Interviewee: Marnie Walker
Company: 401 Bay Street
Marnie Walker is an amazing woman who is proof that you can get anything you want in life if you want it bad enough and are prepared to do what it takes. In her last year of high school she became critically ill and subsequently spent many years struggling to walk. I recently met Marnie at an international conference and knew that I had to interview her so that you may learn from her. Get a notebook and pen because you are sure to learn a thing-or-two from this serial entrepreneur who was named Canadian Women Entrepreneur of the year in 2004.
Avil Beckford: Tell me a little bit about yourself.
Marnie Walker: Starting and building organization is exciting to me. It comes as no surprise then, that I am a serial entrepreneur. My current business is 401 Bay Centre, a fully serviced office facility at 401 Bay Street, in the heart of downtown Toronto. Prior to that I started and built Student Express, a school bus company from a start up to a multi-million dollar company with a fleet of 250 buses, which I sold. I love being around entrepreneurs. There is an excitement and magic about them. They are out there every day creating, innovating, doing. I teach entrepreneurship at the Schulich School of Business, am a founding Board member of Maple Leaf Angels investment organization and sit on several boards. I am married to a supportive husband, Bill Fahey and live in Toronto and Australia.
Avil Beckford: What’s a typical day like for you?
Marnie Walker: While living in Australia where I am now, I get up between 5 and 6 am when the sun comes up. This is my favorite time of the day. It is fresh and beautiful with the day just unfolding. After a coffee and fruit, I head into my office and get on line with Toronto. It is afternoon there. I usually work until noon and then go out and do something. Sometimes, it is a walk on the beach, a swim, a drive, a hike in the rainforest or visiting friends. Other times I sit on my lounge and read a book or just think… If I have a big project to do, I may work all day.
Avil Beckford: How do you motivate yourself and stay motivated?
Marnie Walker: Long ago, I discovered that if I do what I love to do, I do it well, and am happy. So I try very hard to organize my life, so I do what I love and love what I do. Then motivating myself is easy. The trick here is to find people to share your life with who are different than you and like to do the things you don’t and vice versa. Then you can focus on what you love to do, and so can they.
Avil Beckford: If you had to start over from scratch, knowing what you know now, what would you do differently?
Marnie Walker: Like many women my age, I have too often given up or postponed my dreams and needs for others. I have realized as life has unfolded that while many of my dreams and needs have, are and will be met, others will not. Knowing how precious time is, I would have been more selective with how I spent it, and focused more and earlier on making my dreams a reality.
Avil Beckford: What’s one of the biggest advances in your industry over the past five years?
Marnie Walker: The way people work has dramatically changed over the past five years with technology advances in communications. 401 Bay Centre is part of this new office reality where resources like meeting rooms, reception and administrative support are shared and only used when needed. This new office model reduces the financial overhead for an organization as well as the environmental footprint.
Avil Beckford: What are the three threats to your business, your success, and how are you handling them?
Marnie Walker: The biggest threat to 401 Bay Centre is the state of the economy and the tight financial markets. To meet this challenge, we have reviewed our costs and modified our services to increase the value to our clients. Examples include: more team offices, expanded administrative support, frequent user discounts for meeting rooms, discount long distance packages, discounts on services, reduced lease terms.
Avil Beckford: What’s unique about the service that you provide?
Marnie Walker: 401 Bay Centre is unbranded, the address is the name. Therefore the office has the look and feel to clients of their own private space. We offer all the services and administrative help a company needs. Having started and run businesses, I understand these needs well and have put together the facilities and team to provide them. Our location on prestigious Bay Street, with direct access to the P-A-T-H, Queen subway, underground parking, Sheraton Centre, The Bay and the new Bay Adelaide Centre is fantastic. The views from the office are great. The building has been recognized for excellence in both management and its ‘Green’ focus.
Avil Beckford: What do you observe most people in your field doing badly that you think you do well?
Marnie Walker: I believe 401 Bay Centre offers a level of client service that is not available elsewhere. Our philosophy is to be become part of our client’s team and work together. Being owner run and operated is a huge advantage.
