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Maureen Sabia
Maureen Sabia

The Lunch

Maureen Sabia: She means business Add to ...

Maureen Sabia is on a diet of protein and strict self-discipline.

The first of these, an eating regimen that consists mainly of meat and fish, has allowed her to shed 10 pounds in six weeks. The second – the self-discipline – is a lifelong habit. Ms. Sabia preaches and practises a life of extreme structure, self-restraint and hard work, propelling her to the head of the boardroom table at Canadian Tire, one of the country’s most iconic retail chains. In the process, she has become one of just a handful of women to hold such a position at a major Canadian public company.

From the Lunch archive

Ms. Sabia has no concept of work-life balance. She never got married, though she was engaged once and broke it off. She never wanted children. She doesn’t take holidays.

Her obsession with hard work and getting ahead wasn’t compatible with finding a life partner, but it helped her land jobs at established organizations and seats on prestigious boards. That intensity began early in her career, playing a part in getting her through law school in the 1960s as one of just three women among 300 at the University of Toronto.

But even as she smashes through glass ceilings in an array of male-dominated domains, she stubbornly holds on to contrarian views. Case in point: She refuses to be addressed by the gender-neutral title of “chairperson” or “chair,” insisting instead on being called “chairman.”

“It’s an office of the corporation,” says Ms. Sabia, as she winds down during a catered buffet of baked salmon and salads in a Canadian Tire boardroom. It’s just a few doors away from her more expansive top-floor office, which has a flawless south-facing view of the city.

“If we had a female CEO we wouldn’t call her ‘president-ess.’ I object to ‘chairperson’ and ‘chair.’ I’m not a piece of furniture … I’m a traditionalist.”

Clad in a silk and linen Donna Karan suit, the 70-year-old looks trim and proper as she savours the quinoa and bulgur salad with mixed vegetables. But she’s a study in paradoxes: Ms. Sabia is a modern woman with an all-consuming work life (she sits on a number of government and other advisory bodies), but reverts to an earlier day for important events, slipping on long kid gloves and one of her dozens of hats. She sports an elegant double-strand of pearls, but also a pair of pointy-toed Prada stilettos adorned with a splash of a Picasso print.

Influenced by her late mother, Laura Sabia, a high-profile feminist, and her surgeon father, Michael, she comes from a high-achieving, close-knit family that had lofty expectations of her and her three siblings. She swaps advice with brother Michael, who is chief executive officer of the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, the province’s pension fund manager.

In June, Ms. Sabia was named to the Order of Canada for supporting the advancement of women in business and bolstering corporate governance. It runs in the family – her mother got the honour in 1974. Despite being raised in an environment that championed women, the younger Sabia was still exposed to sexist attitudes over the years. Even in applying to Harvard law school, she recalls, an assistant dean of admissions told her he didn’t think he could give her “a place that belonged to a man because I didn’t look like I’d ever have to earn my own living.”

Yet Ms. Sabia opposes quotas for women and says her mother was also “horrified” by such forced equality. She prefers Margaret Thatcher’s brand of can-do feminism. At her board table, only two of the 16 Canadian Tire directors are women – she and her friend and confidante, Martha Billes, who is controlling shareholder of the company and daughter of one of its founding brothers. In an odd twist, Ms. Sabia got her own seat on the board in 1985 after Ms. Billes specifically looked for women in a bid to assert herself in a male corporate bastion.

“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.

______

CURRICULUM VITAE

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

Favourite pastime: Reading. Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged (“my little bible” that sits on her bedside table for inspiration). Loves English mysteries and biographies; recently read ones on the Queen Mother and Frank Sinatra, one of her favourite singers.

Career highlights

• Began career with the Ontario Securities Commission.

• Assistant counsel to the Ontario Law Reform Commission and later director of research and policy and solicitor to the board of OMERS.

• Worked for Canadian Pacific; served as general counsel for Redpath Industries.

• Has run her own consulting practice since 1986, advising on organizational and strategy issues.

• Appointed chairman of Canadian Tire Corp. in March, 2007, after serving as chairman of the audit committee; director of Canadian Tire Bank.

• Has been director of O&Y Properties Corp.; Gulf Canada Resources Ltd.; Hollinger Inc.; Skyjack Inc.; and Laurentian General Insurance Co.

- Appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada in June, 2011, for her role in supporting the advancement of women in the corporate sector, and for strengthening corporate governance.

______

IN HER OWN WORDS

On the need for change at Canadian Tire:

“I’m an impatient person. I always wanted to move faster than is probably more prudent to move.”

On work:

“I don’t do much else except work because I’m a work freak … I’m not sure what else I’d do with my life if I didn’t work. I don’t have this balanced approach to life … I think it’s in my upbringing.”

On her siblings and family life:

“We were brought up with a huge sense of responsibility that you had to achieve … If you worked hard enough and you were smart enough, there was no end to what you could achieve.”

On her advice to other women:

“Life is more complicated for women. Discipline is a tool that can help you navigate those complexities.”

On feminism:

“The feminist movement of recent times – not my mother’s brand – told women they could have everything, they could have it all. Nobody can have it all. Life is choices.”

On men:

“I met lots of men in my life that I would have thought about marrying … I never spent enough time at it and I should have. When you’re younger and trying to get ahead and working on your career, if you’re me - that’s more important. At a time when I should have been nurturing these relationships, I didn’t.”

On having children:

“It’s a scary responsibility. It’s not like a new BMW in the driveway. Kids are for life. I had to make choices. I don’t like to do things by half-measure.”

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