Leading by giving back

Leading by giving back

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It takes more than making a sale to be a top business leader in the Halifax business community. It means not only being a trailblazer who sets out to pave a way to make their business successful, but advocating for those without the voice or platform a business leader is traditionally blessed with, helping bring others up as they blaze ahead and lending their own hand out to help whenever possible.

The Wooden Monkey, Glow the Event Store and the IWK Foundation could not be more different. One is a restaurant, another an event-rentals business and another a fundraising body, yet all three are similar in that they make it a priority to advocate and give back to others in Halifax and across Nova Scotia as they reach new heights in their professional journeys.

They each also won gold awards from the Halifax Business Awards over the last two decades and all still feel honoured to have been recognized. They have all also seen much growth since receiving their awards and are continuing to work to give back.

Succeeding against the odds

The Wooden Monkey has become a fixture in both the Halifax and Dartmouth downtown areas years after it nearly didn’t start at all when founder and President Lil MacPherson’s loan application for a restaurant emphasizing locally-sourced ingredients was shot down by banks.

Despite the lack of financial support, MacPherson persevered with her idea that came after Hurricane Juan carved through the province in 2003. When she asked farmers how much food there would be if the hurricane had wiped out grocery stores, she found what was locally grown would have lasted less than one week.

“It became so clear that we needed to help the food system grow,” says MacPherson.

The idea of opening a restaurant and fostering a community of farmers became reality when MacPherson partnered with Christine Bower, who now serves as Vice-President.

“We make up two extremes — Christine is so business savvy and I’m a hardcore environmentalist — and we balance each other and the business out,” says MacPherson.

The duo opened the restaurant in 2004 and won New Business of the Year in 2006. They never looked back and have continued to grow, adding a second location and new partner, Matt Gass, in Dartmouth. The restaurant now supports almost 20 farms and buys from around
40 small suppliers. The team was honoured again in 2014 when MacPherson was awarded Business Leader of the Year for her work as an environment advocate,
in which she teaches Nova Scotians about the lack of local food sold within the province, accounting for less than 10 per cent of food sold here. And MacPherson says her ability to advocate is thanks only to Gass and Bower, whose work ensures the business continues to thrive.

“It means a lot to be able to give back and speak out on this. The city is waking up and people are now more aware about our food systems and climate change than ever before. The community also now recognizes that an environmental business can make a difference and make a living at the same time, which is an incredible step for business,” says MacPherson.

The business of fundraising

Jennifer Gillivan was not a career fundraiser but still felt called to work for the IWK Foundation as she found it aligned with her lifelong passions of fighting for the rights of women and children and utilizing her business acumen.

She is now its President and CEO and uses that business approach to fundraise at the foundation.

She accordingly refers to the foundation as a social entrepreneur organization rather than non-profit as its fundraising is much like that of any traditional business —
earn as much as possible, as efficiently as possible, meaning all efforts are organized, intentional and effective.

This razor-sharp method has earned Gillivan a strong reputation among her contemporaries and won her the Business Leader of the Year award in 2017 — one she says validated the foundation as a business community contributor.

“It’s an arena I’m comfortable in and it’s wonderful to have that recognition that we belong and are seen to have a role to play,” she says.

In addition to Gillivan, the IWK Foundation fundraising team includes marketing, communications and finance people who take part in daily huddles to identify existing gaps. Each member is on a business-like 30-60-90-day cycle to maintain focus and ensure the team is lean, meaning it is doing the most possible work within the resources and time at its disposal. Gillivan says this bold approach is what sets them apart.

“I’ve put the stake in the sand and have said we’re going after the best and nothing less. We start every April at $0 and we can’t borrow money, so we have to be entrepreneurial,” says Gillivan.

It’s an approach that has yielded impressive results, with the newly constructed state-of-the-art NICU and NICO rooms having been 100 per cent donor funded, along with the PICU that is soon to follow and the soon-to-be replaced fleet of hospital beds that will be traded for new wireless smart beds.

“We live with some of the most generous donors on the planet. Just because we’re on the East Coast doesn’t mean we’ll settle with having less. It again comes down to that entrepreneurial ‘we’re going after it’ and ensuring we have what we need to provide women and children with the best possible care. The foundation is a core piece of how this happens and how the IWK has grown to become what it is,” says Gillivan.

Working in and helping at events

The business that was first known as the best place to rent a bouncy castle has now become a one-stop shop for event rentals of all kinds and the man behind it all is a sort of one-stop volunteering shop himself. Glow The Event Store founder and President Dave O’Connor’s goal is to supply its customers in and around the Halifax Regional Municipality with the best selection of event rentals while staying as involved in community events as possible.

He himself is about events of all kinds professionally and personally, whether he’s helping out at them or from an organizational perspective with the rental business. O’Connor won Business Leader of the Year in 2018 and chalks the award win up to both leading his business and being involved in his community, which has seen him participate in the Halifax Progress Club, as a Halifax Hawks Minor Hockey Association executive board member and hockey coach for more than a decade. He says being a leader was about growing his store and also contributing to the community that it and his family call home.

“It’s never been just about organizing parties for me, but also giving back and rolling up the sleeves. Being well-rounded is a big part of this,” he says. “If you’re going to be a leader, you must lead by example. I’ve always been a firm believer in that,” he says.

The company has continually evolved since it first opened in 1996, growing from a mobile signs company to the event rentals store it is now, with a 35,000-square-foot warehouse nearly out of space as its product line of equipment rentals continues to grow.

As the event industry is not a static one, O’Connor says staying ahead of the curve and anticipating what the next event trend may be is a key part of Glow’s success, with one of their latest additions being a fishing village made of fishing stages and lobster traps, along with props for people looking to host a kitchen party-
themed event.

“We are sometimes still labeled as the ‘bouncy castle company.’ But people are impressed when they come in and see the full array of how we’ve built. We can still get you that bouncy castle, but we can also turn that event into something so much more with décor or balloons or a firework show,” says O’Connor.

“We have everything you could
possibly need. The goal is to make sure that when we get the call, the answer is ‘yes, we can do that.’” ν

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