Cathy Bennett has always needed to be the leader.
“My family will share stories about how at a very young age, even in play, if we played school, I had to be the principal. If we played church, I had to be the pope,” said Bennett, who was named CEO of the Year in Atlantic Canada on Wednesday night, as part of Atlantic Business Magazine’s annual celebration of the Top 50 CEOs in the region. It’s the fourth time Bennett — whose Bennett Group of Cos. have holdings in restaurants, real estate and international recruitment — has been named to the list, and her first time as CEO of the Year.
“You always hope that when you’re in that group of 50 you’ll be recognized, and I think I was lucky to have my family with me last night and have them experience it,” she said, adding she was still surprised to take the top honour this year, her fourth time being named to the Top 50 list.
“When I looked around the room in previous dinners, I was always struck by the calibre of business leadership that was in the room. It was leadership that I aspired to, and I’m still trying to pinch myself to say that I’m kind of in that group. So to be recognized among my peers as the top CEO is a little humbling. There’s a lot of great talent in Atlantic Canada, so it was a group that I didn’t necessarily feel that I was ahead of the pack yet.”
It’s also the first time the CEO of the Year has been a woman — and Bennett said it feels “amazing” to be the first, but she doesn’t want to be the last.
“I think it’s really cool to be first. I think it’s even cooler not to be the only one,” she said.
Female Newfoundland and Labrador CEOs were well-represented in the province’s showing, with three of the eight CEOs being female. There were no women on the list from Prince Edward Island and one co-winner from New Brunswick. Nova Scotia, with three times the number of people in the Top 50, had just five women.
Bennett — who credited her supportive spouse, Doug, for assuming responsibility of their home life, without which she says she couldn’t have done it — said the province’s relatively small female CEO pool breeds very strong leaders, who draw inspiration from each others’ successes.
“I think the female business community in Newfoundland is probably a little smaller than Nova Scotia, at least for me,” she said.
“I take a lot of inspiration from fellow business leaders like Nora Duke or Allison Chaytor-Loveys, who have been recognized in the hall of fame. It’s women like that who have inspired me locally to think about what more can I do, how diverse can I get? I think because we do have a smaller group in the female business community, we network more. And I think when you’re networking and talking to each other, you inspire each other.”
Atlantic Business Magazine editor Dawn Chafe said the selection of a woman was historic not just for the magazine’s Top 50 list, but for any regional award of its type.
“(It’s) absolutely big news,” said Chafe. “Not only our first female CEO of the year for us, but looking at any regional list of business leadership award recognitions, she is the first female on any level.”
Chafe noted Newfoundland and Labrador had fewer names in the Top 50 — eight this year, fewer than half of last year’s 17 — but felt the province was still well-represented. And that the judges — a panel of executives from the Top 50 CEO Hall of Fame — chose Bennett is no surprise, she added.
“She really is the epitome of what it means to be a Top 50 CEO,” she said.
“She had the fifth-fastest-growing company on the Top 50 list this year. She’s got 800 people on staff. She’s seeing phenomenal growth. She’s an incredible industry leader who has diversified over time from just franchises, moving out into commercial and residential real-estate development. We’re also looking at someone who’s moved into international human-resource recruitment.”
Besides her business bona fides, said Chafe, Bennett is a leader in the community.
“She’s also chaired the Ronald McDonald House capital campaign, (which) raised $6.5 million in
18 months,” she said. “So on every level of what represents a Top 50 CEO, she’s there.”
The other CEOs from Newfoundland and Labrador named to the list:
‰ Paul Antle, president and CEO of Pluto Investments, St. John’s;
‰ John Atkins, president, JAC, Mount Pearl;
‰ Ken Bennett, president, The Johnson Corp., St. John’s (also named to the Top 50 Hall of Fame);
‰ Nora Duke, president and CEO, Fortis Properties Corp., St. John’s (also named to the Top 50 Hall of Fame);
‰ Patrick O’Callaghan, East Coast Catering Ltd., St. John’s;
‰ Anne Whelan, president and CEO, Seafair Capital, St. John’s; and
‰ Stephen Winter, president and CEO, Newfoundland Labrador Liquor Corp., St. John’s.