Mary Susanne. The Story of My Career. My Own Business

posted June 10th, 2011 by Janet Graham - Leave a Comment

Mary Susanne continued: “My license from the OSC was to be effective on January 15, 1986, so I was leaving MICC after Christmas 1985 and starting my business in January 1986. I thought my first client was going to be the pension fund at MICC, however, just before Christmas, in fact as I was leaving for Christmas holidays, the secretary to the CEO at MICC came to see me.  She was so upset.  She said I just have to tell you this before I type the letter. The letter said that they would not give me the pension fund to manage. They were going to manage it themselves which they managed to make a mess of, but that’s neither here nor there.  They were mad that I was leaving and that was the kind of mentality they had about it.  In the end, I left my job to start my business with no clients. Fortunately, the thought, at least, of having that client helped me to get the bank financing.  The fact that I didn’t get that client was quite unfortunate.”


“Anyway, life goes on, in fact, it goes back to the Marks and Spencer story because by knowing the principals, when they came to Canada and bought People’s they ended up with the People’s pension fund to manage and they asked me to manage it which was a great beginning for me. And through the lawyer who helped me with my letter to Wood Gundy when I was fired and negotiating my severance, I ended up getting some clients.”


“At the very beginning, it was difficult to get clients from that lawyer or anyone else because interest rates were so high that no one needed to come to me to invest. They could just go to the banks and with $60,000 per institution guaranteed by the government, they could have deposits all over the city and earn interest at rates of 12% and 14%.  They didn’t need me.  At the same time, we started having all these political problems in Canada.  We had GST, free trade, a bunch of different problems with Quebec and an NDP government in Ontario, all things that made it very difficult for me when I first started my business.  I started in January 1986 and the big crash occurred in October 1987 which wasn’t a very happy situation.  The American market came back very quickly but the Canadian market didn’t come back quickly for the reasons I have just mentioned, all the political stuff, including Quebec separatism. Everything that you could imagine was in there and it was another four years before things turned around.  In the meantime, interest rates were still high enough that it didn’t really matter to most people, except it mattered to me.”


“At the same time, my landlady decided that I was no longer going to be able to rent my flat in her Rosedale property.  She wanted me to move out because I’d had the benefit of rent control and she wanted to increase the rents. I found myself in the summer of 1988, just trying to hang on financially and having to find a place to live and wanting to own and finance it.  At that stage, my parents were getting along in age and my mother was able to help me a little bit with the house but everybody was struggling. I could hardly take money from my parents when the money they had was for them to enjoy their life.  I ended up dealing with a mortgage broker who helped me find the money to finance the house. I was able to make very, very minimal repairs to my new house when I bought it. It needed a new roof and a new furnace, nothing very special but they had to be done.”

I asked Mary Susanne what motivated her to buy a house when she had just been “evicted” from her apartment and was in the midst of starting up her own business. She said:Well I felt that at that stage in my life because by then I was 40, I felt it was time to buy a house. I had gotten away with a wonderful situation previously where I had been in a house for ten years, on the second floor, with a fireplace, a driveway, a little balcony, and a very reasonable rent.  I was living in a million dollar home on a million dollar street thinking I had a million dollars too.  It was a rude shock to go out and see what was available because it was a high real estate market as well, not only high interest rates, but high real estate values.  So it was a very, very tricky time to buy. I remember driving along the street where I now live one Sunday night in the pouring rain and seeing a handwritten sign out in front of a house with all the numbers smudged on it. I went back there the next day and knocked on the door and that’s how I found and bought my house.”


“I wanted to be close to my grocery store charge account and my tennis club and be able to take the same great route I had found to get around the city when driving.  Those were my boundaries but when I first went to look at houses I just couldn’t get over how cheek by jowl they were.  You could smell what the guy in the next house was having for dinner or you’d have your neighbour’s laundry fluttering right outside your window.  It was quite different from living in my old neighbourhood.  However, I survived. I moved on.”


“And then, Marks and Spencer sold the People’s Stores to Wise Stores and with the sale went the pension fund that I was managing. At the same time, even if that hadn’t happened, they had new management in the UK and that management wanted everything done by people in the UK.  In the end, it wouldn’t have mattered.  They had their own lawyers, their own insurance and their own health coverage and everything was going to be done from the UK.  When they sold People’s, I ended up with a lot of the M&S executives who stayed here when the company was sold and they had cashed out their stock and they provided a very solid basis of new clients.  In the end, even though I lost the pension business, I ended up with some business out of it and some very wonderful friendships, two of whom are still part of my life.  Another one’s daughter is a high-profile lawyer in Paris and my niece ended up working there as an au pair for her. I love connections. I maintain them. I work them. I love them. That’s how my business started and it’s just taken off from there but in the beginning, it was a very, very difficult struggle.”


