“We don’t work in percentages here,” Ms. Sabia says, sipping from a glass of tomato gazpacho garnished with basil sprouts. “We work on the right people for the right jobs … Quotas, as far as I’m concerned, are insulting to women. I think feminism got hijacked by the left.”
At the same time, she uses numbers to point out that 30 per cent of Canadian Tire’s top VPs, and 35 per cent of associate VPs, are women. She’s searching for more females for her board and expects to find one soon.
Her board seat has given her a unique vantage point at Canadian Tire over 26 years, longer than any other director – except Ms. Billes – and any other executive. Over that time, the company survived a very public battle for control, the 1994 arrival of U.S. discount titan Wal-Mart Stores Inc., power struggles among mighty franchise-like store owners, and the juggling of an ever more complex web of businesses, including a full-fledged bank. Soon, it will start absorbing its about-to-be acquired Forzani Group Ltd., the sporting goods purveyor.
Now the retailer has reached another juncture as it faces what could be its biggest challenge yet: the 2013 launch in Canada of savvy U.S. discounter Target Corp.
“We were counted out when Wal-Mart came to town,” Ms. Sabia says. “They said, ‘Ah, end of Canadian Tire.’ Well, Canadian Tire is still alive and kicking fairly successfully. We will respond to the challenges. Don’t count us out.”
Ms. Sabia’s ties to Ms. Billes hasn’t hurt her staying power at the merchant. They talk on the phone at least two or three times a week, mostly about business, and Ms. Billes leans on Ms. Sabia for advice. “Martha never, never managed the company … That’s part of her strength.”
To strengthen corporate governance on her board, she encourages directors and management to work more closely together, promoting candid discussion. She takes the lead, arriving at the office at 7 a.m., four days a week, in time to catch up with CEO Stephen Wetmore. She usually spends a full day in the office – sometimes longer – calling directors, combing through reports and organizing meetings and working dinners, often catered by Daniel et Daniel, which also caters our lunch. As well, she tends to other matters linked to her non-Canadian Tire duties.
Her biggest challenge was having to persuade fellow directors to accept her as chairman in 2007. “I’m a control freak and they knew that,” she laughs. “That was a challenge I had to overcome and I worked hard to overcome that. I consulted everybody about it. I began to behave in a way that was sensitive to these concerns … I don’t think there’s a week that goes by that I’m not talking to three or four directors about whatever the issue may be.”
Nevertheless, her boardroom skills didn’t help her in 2003 when she resigned as an independent director from the Hollinger Inc. board in the wake of the Conrad Black fiasco. His wife, Barbara Amiel, a former schoolmate of Ms. Sabia, had recommended her as a director. Today, Ms. Sabia waves away mention of the subject. “I have no comments to make on Hollinger or the assorted individuals associated therewith.”
Still, jostling to keep lines of communication open and arrange meetings and meals fits with her need to keep a firm grip on situations. Even her diet is part of that mentality. “I decided I was going to be more in control.”
Finishing her meal, she turns that control toward her dessert - carefully scooping the raspberries from a tart.
“Discipline!” she later explains.
Born: April 14, 1941, in Montreal.
High-achieving family: Her late mother Laura Sabia, a feminist, was appointed to the Order of Canada in 1974; father Michael was a surgeon; brother Michael is former CEO of BCE and now head of Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, the province’s pension fund manager; two sisters.
Education: Honours BA in English and history, McGill University. Law degree, University of Toronto