Forged by fire: The triumph of Anne Whelan

Forged by fire: The triumph of Anne Whelan

She’s been a welfare officer in California, a community development worker in her home province of Newfoundland and Labrador, a single mum with more bills than bucks, and, not for nothing, a kick-ass CEO of a diversified clutch of companies that today generate between $20- and $50-million in annual revenues. What’s her formula for success? Go ahead, ask away. But can you handle the truth?

Anne Whelan could complain if she wanted to. She doesn’t want to. She could whine about one of the roughest runs of months in all her seven years as a business owner. She doesn’t whine. Still, it’s not in her nature to sugarcoat the truth about anything. And the truth of 2013 for St. John’s-based Seafair Capital (a holding company for diverse operations that involve everything from nursing to property management of which she is the president, CEO and sole shareholder), is, to say the least, inconvenient.

“Honestly,” she confesses, after a not-quite-imperceptible sigh, “this has been a very tough year.”

Trouble began brewing early when the Newfoundland and Labrador government, an established and valuable client, and her largest company, CareGivers Inc., failed to renew a customary arrangement between them. “Historically, our services (providing in-home, residential healthcare) on behalf of the Province have not been contracted,” Whelan explains. “It has been a feefor- service agreement. That dropped off significantly and somewhat unexpectedly last year. Meanwhile, the government put out a more formal request for proposals, which it didn’t actually award in the time frame that everybody expected. So, we were kind of left hanging.”

There were other vexations, too. Just as Seafair completed contract negotiations with its 500 unionized workers at CareGivers (virtually the entire payroll), penny-pinchers and budgetary hawks – again, mostly among public sector clientele – squeezed margins in the home-care work that remained. “The government did not give us the rate increase that we needed to even offset the wage increase that we had already committed to,” Whelan says. “So, that was a real kick in the teeth.”

In the end, CareGivers – which represented 60 per cent of Seafair’s total $20-50-million in annual revenue – registered a 20 per cent slump in its own gross. The bottom-line effect was that a commercial clutch that had, as recently as 2010, posted a 25 per cent annual revenue bump, compared with the previous year, actually dipped into negative morass in 2013.

Says Whelan: “Our revenue growth on the combined group of companies dropped approximately seven per cent … It didn’t happen overnight, but by the end of the summer our year-overyear revenues were down to the point that we had to take serious action to avoid a financial disaster.”

And yet, now in March 2014, sitting in her office in St. John’s, where a fresh 10 centimeters of late-winter snow covers the port city like a tarp, she’s not complaining. She’s not whining. She is merely reflecting, in the way that successful CEOs do when they’ve been tempered and forged by fire.

“You know, I’ve given this a lot of thought,” she says. “I have wondered, especially when things don’t go well, whether I am the right person to lead us through the next stage of growth. But, one of the things that happens to you when you go from being a manager to a business owner and then finally to a CEO is that you realize that what got you here won’t get you there. In good times and bad, in your business, you have to make the necessary changes.”

Certainly, in her own life, Whelan, at 46, is no stranger to making changes, necessary or otherwise.

If some entrepreneurs are made and others are born, the secondoldest in a family of three girls and one boy from the unprepossessing village of Jerseyside, Placentia (population: 600), would likely fit herself somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. She might even describe herself, growing up, as a somewhat typical product of rural Newfoundland: hard-working, invested in her community, loyal to her family and friends. But if someone had told her that she would one day become the CEO of a multi-million-dollar private company, she would have either politely demurred or laughed out loud. “I would have never contemplated the title of CEO on my own,” she says. “It just wasn’t something I would have considered.”

What did appear on her radar of personal ambitions was a good education (she earned a BA from Memorial University in 1990), a job (she worked in community economic development and social services in Canada and the United States for seven years) and a family of her own. “I met a U.S. serviceman who was stationed at the base in Argentia,” Whelan says. “We got married and, eventually, we moved to California where I was employed as a welfare officer. We also had a little girl.”

