Since launching her Turbine by Lisa Drader-Murphy label in 1997, Lisa’s company, Lisa Drader-Murphy Designs, has grown to operate eponymous boutiques in three provinces — all while manufacturing designs under a vertical model on a private heritage estate in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley. As one of the last vertical fashion houses in the country, they take great pride in designing and manufacturing all their garments in Canada.
Kathy Gregory is the founding president and CEO of Paradigm Quest Inc., the fastest growing mortgage company in Canada. Providing a one-stop solution — from origination to back-office mortgage solutions for lenders, enabled by revolutionary Fintech ― Paradigm has grown from a small start-up in 2004 to one of the leading financial tech and business processing companies in the country today, with $26 billion dollars in its portfolio, and major outsourcing contracts with Canadian chartered banks.
While fashion and finance might not appear to have much in common, both Kathy and Lisa have a story of courage that started their business, have overcome challenges that have impacted their respective industries, and have balanced their longstanding success with motherhood. In this Q&A hosted by Deloitte Private, Kathy and Lisa open up about their entrepreneurial journey, and their advice for other women looking to follow in their footsteps.
Kathy, you founded Paradigm after being let go from your job in the financial industry. Some people would have been defeated by being fired — how did you find the strength to start your own business?
When I was terminated as an executive of the bank, I had three kids, a new home with a big mortgage, and I was newly divorced. I knew I needed security, but I also had a business model in my head and I wanted to pursue it. I did not want to live with regrets or in fear. I often eliminate fear by asking myself, ‘If I do this, and I fail, is anybody going to die?’ The answer was no, so I decided to go for it, and build something great.
Lisa, you started your business when you should have been off enjoying maternity leave. What happened that made you want to start your own business during such a busy time in your life?
I was on maternity leave from my job as a designer for a garment manufacturer that produced industry firefighter garments. My maternity leave replacement was not working out and my boss asked me to come back to work. I accepted, and they built a nursery in my office for my 9-day-old baby. Shortly afterward, I was walking my baby through the factory in an attempt to put her to sleep to the sound of sewing machines and I came across some long-forgotten fabric in an unused portion of the factory. I had a vision for what the fabric could be, and with my boss’ blessing I whipped up a dozen pieces and threw a fashion show in the boardroom. My boss was so impressed we agreed to go into business together.
Kathy, not long after starting your company, you lived through the financial crisis of 2008. That must have been a challenging time as you tried to grow the assets and achieve break even. What lessons did you learn?
The 2008 crisis was shocking, but our first two years of being in business were way more stressful — limited capital and profile in financial services was a much more difficult hill to climb. From those start up days, we learned to always come together to solve problems as a leadership team, tackle the issue at hand dead on, and that full transparency and teamwork are everything. By the time 2008 came, we had already been through the ringer, and we had created a problem-solving culture.
You can make a plan as an entrepreneur, but you can’t plan for what you don’t know. You can’t predict challenges. Being prepared for whatever comes is the best advice I can give anyone; by surrounding yourself with a strong leadership team, with varied skill sets and the foundation of excellent governance. It’s not if, it’s when things might happen!
“You can make a plan as an entrepreneur, but you can’t plan for what you don’t know.”
Lisa, the retail industry has not been doing well the last couple years, but you’re expanding. What’s your secret and what can other entrepreneurs learn from your experience?
A few years ago retail entered a phase of disruption, and now it has entered crisis mode. We have never seen anything like the current market. The new generation is thoughtful, appreciates items of value in their life and are not interested in throw away clothes. They are ecological and like to know where their products come from, which is in-line with my business. I have a 100% vertical company, I own the design and manufacturing and thus can take an idea, create a sample and try it in our flagship store in two weeks. If the samples sell I can have them in all our locations with a very short turnaround. Most retail stores purchase clothing six months in advance, if they sell out that’s it, if they don’t work you are stuck with your inventory — I don’t have that issue.
What do you see as your biggest challenges in growing your company in the current environment? And what are you doing to overcome them?
Kathy: Our challenge and opportunity is the same — stay ahead! That’s enabled by two things: great technology and people. We spend time searching the globe to acquire the right people to bring the best technology and we now have the best IT team, who have the view of the client experiences as their mandate, to bring solutions to the market faster and better for the overall client experience. Our IT team is engaged in searching and finding solutions in and outside of Canada, as globalization for Fintech is vitally important to stay ahead of the curve.
Lisa: I’m celebrating 20 years in business with my label. For years, people would say I wasn’t doing it right. They wanted us to show our collections six months in advance, but I refused. Instead, I would invite my actual customers and show them in-season clothing and it really worked for us. The rest of the industry is now talking about the new fashion calendar, but that’s the way I have always done it.
You have both received a number of significant awards. Has it opened more opportunities for you in the Canadian marketplace?
Kathy: The awards and recognitions have raised my own personal profile, and has opened doors for me. I have had the pleasure of meeting and connecting with some amazing women with better and more challenging stories than me, and that really pushes me.
Lisa: I was recently recognized, for the second year in a row, by Atlantic Business Magazine’s Top 50 CEO Awards. I was hesitant to even respond to the nomination until the nominee reached out to me personally. She told me that I owe it to women to follow up, that there were so few women nominated and we all need to do our part and get women CEO’s more exposure. It has since opened doors in networking and mentorship, and one of the best things has been the young women that have come forward and asked me questions.
Kathy, when you took to the stage to accept the Award for Excellence in Entrepreneurship last year, you singled out Deloitte and thanked us for all our support — attributing your business’ success to the advice you received as a start-up. What a huge compliment.
Deloitte Private helped me develop my business idea and provided business advice in the initial years. It was critical for my new business to work with a reputable advisor like Deloitte, because it not only gave the organization much more credibility in the market, but was also tremendously helpful in building a strong governance foundation across the company. As my company grew, Deloitte was there to connect me with their financial institutions group to further grow my company.
Lisa, you recently participated in a Deloitte courage roadshow. Why is this topic important to you and your business?
My industry takes a lot of courage. I also felt it was really timely — we need to stop and focus on what we need to do next, because a lot of industries are being disrupted right now.
Both of you are not only successful entrepreneurs but also mothers. Do you have any advice for other working moms out there with a bright business idea?
Kathy: I’m most proud of being a mom to my three kids, but for sure the mom thing is very hard. It seems to me, we carry tremendous guilt and pressure to be perfect at being a mom and single moms don’t own all of that, it’s most moms. Many moms ask me how I do it. I answer that there are no perfect moms ― kids just want to be loved, so tell them and tell them often. Balanced doesn’t mean equal in number of hours, but it does mean balanced effort. To succeed I try to be very organized with my calendar. For example, for years now, everyone at the office knows that Wednesday is Kathy’s day to be with her kids. No office events, no client dinners ― that’s my for sure night with my kids. My kids know that Wednesday is our night too, no matter what one another’s schedule is. Like most things in life, nothing is perfect, but I think this is a good example of how being diligent at scheduling and being organized sets us up for success as much as we can.
Lisa: Balance has been my ongoing struggle. There are times when I master it and there are times when I feel like a complete failure. When my kids were much younger, we moved from Calgary to Nova Scotia to create work/family balance. When my daughter reached middle school, I expanded my business and opened more stores. It’s all about balance.
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