Feb 7, 2014, 17:56 PM
Michael J. Weiss
“Chief People Person”
Susan Oliver is a self-described people-person, a made-to-order temperament in her position as Vice President of Human Resources and Administration at Environics Analytics. Her training in the people business began early, with her first job. As a teenager, she worked as a summer information officer for Toronto Tourism—basically serving as the Answer Lady for a steady stream of inquisitive visitors wandering the city. She remembers her orientation consisted of a week-long junket enjoying meals and gifts from restaurateurs and shopkeepers—in hopeful exchange, of course, for future referrals.
“We realized that our job was to promote the sites that wined and dined us—even though we thought some were less than stellar,” Susan says. “Our motto was, ‘Every day a part of me dies because I tell lies.’” Susan and her fellow guides also learned to cope with repetitive questions and sometimes clueless tourists. “What would drive us nuts was that every day someone would ask, ‘Where’s the Space Needle?’ And we’d say, ‘Seattle. But the CN Tower is over there.’
“All in all, it was a good experience,” Susan concludes. “You learn to deal with all kinds of people.”
Susan’s ability to find silver linings and her upbeat attitude have served her well through a number of challenging assignments since her arrival at EA last year. She spearheaded the effort to develop an employee handbook, revamped the contract review process, established compensation pay bands for staffers and helped in the recent acquisition of Generation5. Perhaps the toughest job was developing, with Joseph Ng Chow, the company’s new CRM (customer relationship management) system. The project involved developing an easily accessible centralized database of EA’s clients, partners, prospects and media contacts. For years, success had eluded the many staff members who tried to tackle the project only to be thwarted by various technical and infrastructure issues.
"My philosophy is: ‘Keep your humour and keep going.'"
“The challenge was to understand the different requirements of groups to help make their jobs easier and more efficient,” explains Susan. “The devil was really in the details.” Faced with cleaning and standardizing multiple data sets and duplicate records, Susan and Joseph prevailed thanks to sheer determination and a cheerful disposition. Last December, the first edition of the CRM launched to much fanfare and glowing reviews from colleagues.
“Joseph and I have a similar philosophy, which is about remaining positive and constructive,” Susan observes. “We just kept plugging away. My philosophy is: ‘Keep your humour and keep going.’”
Few people dream as a child of one day becoming an HR executive, and Susan is no different. Born in Etobicoke, Ont., to an upper-middle-class family—her father was a marketing executive for Kodak Canada, her mother was a high school social science teacher—Susan daydreamed of a musical career. “As a kid, I wanted to be a singer,” she says. “And I was pretty good when I was younger.” She joined the school
A recent family portrait of Amanda,
Jonathan, dog Kiwi, Susan and Sarah.
choir and gave amateur performances at home. “We didn’t have ‘American Idol’ in those days,” she says. “So I’d stand on our hearth and sing into a decanter top.” Although her musical talents extended to learning the violin and performing with her school orchestra, she realized that she wasn’t good enough for the big stage. “I loved being part of the creative process, and I loved making music,” she says. “But I only sing in the shower now.”
Susan attended York University with thoughts of pursuing a career in communications and media, her dream job being “a radio host on CBC radio to interview interesting people all day.” She earned an Honour’s Bachelor of Arts degree in sociology and mass communications, but never made it to a radio studio. After two years of working for a communications agency, she turned to direct marketing. She joined Wunderman as an account executive and worked her way up to the level of vice president and account director. Over a twelve-year period, her clients included key accounts like IBM, Royal Bank, Diners Club, Apple Canada and Book-of-the-Month Club.
During this period, Susan met her husband, Jonathan, while standing in line at Joe Rockhead’s bar where a girlfriend’s birthday was being celebrated. She remembers enjoying his sense of humour while dodging his persistent efforts to get her phone number. “Then he gave me his business card and I noticed that he also worked at an ad agency,” she says. “So the next day, I called him up, which wasn’t typical of
Susan and husband Jonathan at the Four Seasons Hotel in Hualalai, Hawaii.
me.” Three and a half years later, the couple married and then, six months afterwards, her girlfriend from the birthday party started dating one of Jonathan’s buddies who had also been at the bar. “Two marriages came out of that one night,” says Susan, now a mother of two girls.
While her happy family was growing, Susan’s workdays were becoming more stressful: the higher she rose on the agency ladder, the more intense her workload became. After her second maternity leave, she wanted out. “It had become a 24/7 job and it was too insane,” she says. “I had no work-life balance.” Looking for a position that allowed more time with her two children, she joined ICOM and negotiated a four-day workweek as its senior marketing manager and privacy officer. After several years, she moved to Cornerstone and a similar role as Vice President of Marketing and Chief Privacy Officer. In 2011, she returned to ICOM, which had been acquired by Epsilon, this time as senior director of consumer marketing.
