More Women are Rising to the Top in Family Businesses


As the world marks International Women’s Day, female family enterprise executives are a welcome force in reshaping business.

Women in the family enterprise sphere have come a very long way since the first International Women’s Day was observed more than a century ago.

These days – and in times past – they’re thinking bigger than ever and carry far greater influence.

“If we’re to do this, we’re not staying a small company. We’ve got to grow.” Such were the powerful and prophetic words of Jenny Coco, CEO of Toronto-based Coco Group, before her brother influenced her to join the family business more than 30 years ago.

When second-generation Coco entered her family business in 1987, it was a far cry from the vertically-integrated construction and engineering heavyweight it is today.

Coco is in good company. “If you want some gold, you have to carry the rocks back,” gold miner Eric Fier once told his six-year-old daughter Stephany.

Today, Stephany Fier is vice-president of Exploration and Technical Services at Vancouver’s SilverCrest Metals Inc., a $1.6 billion precious metals and mining company.

Reach for the top

As a third-gen mining and geological engineer, Fier credits her father’s mentoring for her success. As for her strong work ethic? That’s entirely her own.

Fier, who’s been an exploration manager for the company since 2015, led the discovery of a high-grade precious metal vein system at SilverCrest’s Las Chispas operations in Mexico.

There are many others like her.

Sara Davis became president of Loblaw Companies Ltd. in 2017, a decade years after joining the fourth-generation grocer. Today Davis oversees Loblaw’s business performance and is responsible for its 12-member management board.

Linda Hasenfratz, CEO of Linamar Corp., joined her father’s company in 1990 and worked her way up, experiencing all aspects of the business including running machinery and operations management. Hasenfratz has grown Linamar from an $800 million to a $7.5 billion company.

Over the past decade there’s been a global trend of companies moving towards gender parity in their senior management, according to National Bank of Canada.

Canadian family-owned businesses have been at the forefront of this trend and of mentoring and grooming women to become their next leaders – whether family members or not.

Upwards and onwards

Yet there’s more ground to cover before Canadian firms can claim an appropriate gender parity, the bank says.

“Taking into account middle and lower management as well as the C-Suite, we find women holding about 35% of management positions in Canada.”

The higher proportion of women in lower management positions suggests a trend in entry-level hiring and a trickle-up promotion of women to senior positions.

National Bank says the long-term view of family-owned companies enables them to outperform by taking carefully thought-out strategic decisions that yield lasting competitive advantages.

Women are often encouraged to reach for the top and thrive

It adds that family firms face less external pressure in business decisions such as selecting and preparing their next leaders. They have the luxury of picking the right person for the job, with the best fit to lead in line with the controlling shareholder’s values and company culture.

Thus family-owned companies tend to create an environment favourable to women and diversity in their leadership, whether family or not.

“Women are often encouraged to reach for the top and thrive, becoming role models for an inclusive pattern.” This in turn encourages more leaders of diverse backgrounds to join the firm.

Conducive environments

Indeed, family businesses create an environment conducive to the emergence of women in senior management positions.

“Our analysis shows that 13% of CEOs of NBC Canadian Family Index companies are women versus 5% for the S&P/TSX Composite,” National Bank says.

For director positions, this percentage is 28% for the Family Index compared with 18% on average at Canadian companies.

Now more than ever, female family business leaders are breaking down barriers and redefining how women in family businesses are perceived.

“They are not waiting for some other person or some other time for the environment to change around them,” KPMG points out.

Especially not today of all days.

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