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The business of creativity: A conversation with design firm owner, Susan McIntee

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As the co-owners of Earth Inc., a successful landscape design firm in Toronto, Kennedy McRae and James Dale have the opportunity to meet (and create beautiful backyards for) some powerhouse women of influence. In this Q&A, they’re introducing the WOI community to their client, Susan McIntee, Principal and Creative Director of Toronto design firm 52 Pick-up Inc.


By James Dale and Kennedy McRae




Like us, Susan McIntee has been in business for 20 years, and is in a highly creative industry where her own ideas and passion shape the work she does. While working with Susan on her midtown Toronto backyard, we came to learn about her experience as an entrepreneur. Her story is inspiring — and needs to be shared. So we sat down to chat with her about business ownership, balance, and the art of keeping creativity alive amidst all the hard work.   


How did you get your start in the design industry?

My parents left for the United States when I was finishing high school — but I decided to stay here. I took time off schooling and got a job opening and running retail stores for a Canadian designer. A few years in I found out that I had a brain tumor. There’s nothing like that sort of epiphany to help you make a life decision. I had the tumor removed, and decided to go back to school. I was a mature student at George Brown College where I met my business partner, Nick Monteleone. We always shared ideas and thought that maybe someday we’d do something together. But first, I worked for an amazing design agency in Toronto — probably the best in North America, if not internationally — and gratefully won many awards and got a lot of experience. In 1998, 52 Pick-up was born.


We were both working at a successful landscaping firm when we quit to start Earth Inc. so we know it can be tough to make that leap. How did you find the courage to leave a good job and start out on your own?

I had a lot of weird health issues throughout my life. When I was 11 I had big problems with one of my kidneys. I’d always had a survivor mentality. And I was a bit fearless. There’s nothing like being faced with health concerns to help you realize that you either pick up and carry on, or shrink in a corner — and that’s not me. If I’m going to do something, I’m going to do it on my own terms.


Like us, you’ve always been in business with a partner. How do you guys keep things running smoothly? Have there been any major challenges you’ve come across?

With the challenges, comes a greater understanding and strength in the business. This is our 20th year in business and sure, there have been lots of challenges. But, we’ve always done well with our clients. Nick is a very calm, patient, amazingly creative talent. I’m a little bit more on the business side. But like Nick, I too am an award winning creative designer and I’ve got lots of great ideas — and, I fear, far too many opinions.

But you have to have mutual respect, you have to have that greater understanding, you have to have empathy and compassion. And you have to communicate. Sometimes it means being locked in a room and hashing stuff out. But a lot of it is just appreciating where the other person is coming from, and being able to work together as a team.


We always give credit to how supportive our wives have been in helping us grow our business. Who do you guys turn to for support?

We’ve always surrounded ourselves with people who are equally passionate about their work. One of the first things we did was hire a really awesome accountant who helped us a lot. We continue to bring people forward to help inspire us and keep us on the right track. My best friend is our lawyer, so she’s someone I lean on quite a bit to help negotiate things like HR that I’m not qualified for. You can’t be an expert in everything.


We have to ask you about balance. As creative types, it’s something we all struggle with. What do you do to keep the creativity high and the stress low?

I’m single right now and I don’t have kids, so I can’t even begin to know what women with kids go through. But you know, it’s hard. You can’t always leave work at work. It’s always in the back of your mind. Even when I come home, I’m researching, I’m reviewing things, getting to the emails I didn’t get to. I walk my dog a few times a day. I have great friends around me and great family.

Also, I must say… thank god you guys put a Jacuzzi in my backyard! Before I met you, I had never used my backyard space properly. It was essentially an overgrown orchard. Now it’s a beautiful, serene extension of my home and I can go out there to relax and recharge.


What’s it like as a female business owner in your industry?

I see the way some clients relate to Nick versus the way they relate to me. I could be saying the same thing, but he’ll come out and say it and they’ll say “oh yeah” — sometimes they want to hear it from a man. Women can be tough on one another. This is why I feel organizations like Women of Influence are so important. With the “Me Too” movement, women should appreciate and mentor one another and grow together. It’s a very interesting time.


Who has been your greatest mentor and what’s the best advice they gave you?

That’s easy. It has to be my father. He was in advertising and passed away in 2014. I like to think that I have some of his talent and have conducted myself in a most honourable way, as he did. The advice: work hard and feel passionate about what you do. That’s how my dad lived.