Women Mean Business: Anne Whelan

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Anne Whelan

Seafair Capital Inc., St. John’s

Anne Whelan, the President and Chief Executive Officer of St. John’s-based Seafair Capital Inc., has built successful companies in the personal care, hospitality and real estate sectors, but she can still trace her entrepreneurial roots to something unusual: clown makeup.

In her early teens, Whelan did a professional clowning course with well-known entertainer Beni Malone, and parlayed those skills into a business of entertaining children at birthday parties.

“Parents would hire me,” she says with a chuckle of remembrance. “It wasn’t very cool, but it was a very successful entrepreneurial adventure and I always had a few dollars in my pocket because of it and I got the bug from there.”

That was a long time ago, but Whelan still very much has an entrepreneurial flair. Seafair Capital Inc. – which she describes as being “adventurous and grounded in Newfoundland and Labrador” – now employs more than 600 people through such companies as Care Givers, Blue Sky Family Care, and BrenKir Industrial Supply.

“I was always inspired by the rural entrepreneurs — the guys who had five or six things going on. They didn’t have to be very huge to make a comfortable living and they had diversification,” says Whelan, who went into business for herself after working with non-profits and NGOs.

“That is its own entrepreneurial focus – where you have to make something out of nothing.”

Describing herself as a “practical optimist,” Whelan has come to appreciate some skills as being critical for running a business, including leadership, learning how to ask for help, and resolving to “do the hard stuff,” including learning how to say no.

She also sees a particular need in small business. “I think we need to improve financial literacy. I read this article saying fully two thirds of entrepreneurs with business over $500,000 couldn’t understand a set of financial statements,” she says. “They don’t really know what it means for their business. It’s a skill we don’t teach and you have to find a way to learn it.”

Whelan’s companies have grown steadily, but she says the reality of expanding a business can be pretty gritty.

“Everyone thinks when you are busy, you are making a lot of money, and often it’s not related at all. Our company experienced massive growth and the results of that are not always pretty,” she says, adding that she has learned how to be on very good terms with her banker.

Of her advice to people thinking of starting out on their own, Whelan advises, “Don’t let fear of failure stop you. I have learned more from the things that have gone wrong in my entire career than any of the things that went right.”

Whelan has found membership in NLOWE to be especially enriching, particularly on days when running a business can feel a little draining.

“It’s not just the programming but the networking, the people who are able to encourage you,” she says. “What I think might not be so great, others think is awesome. It gives you the energy to keep at it. Work-life balance is a particular struggle for women entrepreneurs.”

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