Avil Beckford: Describe a major business or other challenge you had and how you resolved it.
Marnie Walker: 401 Bay Centre opened November, 2008 in the heart of the financial crisis. Our target market was small companies wanting to grow and professionals. The market went into freefall. We quickly refocused our offices and services to companies looking to downsize, and companies and branch offices looking for temporary space due to uncertainty regarding their long term needs, and organizations looking to reduce their overhead.
Avil Beckford: What lessons did you learn in the process?
Marnie Walker: Flexibility and quick reaction to changing market conditions and other challenges is the key to continued success.
Tell me about your big break and who gave you.
Marnie Walker: There have been many people who have helped me throughout my life, I call them my heroes. Many of them did not realize the impact they had on my life. My kindergarten teacher who encouraged my curiosity; my hematologist who helped me recover from a serious illness; a professor at Western University who encouraged me to enter the business school, the dean at the Schulich School of Business who helped me re-locate to Toronto, the official at the York Region District School Board who gave me my first bus contract, my first client at 401 Bay Centre, my current team at 401 Bay Centre who look after the clients so well.
Avil Beckford: Describe one of your biggest failures. What lessons did you learn, and how did it contribute to a greater success?
Marnie Walker: I have never failed. However, I have many bumps in the roads and a few dead ends.
I have learned to get up, shake myself off and get on with it. There is always a solution – I just have to find it.
What has been your biggest disappointment in your life – and what are you doing to prevent its reoccurrence?
Marnie Walker: My biggest disappointment has been the inability to have children of my own. I raised two stepchildren in my first marriage and am involved in the lives of my nieces and nephews, and children of my friends.
What’s one of the toughest decisions you’ve had to make and how did it impact your life?
Marnie Walker: The decision to sell Student Express was one of the most difficult decisions. It was my baby, I created it, built it, and loved being part of it. However, the offer I received was too good to receive and I sold it. At first I felt like I had fallen off a cliff. Now I realize it was a wonderful opportunity to experience new things and make more of my dreams a reality.
Avil Beckford: What are three events that helped to shape your life?
Marnie Walker: When I was in my last year in high school, I became very ill and spent seven months in the hospital and many years struggling to walk. While this was devastating, I learned that if you want something bad enough, and work hard you can overcome anything. I went to the University of Western Ontario. I took an introductory business course, which I loved. My professor realized I had an aptitude for business and helped me enter the business school. I had found what I loved to do and was good at. This is remarkable as it was a large class and women were uncommon in the business school at that time. There were only two women in my class. The decision to leave the Corporate world and become an entrepreneur led me to start and build two successful companies – Student Express and 401 Bay Centre – and to teaching entrepreneurship at the Schulich School of Business which I love.
Avil Beckford: What’s an accomplishment that you are proudest of?
Marnie Walker: I was named Canadian Women Entrepreneur of the year in 2004 in recognition of growing Student Express from a start-up to a multi-million company with a fleet of 250 buses. The award further acknowledged the contribution Student Express made to transporting special needs students which was our focus. It was wonderful to be able to make a difference to the lives of these children and their families and be successful as a business as well.
Avil Beckford: How did mentors influence your life?
Marnie Walker: I met Tina Breckinridge, when I was in my 20’s. She had a profound impact on my life. She was a successful business person, an independent thinker, travelled the world, had a loving family and friends, was a great cook, had a wonderful home, loved art, ballet, opera, was widely read and sharp witted. She taught me that I could do it all and be myself! Tina is 102, lives alone in her home in Oakville. She is still a remarkable woman.
Avil Beckford: What’s one core message you received from your mentors?
Marnie Walker: It is your life, so take charge of it and live it the way you want.
Avil Beckford: As an Invisible Mentor, what is one piece of advice that you would give to readers?
Marnie Walker: Have the courage to follow your dreams even though it will lead you into uncharted waters.
Let’s keep the conversation flowing, please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.