It sounds like a terrible trade-off – to give up your dream of being a university-trained physicist in order to work at McDonald's. But three decades after that fateful choice, Cathy Bennett has parlayed her franchise roots into her own St. John's-based mini-conglomerate. It is anchored by eight McDonald's outlets, but is now stepping out beyond Newfoundland's Avalon Peninsula in sectors such as job recruitment and industrial fabrication, often targeting the resources sector.
At 48, her ever-widening vision has drawn her into a leadership role in 4Front Atlantic, an economic movement – spearheaded by Kevin Lynch, vice-chair, BMO Financial Group, and Halifax lawyer George Cooper – with a mission to energize Atlantic Canada business and get it out into the world.
How did you get your start in business?I started when I was 16, when I first worked at McDonald's as a front-line counter person. Two years later, I was running a restaurant as a store manager with 50 employees and a management team of 10. In franchise systems, processes and procedures are well documented. As long as you were a good communicator and were firm and fair as a manager, it's a business you can be successful in.
But you gave up university ?Like a lot of young people, I wasn't sure what I wanted to do. I was in university for a time with the intention of becoming a physicist, and at one point in my 20s, I was going to give up business to be a nurse. But I kept getting more opportunities in the McDonald's world, so I ended up staying. There is no job held by any employee who works for me that I haven't done.
How big are you now?We operate six different companies. McDonald's is our crown jewel – it is close to me and we are very connected to the team – but we also have an international recruitment company [with offices in Ireland, the Philippines and Morocco], executive office rentals and a great partnership with a New Brunswick company, Sunny Corner Enterprises, which does industrial fabrication and assembly. And we have partnered with a young entrepreneur in a spa in St. John's. She's the managing partner and we're going to help her grow the business.
So this is a Newfoundland success story?I hope it will be a regional success story now. I was involved with Atlantic Provinces Economic Council as a governor and that experience expanded my vision as to what's possible beyond St. John's proper. Growing up, I felt the Avalon Peninsula was the centre of the universe. Well, it may be the centre of my personal universe, but not necessarily the centre of the business universe I want to participate in.
What did your parents do?My mother was a stay-at-home mom and my dad was a pharmacist. He was very surprised at my not going to university and initially disappointed that my dreams of being a physicist were not being realized. Now, having my own children and seeing his experience, I hope I am letting my children see the vast opportunities. As parents, we tend to mould them in our image. Yet there are tens of thousands of NOC [national occupational classification] codes of jobs where they can choose to work. How can you inspire a 14-year-old to think about 60,000 possibilities as opposed to the 2,000 his mother knows about?
Do you regret not finishing university?I felt for many years it was a missed opportunity, and yet if I had gone to university, the paths I have taken would not have opened to me. What I am doing in my later life is finding places, like 4Front Atlantic, APEC or the St. John's Board of Trade, where I can rub shoulders with people who intellectually challenge me. As the business has diversified, we have an active advisory board and I sit on some large boards – such as Bell Aliant and New Millennium Iron now. What I learn is that good governance can really help a rookie entrepreneur – and I still see myself that way.
Will you make acquisitions?We're continuing to look at companies that make sense – our long-term vision is to focus on the natural-resource sector [as a market]. Canada, and particularly Atlantic Canada, has a lot of opportunities in developing natural resources. I hope as our companies get strong in servicing customers in Atlantic Canada, those customers will take us with them globally. They will become so confident in our ability to execute, we will be going wherever they do business.
Will something tangible come out of work with organizations like 4Front?Something has to come out of it. Atlantic Canada has fewer people than the Greater Toronto Area. If we don't figure out a way to be efficient and effective and sell to a much broader market, we won't be able to sustain ourselves – it can't happen by just selling our wares to each other. A lot of young people are coming out of universities eager to use their entrepreneurial skills and we've had a lot of experienced, successful companies. We can wrap our arms around each other to be a bit safer as we go out in the big bad world.
What is the danger?In Atlantic Canada, we sometimes like to think we will take the action, but we don't really want to be the first. We are okay to join the parade, but not necessarily the ones who want to start the drum beating. Yet everybody has to bang on the drum, for it is through the collective effort that we will get some momentum. Our biggest risk is if we step back and wait – or, worse, point fingers and say it is government's or labour's or business's responsibility alone. Each group has a role to play.
What will be your legacy?I'd love to be establishing a 100-year-old company that employs a whole lot of Atlantic Canadians – a whole lot who were born here but also those who choose to live here, as immigrants or are relocated here.
What made you become an entrepreneur while others young Canadians don't choose that path?
I am very motivated. I have worked all my life, and my husband has been a stay-at-home dad. As a mother of two boys, I've had to pick what I want them to remember me by. I want them to think not just that 'Oh, mom had to go to work,' but, when they are 30 and start to have their own kids, I want them to look back and say, 'Wow, that was really cool what mom did.' It was okay that she missed that rehearsal even though she heard it on the cellphone. Or she missed the concert but we all watched it Friday night on the video.' For me, it is creating a legacy for my two boys – not just a legacy in a company but a legacy of of activity. I put that same drive into community work, where we have that responsibility, as well.
What makes you lose sleep?Whether we as a community [in Atlantic Canada] will spend our time fighting with each other, and worrying about our own turf – as opposed to worrying about the big competition. It's staggering how the world is going to change.
CEO, Bennett Group of Companies, St. John's
Born in St. John's; 48 years old
High school graduate; attended university briefly
- At 16, worked on the counter at a local McDonald's
- In 1999, acquired seven McDonald's outlets, and has one more
- Expanded company to six businesses, either wholly or partly owned
- Bennett Group takes in $35-million in annual revenue and has 800 to 1,200 employees, depending on the season