Esther De Wolde is the co-founder and CEO of retractable screen company Phantom Screens, based Abbotsford, B.C.
I was born in Vancouver and raised on a dairy farm in Abbotsford, B.C., as the youngest of four adopted children. My mother was a Dutch immigrant and my father was the son of Dutch immigrants.
I wanted to be a veterinarian growing up. I love animals and was surrounded by them as a kid. We had a dog, cats and horses on the family farm. I didn’t get into pre-vet at UBC. Too much goofing around in high school. My math marks were still high. I ended up getting a financial management diploma at the British Columbia Institute of Technology and then became a chartered professional accountant.
My first job after school was in public practice. While out for a client, I was offered a job to become director of finance for Panago Pizza (formerly known as Panagopoulos). My bosses at Panago, a Panago colleague, Wayne Nelson, and I co-founded Phantom Screens in 1992. We worked 15-hour days at both companies to launch Phantom Screens. In 1994, I went over to Phantom Screens full time.
It was a big leap leaving Panago. It was a well-recognized brand in B.C., but I saw that Phantom had such global potential and I got to start it, which was so fun. It was that challenge of starting something from nothing.
My business partners and I share the same Christian faith. We knew whatever company we ran it had to honour God by making life better for not just our customers but we also had to enhance the lives of our employees and vendors. We also wanted to pay it forward as we take our social citizenship responsibility very seriously.
Selling retractable screens is fun, especially when they are a novel product like ours. Our retractable screens are still a show stopper at home shows. We are selling a product that helps make life better by allowing people to bring the outdoors in or immersing themselves with the outdoors in a way they never could.
When we started out, there were four employees, including myself and my business partner Wayne, and we sold about 500 screens a year operating out of a one-car garage in a residential area of Abbotsford. Today we have 174 employees and a 95,000-square-foot facility in Abbotsford and ship worldwide from here.
The transition from a founder mentality to an executive-led company has been a really interesting journey for me. I’ve always said to the board, ‘if this company outgrows me and I’m not the first to see that, you need to be honest with me. We need to bring in a hired gun.’ Thankfully, I’ve worked extremely hard to remain an executive at the top. It’s a challenge.
We created a seven-member board about three years ago. I wanted a board so that I would be held accountable. I've been pretty good at being self-accountable, but I was seeing what was happening in other effective boards in corporate America and it made me a bit jealous. Call me a sucker for punishment, but I wanted to be pushed and challenged.
The board challenged me to really dig deep and think about why something failed, not just write off the whole thing. That was really healthy. The board also validates decisions. It’s confidence-building, to be validated.
I would describe my leadership style as collaborative. I think others would give me credit for coming a long way in learning how to communicate the company’s vision more directly and clearly. I’m also a people-centred leader. I focus a lot on the culture of the company, sometimes to the detriment of our results. I will slow something down in order to get the culture on track.
At the end of the day, making money is great, it’s the applause for doing the right thing; but to me, making life better, I take that very seriously. I want to help people find their potential and pursue it, whether they stay at Phantom or not.
All we do is sell screen doors. We aren’t curing cancer, so we have to make it fun. I love to challenge leaders to bring fun into their business.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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