Skip to main content

Canadian business leaders who tell about their first jobs are, clockwise from above left: Barb Stegemann, Mandy Rennehan, Lori Grant, Dufflet Rosenberg, Jim Pattison, Joanna Rotenberg, Sue Abu-Hakima and Don Coulter.

The entrepreneurial spirit is deeply ingrained in most successful business people. Many say it surfaced when they were children, and that they earned their first dollar before their 10th birthday.

What can we learn from them? One way to take measure of chief executive officers and industry leaders is to look at their early years and the lessons they learned while building businesses and climbing the corporate ladder.

We asked eight successful Canadians to take us back to their formative years. Most say they never shied away from hard work and hustling for their next job.

Jim Pattison

Current: Chairman and chief executive officer of the Jim Pattison Group, with 42,000 employees and $9.6-billion in annual revenue. The Vancouver-based company has holdings in the automotive, advertising, media, food, entertainment, exporting, financial and real estate sectors. Age 89.

Past: Mr. Pattison was born in Saskatchewan in 1928, and things were starting to turn around after the Depression when he set out to make money. He earned his first paycheque as an eight-year-old selling garden seeds door to door in Vancouver, where his family had moved. The job lasted about a year, and he spent the cash on licorice and ice cream.

His next venture was selling magazine subscriptions to the Saturday Evening Post and Ladies' Home Journal. He won a contest for bringing in the most new readers and was delighted to accept a cocker spaniel puppy as the prize. His mother wasn't thrilled, but she let him keep the dog, which he named Spot.

Mr. Pattison says the jobs were a great experience, and that they taught him values. "Work hard and you'll be successful," he says.

Mandy Rennehan

Current: Founder and CEO of Freshco Retail Maintenance Inc., which offers building and maintenance services to major retailers such as Apple Inc., Lululemon Athletica Inc. and Tiffany & Co. Based in Oakville, Ont., the company has clients across Canada and in the eastern United States. Her company has 58 employees in-house and more than 275 techs working across Canada and the U.S. Age 42.

Past: With six kids in the family, money was tight in the Rennehan home in Yarmouth, N.S. At age 10 she started catching bait and selling it to her father, a lobster fisherman – leaving out important details in the story. He thought she had found him a new supplier, but in fact she was sneaking out of the house after 10 p.m. to work with the people she hired to help her with the catch. She confessed her plot only when there was too much fish to handle one night and she had to ask for help or risk losing it all. "He looked at me like, 'Where in the hell did you come from?' and to this day he still looks at me that way," says Ms. Rennehan.

She used the money to buy a gift certificate to the local hair salon for her mother, and the rest went for tools she would need to build log cabins in the woods, some of which are still standing. Ms. Rennehan left home at 18 and started her business; 20 years later, Freshco is a success.

Ms. Rennehan credits the 4-H Club for her work ethic and entrepreneurial drive, and her parents for allowing her to be an "oddball misfit." She found her business sense early. "I didn't pick it, it picked me," she says. "I knew from a very young age that my DNA was very different from the children around me."

She urges kids to find a job and use it to help them discover what they want to do. "Learn to do by doing," she says.

Lori Grant

Current: President of Klick Health, a provider of marketing and management-related business services to the health-care industry for 20 years. Based in Toronto, Klick has 700 employees; Ms. Grant is now based in the New York office, which opened two years ago.

Past: Ms. Grant had an early start in the working world: As one of five children on a dairy farm in New Brunswick, she was working with animals from the time she could walk. Her humble beginnings on the farm taught her respect for animals, which were the family's livelihood. "It was a way of life even as a very young child," she says.

Her first "real" job was at McCain Foods Ltd., where she started as a student putting strawberries on strawberry shortcakes on the assembly line. She quickly realized it wasn't her calling (think I Love Lucy at the chocolate factory, she says). Later she held office jobs, and each one taught her to work as part of a team, and to be empathetic.

Ms. Grant, whose mother also worked for McCain as a phone operator, was inspired by the way the McCain brothers treated their employees at all levels of the organization – as equals.

Now with 30 years' experience and running a company with 700 employees, she has the numbers to prove her commitment to her staff: The voluntary turnover rate at Klick is less than 3 per cent, compared with a more typical 30 per cent in the industry, she says.

Barb Stegemann

Current: CEO of The 7 Virtues Beauty Inc., as well as an author, speaker and social business innovator, Ms. Stegemann landed a venture-capital deal on the CBC's Dragons' Den for her perfume line. The Halifax-based company buys essential oils from nations "rebuilding after war or strife" such as Afghanistan, Haiti and Rwanda. Age 48.

Past: After earning her first degree and finding it difficult to secure work during the recession of the late 1980s, Ms. Stegemann became a flight attendant for nine years.

As she started her airline job, she read a study that found flight attendants tend to treat men better than women. Thereafter, she made a point of greeting women passengers first and being equally respectful to them, she says.

Today she flies frequently for work, but when she's travelling with her husband, the airline staff still often assume incorrectly that he's the one who has earned Super Elite status as a frequent flyer.

