BY JANE DOUCET
Anna Seymour knew she was doing the right thing when, after a decade working in marketing for Maple Leaf Foods, she resigned from the work she loved. Her mother was dying from cancer, and Seymour wanted to support both of her parents during that process. That was two years ago, and the then 38-year-old Seymour had two young children, not to mention a job that required overtime and her full attention. She couldn’t do it all, but stepping away from work could cause a long, possibly permanent, professional setback. Instead, that hiatus launched Seymour into a new category in an industry where women executives are rare.
Seymour’s road to marketing had been a winding one. In 1997, she graduated from University of Toronto with an honours BSc in medical toxicology. Contemplating medical school, she instead took a job as a production supervisor in the pharmaceutical industry for BDH Inc., a subsidiary of Merck. In the late 1990s, she started an MBA part-time at York University’s Schulich School of Business, finishing it in 2002. “I completely fell in love with marketing,” she says. “I thought, holy shit, people get paid to do this? This is art and science — I loved the creative combination. I knew then what I was going to do for the rest of my life.” During the break to be with her family, Seymour took her mother to doctors’ appointments, cleaned her parents’ house, cooked meals for them, and looked after the necessary paperwork when someone has chosen to die at home. When her mother passed away, Seymour knew there was nothing more she could have done. But 15 months after tendering her resignation, the 40-year-old was ready to pursue a new opportunity.
Corby Distilleries hired Seymour as director of strategic planning, insights and innovation, where she has been tasked with expanding the company’s product line. “I’m going for the jugular in terms of creating new products,” she says. That includes appealing more to women’s palates — an unusual move in an industry known for making and selling products that have been marketed to men, by men. Seymour knows that she’s well equipped for the job. “I was hired because I take calculated risks,” she says. (At Maple Leaf she certainly increased revenue: establishing and expanding the Prime poultry brand.)
This September, Corby is a launching a premium liqueur, Criollo, in select liquor stores across Canada. And while the aisles may be stocked with other sweet drinks, this one is different. “It has been designed and delivered by Canadian women for women,” says Seymour. Consumer product tests and focus groups ultimately drove the direction of the category and flavours.
It’s the first time Corby has marketed specifically to women, and Seymour believes it’s one way her industry is responding to female consumers and creating room for female employees. “The reality is that the spirits industry has been male-focused for decades,” she says. “The opportunity today is to recognize that women are a powerful and emerging consumer group with distinct needs that can no longer be ignored.”
When you receive an email from Helen MacMillan, you may notice that her signature at the bottom reads Helen “The Big Fish” MacMillan. Is this a reference to the fact that the regional Vice-President and General Manager of Casino Nova Scotia is the first female GM of the 550-employee casino, which has locations in Halifax and Sydney? Is it perhaps alluding to the fact that she is the only female VP in its Richmond, B.C.-based parent company, Great Canadian Gaming Corporation, which boasts 4,500 employees?
No — but those are accurate details. And they’re impressive, considering that only one woman has the top job at a provincial gaming corporation (Saskatchewan Gaming Corporation president and CEO Twyla Meredith), according to the Canadian Gaming Association. Rather, The Big Fish is a nod to MacMillan’s plans to increase both entertainment events and visitors — and to follow the FISH! Philosophy (business practices designed to increase service quality, ensure repeat customers and build teamwork, trust and a positive work culture). “Through the process, which I started last year, I’ve become known by my team as The Big Fish,” says MacMillan.
That title certainly applies to MacMillan, 47, now, even though she didn’t set out to earn it. After the Pictou, N.S., native earned a BA from Mount Saint Vincent University in 1990, she planned to become a teacher. Then her father was diagnosed with cancer, and she shelved her bachelor of education plans so she could spend time with him before he died. In the 1990s, MacMillan worked briefly as a modelling scout before managing PR and research at Halifax’s Odyssey International for such automakers as General Motors, Vauxhall and Ford. That experience led to a stint in the Luton, England, Vauxhall office, where a Canadian named Cynthia Trudell was GM. “It was the first time I had seen a woman in a senior position in the auto industry, and it left an impression,” says MacMillan.
What followed was three years as an account executive at Halifax’s M5 marketing agency. In 2003, MacMillan became Casino Nova Scotia & Hotel’s advertising manager, then, two years later, communications director. From 2007 to 2011, she was the Vancouver based executive marketing director for Great Canadian Gaming Corporation. she enjoyed that job, so when she was approached about becoming Casino Nova Scotia’s regional VP and GM, she wasn’t interested.
“I didn’t think I had the confidence, since my background was marketing, not operations,” she says. “But then I talked to family and colleagues who believed I could do it.”
In January of 2011, MacMillan stepped into her new role; since then she has been working to influence different audiences — including women, with such female-focused products as a Sex and the City slot machine, women’s poker tournaments and ladies’ nights (an Australian male-revue group sold out two shows during the June stagette season). These additions may sound campy, even stereotypical, but they have followers; they bring customers and revenue. Casino Nova Scotia generated nearly $30 million last year.
MacMillan asserts that there are plenty of opportunities for women in the gaming industry, from lottery executives and heads of crown corporations overseeing provincial gaming to senior roles in marketing, operations and government relations. As for her plans for Casino Nova Scotia, “I think I can make a difference by helping Nova Scotians understand that casino gaming is a form of entertainment that is conducted in the most responsible way, and that it’s a sustainable revenue stream for the province. That’s why I’m here.”