Growing up in Chicago in the 1970s, Karen Sheriff was the apple of her father’s eye. As high school graduation approached, she struggled over the choice of which university to attend, when her father weighed into the debate.
“What’s the difference?” he asked in an exasperated burst, explaining that Ms. Sheriff was probably going to find a man, get married and stay home in any case.
It was intended to be helpful, but the comment left her “thunderstruck,” she recalls. She eventually shrugged it off , concluding that “it wasn’t personal – it was generational.”
She chose a life that, indeed, included a husband and children, but also a winding, unpredictable career path that carried her to Canada, and to one of the most demanding jobs in this country’s communications industry.
Ms. Sheriff, now 54, has never followed the prescribed map – least of all in her current role as president and chief executive officer of Bell Aliant Inc., the once-lethargic, former monopoly telephone carrier in Atlantic Canada that she aims to propel back on the growth path.
It means injecting a culture of urgency into this sister company of Bell Canada, arming it to take on powerful Rogers Communications Inc., and the fast-rising home team, Halifax-based Eastlink, owned by Nova Scotia’s Bragg Family.
What’s more, she is building this turnaround story on the humble telephone pole, on which she aims to deliver television and an array of broadband services by taking fibre-optic networks right to customers’ homes.
Aliant is still trying to climb out of a rut of stagnant or declining sales, but Ms. Sheriff likes her chances – while backing away from the comment of one Atlantic businessman that she is starting to “kick the crap” out of rivals. “We’re competing much harder than we’ve ever competed, and I suspect they’re feeling it,” she says over a lunch of Cobb salad at a Keg restaurant in midtown Toronto.
All of this makes Ms. Sheriff one of Canada’s most influential female executives, although she is not the type to get carried away by accolades – or setbacks. She still sees herself as one of life’s worker bees, who keeps her head down, and treats every job as a learning experience.
After the wounding comment from her father, she never asked him again for school advice, but years later, they could joke about it, as she was balancing her family life with her steady rise through the ranks of Corporate America and Canada.
She came to adulthood at a turning point in history. Before her, there were few female role models in the executive suite. Just out of university, she joined the ultimate old boy’s club, United Airlines, where the only female senior manager was in charge of the flight attendants.
The 1970s and its social and sexual revolutions changed that, moving ambitious women into the corridors of power. Now, the coming generation of female managers, she says, can approach their corporate lives as business people first and women second.
“But there are problems women have, which they like to talk about to other women – and so, as a senior woman, you become a magnet and a role model.”
Ms. Sheriff likes to eat at the Keg in Toronto’s Yonge-Eglinton area because it is close to her office. Part of the job description in taking the Bell Aliant job in 2008 was that she could continue to live in Toronto, her home since moving from Chicago 12 years ago.
She commutes every other week to Aliant’s head office in Halifax, but the Toronto location makes some logistical sense, given Aliant’s status as one of Canada’s most ungainly companies.
Formed by a merger of Atlantic phone companies, the company’s current operating agreement with 44-per-cent owner BCE Inc. gives it the land-line business in Atlantic Canada. But BCE’s Bell Canada subsidiary gets the wireless side – although Aliant can cross-sell Bell’s mobility services. And the Halifax company has the land-line business in northern Quebec and Ontario – a territory spanning big parts of the two provinces, roughly extending from Muskoka to the Arctic Circle.
Thus, Toronto is not as remote as it seems – not when Aliant’s latest marketing push is to take its “Fibre to the Home” service to the streets of Sudbury.
When first presented with Aliant’s far-flung geography, Ms. Sheriff was not impressed but now geography is her friend. In the rocky Canadian Shield where she operates, transmission networks have to be aerial, not earth-bound. It is less expensive to put the fibre on telephone poles than to dig, “and the vast majority of my network is on poles,” she points out.
In Aliant’s thrust to be among the first carriers to take fibre to the home, she says “the asset base, the geography and the network make that feasible.”
Telephone poles were not on her mind growing up in Chicago, where her father ran a manufacturing company and her mother was a college-educated housewife who opened a shop as the kids got older.
After shifting her focus to marketing from finance in MBA school, she ended up with United Airlines, where she landed a team-leadership role at just 27. At the airline, she held eight marketing jobs in 10 years. Only one could be considered a promotion, but each taught her something valuable.
“Some of our early job experiences are like dating – it helps you figure out what you don’t like,” she says.
When telecom carrier Ameritech beckoned, she jumped ship, coming under the guidance of Dick Notebaert, Ameritech’s Montreal-born CEO. In the telecom couplings of the 1990s, Ameritech acquired a 20-per-cent interest in Bell Canada, and she was one of two Ameritech executives who headed north to take senior jobs in the Bell system.
She joined Bell as head of product development, eventually becoming a dual citizen. When Ameritech became absorbed in a difficult merger, Mr. Notebeart advised her to stay out of the fray by remaining in Canada. “It was supposed to be a two-year thing, and that was 12 years ago,” she laughs.
In time, George Cope, the chief executive officer of BCE, as well as Aliant chairman, offered her the top job in the Halifax-based affiliate. “I wasn’t jumping up and down for joy,” she admits. “This didn’t look exciting. It looked painful because of the commuting. And it wasn’t at all what I had in mind.”
But typical of Ms. Sheriff, she took a big breath and jumped in. “The more I dug into it, I actually thought ‘This could be a lot of fun,’ and ‘It would be interesting to actually run my own show.’ ”
With her direct manner, it is hard to believe that Ms. Sheriff was painfully shy as a young girl. She is admired now for being a non-nonsense leader – and yet some managers find her intimidating. It would be easy to dismiss this as the double standard facing smart, assertive women, but she agrees “it is always something I need to watch.”
As a young mother in a hurry with a lot of home duties, she had little time for preliminary small talk on the job. When this was identified as a career barrier, she went to a coach who counselled, “Karen, just take 60 seconds to establish some rapport. Like, slow down, for God’s sake.”
She is much better at that now, she says, but Karen Sheriff is still very much a woman in a hurry. In the race to dominate communications markets in rural and Atlantic Canada, she is determined Bell Aliant will be the carrier that cuts to the chase.
Born in Chicago, Feb. 8, 1958
BA in psychology, economics and mathematics, Washington University, St. Louis (1979)
MBA, marketing and finance, University of Chicago, 1984
Commutes between Toronto home and apartment in Halifax.
Husband is retired.
Two children, a boy and girl, are in university.
Grew up with a love of art and math.
Studied metalsmithing and jewellery-making in university.
Chairwoman, board of trustees, Gardiner Museum of ceramic art, Toronto.
She and her husband collect glass sculpture.
She unwinds at her family place in Arizona where “I love the big sky and the sunshine.”
ON HER BOOKSHELF
An omnivorous reader, she devours fiction and history. Favourite books include The Help, by Kathryn Stockett, and Team of Rivals, by Doris Kearns Goodwin.
Editor's note: The date Karen Sheriff earned an MBA from the University of Chicago has been corrected in this online story.