Observing CEOs in business class also provided a valuable education. She followed their careers and found that the ones who treated people well fared better in business. She says she took this lesson to heart.

Ms. Stegemann also credits her participation in the 4-H Club in Antigonish, N.S., for her public speaking ability and her flair for marketing. "To win the red ribbon for baking, your flan needs to look the best."

Joanna Rotenberg

Current: Group head, BMO Wealth Management, Bank of Montreal, where she manages approximately 5,000 employees. Among her responsibilities are strategic direction, financial planning and risk management. She was the youngest person to be made a group head at BMO. Age 41.

Past: Ms. Rotenberg's first job was as a swimming instructor when she was 15 or 16 years old. It was good money for a kid, and it taught her that "you've got to love what you do, it's not just about the paycheque, it's about how you spend your time."

Following that, she took summer jobs as a law student. At that time, applicants would wait by the phone to see which law firm would offer a position, and she was "devastated" when she didn't get her first pick. Happily, however, she met the man who would become her husband of 15 years at her second pick.

"Everything happens for a reason, you just don't know what that reason is yet," she says.

An epiphany after an internship at a large New York firm led to a career in consulting. "When I look at my career, I couldn't have predicted where it led.

"For those earlier on in their career, make sure it's something you're excited to sink your teeth into, because you can't predict where your career will lead. Make sure you're getting something out of every moment."

Don Coulter

Current: President and CEO, Coast Capital Savings Credit Union, Surrey, B.C. The credit union has 1,700 employees in 52 branches across British Columbia.

Past: It would have been simpler to ask Mr. Coulter which jobs he hasn't held. He had worked about 50 by the time he finished university.

Mr. Coulter was only eight years old when he got his first job, two years shy of the minimum age requirement for employment. He worked around that problem by taking over the Toronto Sun newspaper route his older sister's boyfriend was giving up. A motivated kid, the $2 bonus for each new suscriber led him to expand the route to 200 from 50 over three years.

It was tough work for a kid; he was able to carry only about 20 papers at a time before going back for more. "It was easier in the winter, when I could pile the papers on a toboggan," he says.

Later, as a lab assistant where researchers were studying fruit flies, Mr. Coulter became a pro at making fruit fly food, or media, which could also serve as a meal in a pinch for a hungry student. He quickly realized that the long, solitary hours in academic research were the wrong path.

Among other positions he held were bank teller, factory worker, construction worker, furniture builder, tennis instructor and attendant on the service desk of an appliance repair centre, where he learned to deal with angry customers and negotiate with the staff to make sure orders were handled efficiently.

Mr. Coulter says the common thread is that a work ethic is important, and no job is beneath you.

Dufflet Rosenberg

Current: Founder and CEO of Dufflet Group Inc., which has three shops in Toronto and a warehouse that supplies handmade desserts to more than 500 restaurants, supermarkets and hotels. Age 62.

Past: Ms. Rosenberg held only one job before starting her eponymous pastry company. Starting when she was 13 or 14, she worked at her father's now-defunct restaurant supply firm in Toronto. She did a bit of everything working on those weekends and summers, learning to restock shelves, file invoices and count inventory.

While she admits it was different working for a parent than another employer, her dad didn't pay her much attention at work. "He left me to work with whoever I was helping, I was reporting to them," she says.

She then travelled to Britain to enroll in a cooking school in London ("it was more of a debutante school than anything"), where she learned that she wanted to work with pastry: "Butter, sugar, flour, eggs for me," she says. She began working as a pastry chef when she was 20, making desserts in her home for a local restaurant.

"I started to employ people right away, though I had no idea what I was doing," says Ms. Rosenberg, who has done the same job now for 42 years and counting. "Still figuring it out," she laughs.

Sue Abu-Hakima

Current: Co-founder, president and CEO of Amika Mobile Corp., an Ottawa-based software company that specializes in emergency mass-notification systems for public safety and security.

Past: Before Ms. Abu-Hakima got her first job, she had to sell her mother on the idea. She tried first with a summer job, but her mother thought she should spend the warm months resting. Later, the 15-year-old got her way and worked as a camp counsellor in Montreal. She took the children around the city to museums, water parks and on a bus ride to the St-Viateur Bagel shop.

She gained experience in dealing with stressful situations when one of the campers, about 6 years old, swallowed a dime. Traumatized, Ms. Abu-Hakima called her mother, and the child was taken to the doctor, where they were told that patience would solve the problem.

Ms. Abu-Hakima also worked as a lifeguard at the YMCA and at McGill University, where she once saved the life of a man much larger than herself. Later, as an aquatics director at a camp, she found it more difficult to keep the other counsellors safe, never mind the kids: She recalls making two visits to the hospital for staff with broken arms.

"Learning how to manage teams, and to take a deep breath and calm down, are definitely skills I still use in business today, even though I work with fully grown adults," she says.

"Without those jobs I would be a very different leader today."

Interact with The Globe