Women in Business Q&A: Margot Micallef, CEO, Gabriella's Kitchen

Margot Micallef

Margot M. Micallef, Q.C. is the President of Oliver Capital Partners, a company she founded in 2003 to invest in private companies looking for expansion capital or an outright sale. Since its inception Oliver Capital Partners has directly and indirectly invested in a number of diverse businesses including: broadcasting, publishing, food manufacturing and real estate and manages the franchise development rights for a number of well known quick service restaurant brands including Subway and Taco del Mar. Under Margot's leadership Oliver has returned an ROI of up to 400% to investors.

In 2003 Margot co-founded a better for you food company with her sister Gabriella. In 2009 the founders commenced commercialization of their non-traditional pasta now marketed as skinnypastaTM and confirmed their strategy of developing foods that alleviate symptoms of chronic illness and aging and aid in health and wellbeing. The company was recently renamed Gabriella's Kitchen in honour of Margot's late sister Gabriella who remains the inspiration behind the company.

Margot has also served as an Adjunct Professor in governance and ethics for the MBA Program at the University of Alberta and is on the Faculty of the Directors College, a joint venture between McMaster University and the Conference Board of Canada.

Prior to founding Oliver Capital Partners Inc., Margot was a Senior Vice-President of Shaw Communications Inc., in Calgary, Alberta; a Partner with Russell and DuMoulin (now Fasken Martineau DuMoulin) in Vancouver, British Columbia; and was a co-instructor for the Faculty of Law at the University of British Columbia.

Margot was appointed a Queen's Counsel in 2002. And in 2009 she was a recipient of an Excellence in Leadership Award from the Canadian Women in Communications. In 2010 she was the Western Canada Finalist for the RBC Canadian Woman Entrepreneur Awards. In 2011 she was named as one of Canada's Top 100 Most Powerful Women. And in 2013 she was named as the Woman of the Year by Canadian Women in Communications.

Margot serves or has served on a number of public and private company boards including Vista Radio Ltd., ENMAX Corporation - where she also served as Chair of the Corporate Governance Committee, Solium Capital Inc, Tecterra Inc., and Canwest Global Communications Inc. She is currently the Chair of Subway Developments which acts as the development agent for the Subway Brand in Alberta and British Columbia. In addition, Ms. Micallef is active in her community through fund raising initiatives which in the past have included: The Alberta Ballet, The Alberta Ballet School of Dance, the HR MacMillan Planetarium, Homes of Hope, the Intensive Care Foundation of Alberta, the Canadian Human Rights Museum, and The Lung Cancer Initiative at the University of Calgary and the Tom Baker Cancer Centre in Calgary Alberta.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
Despite my wish that there might be an easier way to gain life experience and grow in the spiritual sense, it's always hardship that shapes us. I can think of three things that have had a significant impact on me, although there are a multitude of things that might be less obvious.

1. I am a first-generation immigrant. As a child I was painfully shy and withdrawn. Some who know me today would find it surprising but I rarely spoke out in class, never raised my hand and was quite introverted. The result was that I never asked questions. I had to figure out the answers on my own. This characteristic now serves me well in that I am a problem solver. I figure things out - and know how to weigh and assess data to come to conclusions.

2. My 12-year marriage ended when my son was 10 years old. This breakup taught me how to manage through difficult circumstances, including communicating with my son's dad, sharing custody and decision-making in sometimes less than friendly circumstances and being authentic in ensuring that both of us as parents had a voice in how we raised our son. That means caring about another person's point of view even if radically different from my own and being respectful of a different perspective.

3. Five years ago I lost my best friend and business partner when my sister passed away. Her illness and passing has been one of the most painful experiences in my life but also one that taught me the strength in vulnerability and openness. During her illness Gabriella would often reach out to me or other people with whom she was close and share her fears openly. She showed me that reaching out was not a sign of weakness but just the opposite. She was gracious throughout and found strength and joy in the love people shared with her. She wasn't afraid to love and laugh with abandon regardless of her circumstance. This experience made me a more empathetic leader and allowed me to let my guard down with those close to me and to reach out when I need help.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at Gabriella's Kitchen?
I have been a lawyer, a senior executive in a large public company and an entrepreneur. In each evolution I gained more freedom and more accountability. As a lawyer I gave advice but somebody else made the decision. As a senior executive, we made decisions within the context of a corporate strategy vetting and under the oversight of a CEO. As an entrepreneur, the buck stops with me. I am responsible to my investors and my team for the direction, strategy and execution against that strategy that we pursue. Each prior role prepared me for the next which saw me ultimately build a company from a concept (literally saying to my sister, "There is no pasta on the market that has the taste, texture and nutrition we are looking for. We have to develop it ourselves.") to doing exactly that.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Gabriella's Kitchen?
Seeing skinnypasta™ sold across Canada and now the United States and seeing the positive impact it has had on people's lives who can "love pasta again"™ is very gratifying. I feel utter pride when I'm in a store and see customers buying skinnypasta™. I want to run up to them and say, "That's my pasta." I try and control myself though, as they'd probably have me arrested!

Watching the incredible passion of my team is breathtaking. They all believe in our mission "to change the way the world eats by making food with no compromises". They feel excitement when someone who is diabetic or pre-diabetic, for example, and has had to cut out or cut down on pasta can enjoy it again with (some) abandon! It brings tears to my team's eyes to see a family be able to enjoy the same meal together and share a common experience regardless of dietary restriction or preference. In turn, I am moved by this love of humanity and love of our company.

