During her tenure as a political force in Ottawa, Conservative MP Jean Pigott had a reputation as a motherly firebrand with a penchant for using tea and cookies to get her way.
When it came to supporting other women in business and political life, Pigott led by example. She saved her own family's business before embarking on a career in which she became the first woman in a number of roles: chair of the National Capital Commission, chair of the Ottawa Congress Centre, board member of Ontario Hydro and a member of the ultra-masculine Rideau Club. The day after she was admitted to the club in 1979, the building burned to the ground. The cause was attributed to spontaneous combustion. Club member Peter C. Newman quotes Pigott as saying, with a twinkle, "I didn't think there were too many members who didn't connect the twin events, me being admitted to membership with the spontaneous fire."
Jean Elizabeth Pigott, née Morrison, was born in Ottawa on May 20, 1924. An older sister died in childhood leaving Jean as the eldest of three girls. Their father, Cecil Morrison, a fourth-generation Canadian, had an entrepreneurial spirit. He was supported in his endeavours by his wife, Margaret Cotter, a strong-minded redhead with an Irish background.
In 1911, Morrison teamed up with his brother-in-law Richard Lamothe to start a bakery called Standard Bread. It later became Morrison Lamothe. During the 1940s, the company expanded into restaurants and industrial catering. Talk at Morrison family dinners revolved around profits and loss, customers and products. Morrison was grooming Jean to take over. He forbade her to take typing lessons lest she become a secretary. At the age of 11, she was put in charge of family bills and never missed a payment.
The protégé completed Grade 12 in Ottawa, then spent a year at Albert College in Belleville, Ont., before joining Morrison Lamothe's office staff. At 24, after a disagreement with her father, he challenged her saying, "If you're so smart, fix this bankrupt restaurant on Rideau Street." His daughter didn't know how to run a restaurant, but she knew enough to engage smart people and build a team, a philosophy she employed throughout her life. In 1948, she hired Arthur Pigott, an accountant, as her assistant manager. The two married in October, 1955. Pigott then left the work force to raise three children, John, David and Mary Jane.
By the early 1960s, Morrison Lamothe had expanded into 30 restaurants and pastry shops. It was overextended and in trouble. So Pigott didn't feel she could refuse when her father asked her to take over. With the solid backing of her husband, her staunchest supporter and ally, Pigott, then 42, stepped in as president and CEO. It was a rare position of power for a woman in 1966. She laid off workers, sold unprofitable subsidiaries, and begged creditors to freeze overdue accounts.
Despite being declined for an extended line of credit, within a year Morrison Lamothe was turning a profit, enough to enter into frozen foods. Later, Pigott encountered the banker who'd turned her down. She asked him why. He told her, "If your name had been John instead of Jean I would have doubled your line of credit." Incensed, Pigott marched across the street and, despite a 70-year business relationship with that particular bank, switched the company account to a different financial institution."
"Mum could be tough," admits son John, the current president and CEO of Morrison Lamothe. "One time we had a fellow we were recruiting for U.S. sales. We had him to the house for dinner with Mum and her sisters. It was all charming with lots of talk about family till Mum took him outside and said, 'So when are you getting us Wal-Mart?' She knew how to close."
"A mother like you've never seen before," is how friend and neighbour Susan Lightstone describes Pigott. "I'd written a business story for The Ottawa Citizen about an approach to running a business that I called 'Mum Co.' A nanosecond after it was published Jean was on phone to me saying, "That's exactly how I do it. I use the same skill set to run the company as I use to be a mother."
Pigott rarely raised her voice. She helped others to see the potential in themselves. A look of disappointment was all she needed to admonish.
Heeding her father's advice to serve the public, in 1976 Pigott left the family business and took a successful run at being elected the Conservative MP for the riding of Ottawa-Carleton. She lost her seat three years later but was hired by the new prime minister, Joe Clark, as director of human resources in charge of political appointments. Initially, Clark asked her to take over the women's portfolio but she declined, suggesting he hire a man instead. "They might learn something from us," she reportedly told the new leader.
Friend, and former head of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, Thomas d'Aquino says, "In all the years I knew Jean I never got the sense she'd put political opportunity in front of principle." He recalls his first meeting with her during her tenure with Clark, and being surprised by the cookie jar on her desk. "I spent almost four years in Pierre Trudeau's office and I can assure you nobody had cookie jars on their desk. It was all business, business, business. Sitting down with Jean was like an 'at home' experience. I ended up having a reflective, interesting, genuinely reciprocal exchange with her. Then the top came off the cookie jar and I got tea to boot."
According to son John, Pigott called such encounters "eating meetings."
"Mum believed you made the decision after you'd filled the stomach. If they were hungry, people could be ornery."
Following the Tories return to power in 1984, Brian Mulroney hired Pigott to co-ordinate the Pope's visit to Canada, plus two royal tours. An imposing, handsome woman at 5-foot-9 Pigott's fashion style, replete with hats, was said to resemble that of the Queen. During one royal tour Pigott was summoned for a private audience with Her Majesty. The two women chatted amiably about family. Afterward, the Queen presented her with a signed photograph, one of Pigott's most treasured possessions.
In the fall of 1984, Pigott accepted Mulroney's appointment to chair the National Capital Commission. Originally mandated to buy land and develop roads, bridges and parks, under Pigott's stewardship the mandate was expanded to promote the capital as a symbol of national pride. She was well-connected and a popular choice. She served in that position for eight years before she undertook the running of the Ottawa Congress Centre. Within three years, the centre was showing a profit, the first in its 14-year history.
Marilyn Knox, president and CEO of Nestle Nutrition North America, remembers meeting Pigott when Pigott was on the board of the Grocery Products Manufacturers of Canada. "She had such a human touch and a tremendous warmth," says Knox. "At a board meeting she asked me a question, so I gave her the answer. I found out later she already knew the answer but she wanted me, a young woman, to have a voice and she wanted me to learn to ask questions."
A firm believer in the power of women, Pigott harnessed it to help Barbara McDougall get elected in the riding of St. Paul's during the 1984 election. "There was a push from party headquarters to put a high profile man in the nomination," says McDougall. "Jean rallied women across the country to phone the leader's office in support of a woman. The gatekeeper for Brian [Mulroney]finally told the switchboard he didn't want any more phone calls from women. That was a lot of fun. Jean loved it. She was a great mischief-maker."
In 1995, Pigott was named to the Order of Canada for her leadership role in public life. She died in her sleep on Jan. 10, at the age of 87, at Grace Manor in Ottawa. "It wasn't what my mother did so much as the way she did it," says John. He closed his eulogy with the words, "She was a mother to all of us."
Jean Pigott leaves her husband, Arthur, sons John and David, daughter Mary Jane and six grandchildren.
Special to The Globe and Mail