“The time soon came for me to repay my backer which added stress but at the same time the loan that he had given me was at double-digit interest rates.  I mean, kids today have no idea.  They think I’m crazy but it was not fun and I was also paying the mortgage on my house.  It was a pretty dismal start. My mother gave me a birthday card once with a cat hanging upside down saying “just hang in there baby” and that’s what it was all about. You just learned to do that and so I did.”


“My office had been in the TD Centre when I started and I moved to the building where I am now located and I shared office space with somebody I was thinking I might join but I really do like the idea of being independent.  It is a 24/7 job, there’s no question about it, and a huge responsibility but on the other hand you can come and go as you like and you don’t have a lot of office politics.  And I have somebody who is a partner in a sense, licensed by the Ontario Securities Commission, who helps me with my overhead and she has a right of first refusal on my shares but I think partnerships, sometimes they work beautifully, sometimes they’re very acrimonious and I would prefer to limit the acrimony in my life.”


“It’s been quite a struggle to get where I am and it hasn’t been easy the last couple of years because people aren’t moving around so much and I’ve wanted to get another partner for this office because there is extra space but people are loathe to move, you know, the entrepreneurial spirit is not always there and the banks are making sure that they keep their people.  They’re paid to gather assets so the onus isn’t on them to choose stocks the way I love to do.  It’s a different raison d’etre being a broker today. The pressure to collect assets is huge even if you’re in a local branch at a bank. If you see that Mrs. Smith has X number of dollars in her account, you’re trying to cross-sell to her.  This kind of competition wasn’t there when I first started but now they’re trying to sell their bank mutual funds some of which do very well so it’s understandable and it’s easy and  people think it’s one-stop shopping but the people you deal with change.  For me and my clients, it’s the continuity of service here that comes first and the fact that we don’t have push 1, push 2 when you call. You get a real live voice when you call here unless you call on the weekend or after hours and then you’ll get voice mail.”


I asked Mary Susanne to think in terms of the career choices she had made what had prompted her to make them. She said: “Well, I didn’t want to be a librarian and I didn’t want to be a teacher.  I had been a Kappa Kappa Gamma at university and one of my mentors there was a woman who worked for Bill Wilder at Wood Gundy and so I’d heard about the investment business from her and that’s how I got my summer job at Wood Gundy and then worked for them in London, England.  Going to work for Wood Gundy was a career choice.  As far as my educational background of history and French, one of the things that’s most important in the investment business, I think, is the cyclicality of it and, although different things happen in different cycles basically it’s cyclical.  It goes up, it goes down, it goes up, it goes down, and a background in history gives you an overview of cycles, or at least it teaches you about cycles.  So it wasn’t as far-fetched as you might think.”


“The next thing that you need in the investment business is common sense and an ability to distance yourself emotionally from what’s going on. I believe the ability to distance yourself comes from experience with and knowledge of cycles.  I’ve made lots of mistakes, we all do, but when push comes to shove I’ve done pretty well for my clients. I don’t panic.  If I do anything really badly, it would be staying with something that I shouldn’t have long past its due date but on the other hand I don’t go out and liquidate in a panic, I have faith that it will come back.  I have a global view and I think that’s important.  I travel. I have been to China and India.  I think when you stay here you get a very narrow view of things and that creates panic.  A year ago, I was in Paris, and for all the talk about the Euro and the economy, the place was jammed with people of all nationalities and all income brackets.  We had to go to one of the department stores for something and it was like a mob scene and on Saturday night on the Champs-Elysées, it was packed. There was a different feeling there than a few years ago and maybe the uproar of the moment hadn’t quite filtered through to everybody but I think it’s important to go to these places and see for your self what’s going on.”


I asked Mary Susanne where she turned for support when she made her career choices. She said: “My parents were always very good at giving advice.  They were both lawyers.  My mother always said they’ll never change. You have to be better than the average man to succeed and don’t make a big deal about being a woman, or not being a woman, just get on with it.  This was always very helpful advice.  I would thank my parents and my friends.  My backer was a surprise. He came out of nowhere to back me and I have sought advice from him over the years and it’s always been very sage. The woman I worked for in Montreal at the Royal Bank; she was always a tremendous help to me until she died three or four years ago.  I haven’t had a huge, broad spectrum of advice in recent years.  I have a group of people in our business, men and women but women in particular who if I were to make another move I probably would go to them for advice.  I’ve built up my contacts now but when I was starting and making the kind of decisions I was making I wasn’t as close to some of those people as I am now.”


What Strikes Me?

The courage it takes to make ground breaking career decisions on your own


Life goes on


No setback is insurmountable


The importance of our relationships and connections to others


Being able to survive and move on, no matter what life throws your way


The strength of character perseverance requires


What Strikes You?


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