Finally, I have to say working with my son, Chris Fenn, is an amazing experience. Chris is our VP Operations. His leadership, commitment and effectiveness are inspiring. I'm really proud of him.

My biggest challenge was losing my sister and business partner. For the first two years after she died I did nothing with the business. I hired a young man and he babysat things for me but he lacked passion and vision and the company almost floundered during that time. When I finally had the strength to take it over I vowed I would build the company in Gabriella's honor. That's when I changed the name of the company and took over the operations as CEO. And since then we've been on a torrent growing from 300 stores in central Canada to around 1700 in the US and Canada!

What advice can you offer to women who want a career in your industry?
Women often want certainty or perfection before they take a leap. My advice is: get about 90% of the information you think you need then jump in and course correct as you go along. The business plan never unfolds as we think it will and you never have all the information you need so what are you waiting for?

What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?
When I was a young lawyer, one of the senior partners I worked for gave me this advice and I have lived it successfully ever since: "People are most reasonable in person, less unreasonable on the phone and most unreasonable in writing". Whenever I am negotiating or tackling a challenging or difficult situation I try and meet face to face with whomever is on the other side. I always say to my son, "It's when you are the most uncomfortable meeting someone face to face on an issue that you must do so and not hide behind email."

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I believe that balance has to be measured over one's entire life span. At any point in our life we will be out of balance one way or the other depending on what demand is pulling us in what direction, be it our work, our partner, our children, our parents or our own priorities. At the end of our life, if we have tried to generally pay attention to all aspects of our life (emotional, spiritual, physical and intellectual) we will feel that we have lived a harmonious life, even if at any one point in time we were living or playing off key.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
The biggest issue women have that prevents us from succeeding is that inner voice that creeps up on us when we least expect and are potentially most harmed by it. Imagine walking along a precipice and when you are almost at the end with nothing to hang on to you hear a voice that says, "You are going to fail. Why are you even trying to do this? Who do you think you are?" or other messages like this. The chance of falling or failing or giving up is monumentally high at that moment.

Women have to learn to quell that critical inner voice. We have to learn to be our own cheerleader and we have to stop regularly and acknowledge our successes. Women tend to externalize success ("I was lucky", " I had a good team", "The client liked me", etc.) and internalize failure ("I was over my head", "What was I thinking?", "I can't believe I did that", etc.).

The problem with this is that, as long as we are succeeding, the cost of externalizing success is not noticed. In fact, people almost expect it of women. But if we don't praise our successes and if we don't recognize that it is not solely outside forces that are enabling our success then we have no reserves to draw on when in doubt.

I suggest daily meditations where we acknowledge our successes, our strengths and where we recollect the feeling of success -- be it running in a race, passing an exam, rocking a presentation, or winning a big client. If we can own success and get comfortable with it we can overcome those obstacles that conspire against us when our resistance is down.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
My mentors have steered me in the right direction when I've veered off course. They've talked me off the ledge. They've made introductions to their network. They've helped me believe in myself. My mentors have been men and women. I tell the story of my favorite mentor in my book "It's the Landing That Counts". His name is Dick. He's an investor in Gabriella's Kitchen and he loves skinnypasta!

When I started my business he gave me office space and a secretary. He even gave me office supplies. He never sought reimbursement or rent. The best part, though, was when he'd come into my office and he'd ask, "How's it going?" And I'd reply, "Fine but I'm worried about..." and before I could say what I was worried about he would say, "No. No. No. It's too soon to worry. It's only September. Worry in January". So I'd say "ok" and I'd stop worrying. Then in January he'd come in and ask, "How's it going?" And I'd reply, "Fine but I'm worried about..." and again before I could say what I was worried about he would say, "No. No. No. It's too soon to worry. It's only January. Worry in March". And of course in March the same thing would happen and so on. Until my business became a success!

That's the sort of thing mentors do!

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
I'll start with Dr. Robin Smith. Dr. Smith is a pioneer and renowned thought leader in the area of regenerative medicine. She is an M.D. with an M.B.A and the founder of an organization called Stem For Life. Stem For Life fosters global awareness of regenerative medicine. Dr. Smith led NeoStem as the CEO for nine years until it was sold. Neostem was a leader in the development of cell therapies to combat diseases including cancer. Cell therapies offer an alternative to chemotherapy and are founded on the premise that we can fight disease from within. That premise is aligned with what we believe at Gabriella's Kitchen. By strengthening our cells through food or medicine we can fight or prevent disease. I admire Dr. Smith because she dared to think out of the box!

I also admire Indra Nooyi. She steered Pepsi into healthier options ten years ago and everyone thought she was crazy. Today Pepsi is one of the most diversified companies in the world and is well positioned to take advantage of the shift in consumer attitudes towards better for you foods.

And I have to mention Margaret Thatcher. What makes me admire her was her courage, her willingness to take the bullets in the chest but not back down from her goals and her beliefs.

What do you want Gabriella's Kitchen to accomplish in the next year?
I want Gabriella's Kitchen skinnypasta™ to find a place in the homes of all the people who have given up eating pasta because it's unhealthy for them, whether it's because they can't digest gluten, are on a diet, can't tolerate high carbohydrates or don't want the spike in their glycemic index because they are diabetic or pre-diabetic.

And I want all those people who think they have to eat food that doesn't taste good to get the health benefits they want to discover skinnypasta and realize they don't have to compromise. It really is possible to eat delicious AND nutritious!