In 1994, she and her husband and daughter returned to Newfoundland. Within a year, she says, “I was a divorced mother of a three-year-old with no child support and no job. My ex-husband had gone back to the United States and I didn’t hear from him for several years… It was not an amicable split… In fairness, though, he went back to school after a couple of years and tried to straighten out his life a bit. But, in 1995, I was on my own.”

In fact, she hastens to add, that’s not entirely accurate. To this day, Whelan credits her close-knit family for saving her economic bacon. “I absolutely would not have survived if I didn’t have the family I had,” she insists. “There’s no question about that… My dad, who has since passed away, was incredibly good and a stand-in father for my daughter. He did things like come and shovel out my car at seven in the morning… My parents bought me a house that I lived in until I could afford to pay for it myself… My sisters, Susan and Jane, were both so good to me. They did a lot of child care. They did a lot of showing up and, you know, making me not feel alone. And my brother, who is much younger than me, babysat. We pulled together. I mean everybody lives in St. John’s now, so we’re really one of those rural families that sticks together.”

Still, the bitter irony of her circumstances was a daily, unwelcome companion. “You know, I had spent years being a welfare offi cer and I was not about to spend the rest of my existence being on the other side of that table,” she says. “I did manage to get a job, and then a better job and then got laid off from that. So, I decided I needed to make a change in my life or my daughter and I were going to live hand-to-mouth forever, and rely on my parents for more than they should ever have to do.”

Her bottom line was simple: Her plan was not to be an entrepreneur; her plan was to get a job. And to do this, she reasoned, she needed an MBA – the best that her scarce resources could buy. In 1999, she enrolled at Memorial, initially on a part-time basis. Through connections, she landed a contract position that enabled her to work full time from her home and go to school. The calculated gamble paid off. Her name on the Dean’s List erased whatever doubts she may have harbored about herself.

“I think the turning point for me was understanding that when bad things happen (and they do!), that’s when you really need to dig deep,” she says. “You need to fi nd your strengths, be true to yourself and those around you, and just fi nd a way to make something good from something bad. That is the challenge of change. Knowing this has served me well in the years since.”

Indeed, it has, but that doesn’t mean any of it has come easily, especially in the years since.

When Whelan reviews her personal evolution in business, she likens it to a shifting state of mind, peppered with moments of disappointment and, more importantly, enlightenment. She began, in 2002, by agreeing to take over managing the daily operations of her mother’s small home care agency (CareGivers). “When I started, I was overseeing a very small group in a very small company, and I was dealing with things I could see right in front of my eyes,” she says.

By 2007, her appetite for entrepreneurship suitably whetted, she assembled a vendor note and a bank loan (worth four times the value of her home’s mortgage) to buy her mother out. “As a business owner, I had a whole set of other worries,” she says. “You know, my house was on the line for this, and I realized just how much a small business owner puts on his or her shoulders.”

Emboldened (or, perhaps, terrifi ed) by her new role and responsibilities, between 2007 and 2010, Whelan orchestrated a series of bold expansions – including residential care for children and adults, home support, private-duty nursing, and clinical services – that effectively quadrupled the company’s annual revenues to $20 million. During this time, Seafair, proper, began to take shape with new operating entities, such as Blue Sky Family Care, Care Connect NL, Greystone Business Solutions, BrenKir Industrial Supply, The Three Sisters Pub and Restaurant (a nod to the Whelan siblings, themselves) in St. John’s, as well as various real estate holdings. “At some point, I think I realized that you are a CEO when you have other people at senior levels who help carry the load,” she says. “As much as anything, nowadays I lead, and it’s been a very gratifying transition, but it’s also been scary along the way.”

Especially when things go sideways.

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2 Comments to “Forged by fire: The triumph of Anne Whelan”

  1. We are all so proud of our sister Anne. Thanks to the Atlantic Business Magazine for a wonderful gala last week. Great article. Cheers

  2. Avatar Donna Hewitt // May 20, 2014 at 1:37 pm // Reply

    Well done, Anne. You are a hard worker, well-educated and level headed by the sounds of it. I wish you all the best.

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