WPO Guest Blog: Anne Whelan created $50M Newfoundland company, riding waves high and low

Blog 3By: Quentin Casey

The Newfoundland and Labrador economy is struggling. As a result, so are some of Anne Whelan’s businesses — but she’s been through this before.

Whelan is CEO and sole shareholder of Seafair Capital Inc., a Newfoundland holding company that includes 10 businesses, including a home-care company, a daycare, a fire-safety company, and even a pub and restaurant in her hometown of Placentia.

The disappearance of mega-projects, mine closures and the weak price of oil have combined to rob Newfoundland and Labrador of business, jobs and economic growth. In a forecast released on Feb. 23, the Conference Board of Canada said the Newfoundland and Labrador economy will contract by 1.8 per cent in 2017; the unemployment rate is projected to surge to 15.5 per cent.

The economic malaise has affected business at Whelan’s daycare, as well as at BrenKir Industrial Supply, which sells products ranging from drill bits to construction signage. In the past 18 months, BrenKir has closed one of its locations, cut spending and shed employees.

“We’ve had some layoffs and that’s always tough,” Whelan says. “We are in survival mode, really. We’re just doing what we need to do to get through this tough time.”

Having ups and downs in our economy is part of the Newfoundland story. We’ll get through it.

In addition to helming Seafair, Whelan sits on the boards of the Business Development Bank of Canada and the CSA Group, and chairs the board of Newfoundland Power.

Last year, the Toronto-based Women’s Executive Network named Whelan one of Canada’s 100 most powerful women. She says the title surprised her. “It’s kind of funny to hear someone say I’m one of the most powerful women in Canada,” she said. “I can’t even get my dogs to go out when I open the door.”

Whelan insists she never envisioned herself as a CEO. Growing up, it did not seem like a realistic goal. She started in business by running — and later buying — her mother’s small home-care agency, CareGivers Inc. It is now the largest company under the Seafair umbrella, with six offices across Newfoundland. In all, Seafair companies employ more than 800 people.

Seafair’s annual revenue ranges between $30 million and $50 million. Whelan emphasizes that there is much fluctuation depending on the state of the local economy. “It might not be the best year to say that (we’re close to $50 million),” she says.

Newfoundland and Labrador’s economy is cyclical, she notes, pointing to the cod moratorium, oil boom and current oil bust as examples of the peaks and valleys.

“Having those ups and downs in our economy is part of the Newfoundland story,” she says. “We’ll get through it. But there’s no question it’s not as rosy as it was a few years ago.”

At BrenKir Industrial Supply, Whelan insists a positive outcome will emerge from the current cost-cutting. “We will learn to do more with less,” she says. “We’re starting to look at the value of every activity we do, whether it is training or deliveries or even buying new computers, and (we’re asking): is there a better, smarter, cheaper way to do this? That is the new normal for us.”

She adds: “If there’s anything that Newfoundlanders have learned, it’s to be resilient in hard times.”

 

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