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Angela Cantwell-Peters rose from stenographer to CEO of Bowring

Angela Cantwell-Peters.

Courtesy of the family

Angela Cantwell-Peters, who started in the steno pool at Bowring department store on Water Street in St. John's, and rose to its chair and chief executive officer, among many other board positions with multinational businesses and universities, died Sept. 9 in Windsor, Ont. She was 86.

As a stenographer, she earned $17 a week; in two years she was secretary and then switched to typing merchandising orders for $50 a week. "The pay was much less important than the job," Ms. Cantwell-Peters said in an Atlantic Insight magazine cover story in March, 1984. "You knew you had to get experience."

She had foresight and drive. In 1955, Bowring offered her the position of fashion buyer, a job that usually went to someone on the sales floor. Excited, she accepted, but immediately stumbled. Not used to dealing with customers, "I only bought clothes I liked [pastels, in her size]. I nearly put the department out of business," she told Atlantic Insight.

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The department recorded no profit that first year. But she still had the gumption to ask for her incentive pay. She got it.

The job eventually took her to Montreal, and, after several successful years based there and a promotion to managing the buying office, she was back in St. John's and overseeing Bowring's retail operations and expansion of its "Little Shops," 81 small outlets (about 2,000 square feet) across Canada and the northern United States, specializing in housewares such as ironstone china, pine rocking chairs and sculpted candles.

"The kitchen, dining room and bathroom are the three rooms in your house that you buy on a regular basis for," said Bruce Templeton, who was a regional manager "two steps below Angela" during this buildup.

"She was brilliant. She always knew her facts. There was no flaw in her homework."

Dynamic and stylish as only a fashion buyer could be, Ms. Cantwell-Peters forged an impressive and groundbreaking career during an era when women often didn't work outside the home. She made jaws drop by her mere presence at Lloyd's of London, where she was the first woman to report to the London-based board of directors of Bowring's parent company.

"In my own way, I suppose I was fighting the system," she told Atlantic Insight.

Mary Angela Withers (she always went by her middle name) was born March 10, 1930, in St. John's, the eldest of nine children of Peter and Madeline (née Maher). Peter Withers worked with the Newfoundland Constabulary, and shortly after his first child's birth was transferred to Carbonear (about 90 kilometres outside St. John's) where the other children were born. Angela and her siblings grew up a few houses away from future premier Frank Moores. She attended Presentation Convent, then Mercy Business School in St. John's, learning shorthand, typing and some accounting (she had a quick mind for mathematics). She also took some advanced business and management courses from Harvard and York universities.

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She married Thomas Cantwell in 1953; he was a manufacturer's representative, selling lines of ladies' and children's clothing. They had a daughter, Michele, in 1961. Ms. Cantwell-Peters took time off after the birth, she thought perhaps permanently, but found the days long and after a few months called Bowring to see if anything was open; she was hired back the next day. In two years she was in Montreal. Her career continued its upward trajectory, propelled by her tremendous energy and commitment.

Even as she travelled to New York and Toronto for work, she cooked and did the housecleaning. "You had to do both because you were given guilt feelings by everybody," she said in Atlantic Insight. And her supportive husband had to put up with being thought a poor provider.

Mr. Cantwell died suddenly of a heart attack in 1977.

In 1981, she married Stuart Peters, a natural resources researcher who had been assistant deputy minister at the province's Department of Mines and Resources under premiers Joseph Smallwood and Moores before becoming an independent consultant. One of his clients, Husky Oil, wanted to buy land on the Southside Hills bordering St. John's Harbour that belonged to Bowring. He met Ms. Cantwell-Peters across the boardroom table, and asked her for a date. She was suspicious, thinking he was wooing her in order to get the best deal for the company he was representing. But when he continued to pursue her after the business was concluded, she relented.

Mr. Peters died in 2009.

By the early 1980s, Ms. Cantwell-Peters was largely based in Halifax, though still flew to meetings from Winnipeg to England, and the once-great Bowring, whose history is intrinsically linked with Newfoundland and Labrador's fishing and sealing industries and merchant commerce, was fading.

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A new owner took over the company, acquiring C.T. Bowring & Co., the company's British offshoot, and shuttering its retail operations. Ms. Cantwell-Peters retired in 1984.

In 1999, she moved to Windsor to be near her daughter and grandchildren, Laura, Matthew and Emma, who she leaves.

Among her other accomplishments, she was a member, and often the first female member, of the boards of directors of several companies, including Central Trust, Domtar and Xerox. She served on the boards of trade for St. John's and Halifax, was vice-chair of the board of regents of Memorial University of Newfoundland, and an inductee into the Newfoundland and Labrador Business Hall of Fame.

She also served on Donald Macdonald's Royal Commission on the Economic Union and Development Prospects for Canada (1982-85), which helped lay the groundwork for free trade.

"She was a person who set a very high bar," Mr. Templeton said. "When we were into things like budgeting, you knew expectations were being set and they needed to be met or exceeded."

But she was also extremely likeable and didn't flaunt her status. As she told Atlantic Insight, she didn't have her own secretary, did her own filing and kept her phone on a credenza away from her desk so she wouldn't get lazy. "I never expect anyone to do anything I wouldn't do myself."

Of course, what she did end up doing was remarkable.

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