When Epsilon closed her division 18 months later, Susan met with Jan Kestle, EA’s president and a fellow member of the Canadian Marketing Association’s ethics and privacy committee, which Susan chaired. Jan was then looking for an executive to handle a number of management and operational projects, and Susan’s varied skillset fit the bill. In 2013, she joined EA.
Her position, as she describes it, “involves working on the company’s people systems, operational controls and administrative procedures to ensure we can operate efficiently today and grow over the long-term.” Behind the bureaucratese is a simple notion, she says: “It’s about people and process.”
But hers was hardly an auspicious beginning. On Susan’s first day at EA, Office Manager Donna Lyle explained that the company’s York Street location had become a bit overcrowded and she would have to set up her office in one of the kitchens—complete with sink, microwave, coffeemaker and shelves cluttered with computer parts. “At first, I thought she was joking,” Susan remembers. “And then she led me to a round table in the kitchen, and I thought, ‘Wow, this is different.’ But it turned out well because I got to meet so many people as they came to get water or coffee. I’m chatty so I used that as an opportunity to get to know everyone.” There it was: another silver lining.
Eventually Susan made it out of the kitchen to a workstation in the IT area, but she’s looking forward to her own dedicated work space once the company moves to 33 Bloor Street on February 21st. Susan is helping with the move, keeping the staff apprised of developments and attending to the myriad administrative details involved with changing locations. It’s the kind of
Susan and family on vacation several
years ago in Venice
project she excels at: herding multiple cats while making sure people are able to do their jobs from the minute the lights go on in the new office.
Joining EA has allowed Susan to become more familiar with the concept of work-life balance. She’s an active Hockey Mom, cheering on her two daughters who play in the Leaside Girls Hockey League. “I’m not an athlete,” she says, “so I can live vicariously through them.” Daughter Sarah, 14, is now attending her first year at North Toronto Collegiate. Amanda, 12, just started middle school after being name valedictorian of her elementary school and earning awards for student leadership and public speaking. Although husband Jonathan, who now works as a hedge fund administrator, was not a hockey fan when they married, a few years ago he took an adult hockey class “and has become addicted to the sport,” says Susan. “He plays twice a week, watches all the games and coaches our girls. When the Winter Classic game occurred while we were vacationing in Hawaii, he bought a Sling Box so he could watch the play on his computer at our hotel.”
Susan still loves music and likes to go to concerts—everything from classical to jazz to classic rock. She’s also an avid reader, especially of 19th century authors like Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskell, who wrote about the working class and industrial society, as well as contemporary authors such as Joseph Boyden (Through Black Spruce) and Geraldine Brooks (March). At their home in Davisville Village, which PRIZM classifies Continental Culture (upper-middle-class, multi-ethnic urban households), Susan is pursuing her passion for gardening, “mostly trying to create an English country garden in my backyard,” she says. “We have a small space and the garden takes up most of it”
But as she watches her girls grow up, Susan is keenly aware of the passage of time. She and Jonathan make a point of traveling with their girls, noting, “We want to make memories with them before they grow up and leave us.” They take a family vacation once a year and have already visited Prince Edward Island, Quebec City, New York City, Italy, Spain, England and the south of France, which she calls “my
An avid gardener, Susan works her magic in her summer garden.
spiritual home. My favourite place in the world is St. Remy,” she continues. “Everything about it is beautiful: the sunlight, the vineyards, the stone buildings and the people.”
To celebrate a special birthday, Susan and her family recently went to the Big Island of Hawaii where, by serendipity, they found themselves staying at the same luxury hotel as director Judd Apatow, his actress wife Leslie Mann and actor Ed O’Neill. Susan relished the celebrity sightings and the pampering of the Four Seasons Hotel—the towels draped on your chaise lounge, glasses of ice water kept filled to the brim, the pool aides who asked if you needed a cooling spritz of Evian water. “It made me realize why the rich are different. They’re a lot happier,” Susan laughs. “It’s easy to be happy when you’re living in the lap of luxury. Of course, my life isn’t like that. But it was a nice escape from reality.”
Then again, she concedes that even without the poolside pampering and steady flow of mai tais, her life these days is pretty good, surrounded as she is by a loving family at home and appreciative colleagues at work. “I really do take a lot of satisfaction about the little things in my life,” Susan observes. “Time is finite and you want to spend time with the people you enjoy. I feel very fortunate.” But that’s exactly what you’d expect to hear from a people-person with an eye for silver linings.
--Michael J. Weiss