She’s the boss

Posted on April 30, 2013 | Atlantic Business Magazine | 0 Comments

At age 30, Cathy Bennett had been working for McDonald’s for 14 years. She was ready to be an owner, not an employee. The McDonald’s franchise application process was rigorous—interviews, screening, and financial checks—but Bennett finally found herself in a room with the chief financial officer of McDonald’s Canada, stating her case.

“Finally the CFO looked over at my husband and I and said: ‘It’s really great that you’re here and that you’re interested in applying. But you don’t really have enough money, so why are you here?'” Bennett tells the story, not for the first time.

“I just leaned across the table and said, ‘If you want me bad enough, you’ll find a way to make it work.'”

Yes, Bennett is confident, determined—and intuitive. Sure enough, three years later, in 1999, McDonald’s offered her a joint venture partnership: the corporation would own 75 per cent of a number of St. John’s-area restaurants, and she would own 25 per cent. The day the deal was signed, she told her accountant to start planning for the day when she would be sole owner.

Eight years later, the next part of Bennett’s plan came to pass. She bought out McDonald’s, and today is still the owner/operator of eight restaurants which employ some 350 people. Still, she kept looking for new challenges. “I can’t not grow stuff,” she says with a shrug.

Over the next six years, Bennett created the ever-expanding Bennett Group of Companies, establishing herself as an exciting entrepreneur outside of the McDonald’s safety net— with business interests in industrial and commercial construction, fabrication, international recruitment, and more. A leader of vision and community spirit, Bennett is Atlantic Business Magazine’s first-ever female CEO of the Year.

Her brother says Cathy always, always, had to be the boss. If they played store, she was the shopkeeper. If they played school, she was the principal. If they played church, she was the pope. There was no option—Cathy was in charge. At 16, she got her first job at McDonald’s, the kind of part-time job most teenagers long for. She could have no idea, upon reporting for her first shift, that she would someday own the restaurant. But if someone had told her, she says she wouldn’t have been surprised. “In fact,” she muses, “I probably would have owned it sooner, if someone had planted the seed that early.”

Eight months after starting the job, she was promoted to crew trainer. About that time, she started at Memorial University—she fancied becoming a physicist—but after an unsatisfying first term she told her parents she wanted some time off and threw herself into her role at McDonald’s. Soon she was made assistant manager, and by 18, Bennett was managing a $3.5 million restaurant with 60 employees. She loved it and, more importantly, she was good at it.

“At the time it seemed very natural,” she says. “But now that I’ve got a 14 year old who is fast approaching 18, I realize it was unusual. It was a pretty impressive path.”

A couple of years later, Bennett applied for nursing school. This time, she hadn’t even stepped through the classroom door when another promotion came along: human resources manager for all the McDonald’s restaurants on Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula. She chose that. Then came her opportunity to become an operator.

“I didn’t even understand what a joint venture was; I just knew that if [McDonald’s] wanted me to be a solution for them, they’d figure something out,” Bennett says. “They saw the potential of us staying here, they liked that I knew the market really well. I had earned a lot of confidence and trust in those 17 years.”

Today, Bennett can say she has been in management for 30 of her 48 years. Instead of formal university education, she has the real-life training of a global corporation, and the ongoing learning gained through mentors, coaches, and a long list of positions on boards and committees. Her voracious appetite for knowledge continues to push her forward.

“At age 18, there was definitely a huge safey net around me,” she says. “There was a lot of support and a lot of systems so if you learned the systems and managed in a certain framework—and added a little bit of nuance—you could be quite successful. Even as an operator, there was still the safety of the franchise.

“The restaurant business was a good way to learn good management skills; I’m not sure I could have had that opportunity otherwise.” The joint venture also taught her the value of a good partnership.

Bennett has served on a wide number of boards and committees. Some are obvious choices for a successful businessperson (treasurer of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce and president of the St. John’s Board of Trade, for example); others show the breadth of her community involvement (such as the spot on the Festival 500 board and vicechair of the Ronald McDonald House N.L. board of directors).

Taking time out from work and family commitments for these extras wasn’t always the obvious choice.

The first board Bennett joined—at the insistence of her employer—was St. John’s Clean and Beautiful. “It was a good experience,” she says. “But I didn’t really understand governance. I’d always been the boss, basically, so it was different.”

An opportunity came to be involved with the St. John’s Board of Trade. Unsure, she gave it a try. “I discovered that, through the networking and the learning, I got way more out of that board, and others, than I ever gave.” She grasped the importance of good governance. “And it was the Board of Trade that lit my fuse for the policy stuff in a way I had not anticipated.”

That interest led to a range of positions, including governor of the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council (APEC), board member at Nalcor energy and Bell Aliant, and a member of the Newfoundland and Labrador provincial government’s Labour Market Sub- Committee of the Strategic Partnership Council. In December 2012 she became a director of the Shaw Group of Companies, a leading natural resource manufacturer and community developer, based in Halifax; in February 2013 she joined the board of directors of New Millennium Iron Corp.

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