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'I’ve seen branches turn around by making little changes'

Carol Buchanan, president of Retail at Maritime Travel Inc., poses in Halifax on Friday, February 19, 2016. Darren Calabrese for The Globe and Mail

Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

Carol Buchanan, 55, is vice-president of retail services, Maritime Travel, Halifax

Maritime Travel has grown from a single Halifax storefront in 1949 to become Canada's largest independent travel agency, with 460 staff in 114 locations. Eighteen of them operate as LeGrow's Travel in Newfoundland and Labrador, and as Voyages Maritime in Quebec and northern New Brunswick. In addition to retail storefronts and Internet sales, the firm runs a business division, a national call centre, cruise-ship ground services, conventions and air charters.

I thought I'd be a teacher. Then I wanted a catering company because I loved to cook; now I hardly cook at all. A friend and I had part-time jobs with a caterer. We discovered how little money you made for the work you put in, so that blew that idea out of the water.

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I went to Dalhousie University for a bachelor of commerce degree because I looked at the booklet of programs, and didn't want to go into science or be a nurse or doctor. It was a process of elimination. My brother was in commerce – it seemed more interesting, with different avenues I could take.

I graduated in 1983, and was hired in commercial lending at Continental Bank [now HSBC Bank Canada]. It was exciting for a while, but with rigidity. I liked client relationships – to me, the easy part – whereas some hated going out and getting business. You came up with a proposal and listened, showed interest. I genuinely was [interested] and clients loved showing me around their plant or dealership. At my five-year pin, I thought "What am I still doing here?"

I was itching for change. My husband had an opportunity to run a 65-foot sailboat, but after the first charter, we realized it wouldn't be fulfilling a dream catering to others. By then, my brother was a lawyer, had bought Maritime Travel, hiring people to run it. In 1988, we were having a brother-sister chat and he asked me to be director of marketing. It was so much more fun, lively, expressive [than banking]. He had vision and ideas, so I learned to execute his ideas first, then mine. We did our own [advertising] creative and writing. We laugh about it today, as we ran by the seat of our pants.

My priority is staff management and scheduling. Corporate travel is steady, while leisure travel is seasonal with peaks, so we're creative in staffing. Another big piece is developing every person and [staff] programs – you don't have high-performing teams, particularly across the country, unless there's high engagement. I have six regional manager directors working with branch teams. We're a flat organization, staff are profit-sharing and there isn't a chain of command.

We close everything for two days annually and bring everyone to Halifax. [This will be] our 36th conference, because it's a great way to stay connected – one big group huddle. We go through financials, goals and "alligators" – the challenges; 2008 and 2009 were tough because people weren't travelling. Online bookers aren't a big issue; the [weak Canadian] dollar is big now. Our darkest years, after 9/11, we shared those pressures. The next year, it turned around. That solidified for me what the group was really made of. From 2010 to 2015, growth was 86 per cent – much in new acquisitions.

The best part of my job is working with branches that are always striving. Also, acquisitions, as it's fun integrating different cultures and perspectives. Also, struggling branches – I've seen them turn around by making little changes that have big impacts. It's really cool when I see that happen.

The best business advice I received was to be consistent and fair. It sounds easy, but sometimes you want to bend. Sometimes it's unpopular but, as a manager, in the long run, that advice has been proven. I've always believed everybody is good at their core and wants to do a good job. I treat them with the same respect – how I like to be treated. Some had their ego in the way, and it wasn't a good fit.

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Speaking of ego, I don't get social media. The company has a LinkedIn account and we promote our local branches using Facebook. As much as I love being around people, I don't like the lack of privacy. I don't feel the need to promote what I'm doing. Promote your business on it? Brilliant. But not me.

It's a myth there's a best day to book a flight, as [it depends on] yield. They're changing within a day.

My son thinks travel is awesome. I talked about travelling while he's in university. He said, "You're travelling without me?" He likes to travel himself, too, but he's got to pay for that. He's got the bug – at school he did a project setting up a travel agency in Vanuatu, South Pacific.

I'd love to travel to more exotic places. I'm not a beach person – I love Europe, Ireland and adventure travel. Biking in Croatia helped me understand what went on there the past 20 years. I'd love to take a month in New Zealand, another month in Asia – I've got lots on my list and sailing, of course … we do a lot of that.

One book on my night table is All In by Arlene Dickinson. I keep telling my husband he needs to read it – she talks about families that have to live with an entrepreneurial spirit.

Everybody around me talks about retiring, but I like what I do. We have no mandatory retirement age. [We] have a fellow in St. John's who's 70. He asked if we were okay with him still working. We said, "As long as your brain's still working." We have another counsellor who came into new employee orientation – she's also 70.

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As told to Cynthia Martin. This interview has been edited and condensed.

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