employees. “I was fighting for my life,” she said.

At one point, she was close to a breakdown, dealing at home with a six-week-old child who was born prematurely. But she didn’t give up. She recruited new blood and hired a couple newly arrived from Britain to look after her household. She managed to keep key suppliers and customers on board, winning them over with a personable style that would be her strength.

Throughout this tough period, she was spending time with a charming young widower named Bill Dix, a top manager at Neon Products, a West Coast sign company. He became her second husband, and brought two children to the union, plus another they had together. In Mr. Dix, Wendy found the love of her life, someone who shared her sociability and zest.

On Valentine’s Day in 1957, Mr. Dix was entertaining some colleagues at Halfmoon Bay, while Wendy was back home in Vancouver’s British Properties spending time with their wives. Sam Cromie, assistant publisher at the Vancouver Sun, happened to be at a nearby cottage, and he and Mr. Dix decided to head out by themselves to test-drive a new boat. The next morning, the two men were discovered missing. Mr. Cromie’s body washed ashore; Mr. Dix’s was never found.

As she always did, Wendy pulled herself together, and the business was a welcome distraction. She drove BC Bearing’s growth in the hot resources economy of the 1960s and 1970s, providing the bearings that made machines work faster and more efficiently.

She was a role model but never put herself forward as a feminist, says Janet Austin, CEO of the YWCA Metro Vancouver and a colleague on the Board of Trade. Ms. Austin describes Mrs. McDonald as “a practical feminist” who was interested not in rhetoric and theory, but in real-life action. “She understood the challenges women face in balancing work and life and being taken seriously in a male-dominated world.”

In the 1960s, she married again, this time to mining promoter Syd McDonald, but it didn’t work. They separated in 1966, and he died soon after. In interviews, she was reluctant to discuss the marriage or his death, but she took his three children under her wing.

That was the end of marriage for Wendy McDonald. There would be male companions, but she never tied the knot again. It had been all too difficult. Above all, she had survived. “Every event makes you stronger,” she said.

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