Maureen Sabia, JD 1965

Chairman [sic] of Canadian Tire Corporation

On digital innovation in retail, going to law school in the '60s, and the must-have CT product for the summer

Interview by Lucianna Ciccocioppo / Photography by Cameron Jenkins

From the Spring/Summer 2016 issue of Nexus.


LC: Your Wow Guide, which reintroduced Canadian Tire’s paper catalogue, came out recently and it had the marketing and consumer worlds abuzz. It isn’t just a paper product. Its pages turn digital when you hover your mobile over them, opening up new content that has contributed to a lift in online sales. What was the thought process behind this, and how did this idea come to fruition?

MS: It’s all about innovation. Canadian Tire has a 94-year history of being innovative. In the early days, two brothers, AJ and JW Billes, had a little garage in Toronto and stayed up all night keeping the fires burning, so the tires wouldn't freeze. They thought very big. They were very innovative people. Long before anyone thought of profit sharing, they introduced profit sharing. They also introduced Canadian Tire money, which was the loyalty program of their day. It's the second currency in Canada now. Unlike the Canadian dollar, it holds its value. When the Billes brothers decided that they were going to have stores, the gurus of the day said you have to go with store managers. They said, ‘No, no. We're going to go with entrepreneurs who have a stake in the business."’ That's how our dealer network was born.

The whole retail world is being disrupted by technology. We hired Eugene Roman, who is world class, as our chief technology officer. Once you say ‘We're doing this,’ you hire the best because people are so important. Eugene brought in a whole new team. We were the first retailer in Communitech, a technology incubator, in Kitchener-Waterloo. We have our own Digital Garage, where our top digital innovators are now developing new in-store and online technologies at a faster pace, to support our journey of becoming a leader in the digitizing of retail. It's like a laboratory and they think about things like: ‘Where can we come up with an app that shows people who live in a certain district where the best fishing is?’ They come up with very interesting ideas, some of which work, some of which don't work. That's the nature of innovation—test and learn.

We built a cloud computing centre in Winnipeg, which is absolutely state-of-the-art. I have visited it. It's an amazing place, modeled on the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics. Many of the walls are white boards. There’s a control booth to monitor our cybersecurity that looks like an air traffic control centre, and everybody has a chance to sit in a well-designed area and collaborate with their fellow technologists. Their creative work allows all of our businesses to use the power of technology to offer innovative digital services to our customers.

We built the South Edmonton Commons store, which is significantly digital. There is a patio builder in-store that uses Oculus Rift technology. It allows customers to design their own patio and see it laid out—before they purchase the items. We built on the technology that Eugene helped develop for SportChek, including holograms and RFID [radio frequency identification] technology, where you can learn about the design features of the shoes on interactive digital screens.

Hiring a creative mind and putting the right team together can really jump-start an initiative like the Wow Guide. It takes leadership and commitment to both human resources and financial capital to do that, obviously. We're committed to digital technology but we're not going to abandon bricks and mortar. We're going to marry bricks and mortar with digital technology, so that it becomes clicks and mortar.

LC: What was the atmosphere like around here the day before the magazine landed in people's mail boxes and in the papers? Was there a buzz?

MS: Oh, there was a buzz. And there was some nervousness too because you don't know how something like this is going to be received. We did test after test after test and it worked but things can happen. We dropped 12 million copies in three days. My phone was ringing off the hook with people who received it. They couldn't believe it, just couldn't believe it! The reaction was all positive. We'll issue another Wow Guide in the fall.

LC: For every successful digital innovation, there's a big story about how something failed. Why do you think this worked so well?

MS: Smart people. I'm a big believer in smart people.

LC: Your e-commerce doesn't include home shipping. Is your digital strategy currently where you want it to be?

MS: No, not yet. It's an ongoing journey. Currently, we have a successful pay and pick-up system where customers shop online and then pick up at the store. We continue to work on this to simplify the process for our customers so they can find the items they want, when they want, and pick them up at their local store. While they are there, of course, we hope they will continue to shop.

In 2015 SportChek and Mark’s relaunched their ecommerce websites and both these brands have home delivery. As I said, it’s a journey and we are exploring and testing new ideas constantly.

LC: I read SportChek will be partnering with Facebook for direct online sales.

MS: Yes, they are exploring that and many other new ideas with Facebook. We have an excellent partnership with Facebook and it has afforded us many opportunities, like the launch of Facebook at Work earlier this year. We are the largest Canadian retailer using Facebook at Work. It’s a new platform for them, and from what I can see, it is really great for employees to collaborate, create groups and share ideas.

LC: Are you on Facebook?

MS: Traditional Facebook? No. But I am on Facebook at Work so I can tap in and see what people are saying and read people's ideas.

LC: Where do you see your omni-channel merchandising strategy taking Canadian Tire next? What are you envisioning five, 10 years down the road?

MS: I can't imagine 10 years down the road; it’s hard to know what’s happening next year. We will continue to pursue what is right for Canadian Tire, what is right for our customers and our brand.  

LC: What's the toughest thing about your job?

MS: Trying to control things—making sure people do the right things and accept accountability if they don’t.

LC: What frustrates you?

MS: I am not frustrated. My job as chairman is to make sure that the board functions as efficiently and productively as it can, and I work hard at that. Directors should no longer expect to come in a few times a year and that’s the end of it. Our board is very engaged in what is going on in the business at Canadian Tire on an ongoing basis, between meetings as well as at meetings. It's a very hard-working and committed board.

My job is to also make sure the dynamic among the members is an excellent one. Renewal from time to time is important because the skill sets required of the board will vary, depending on the needs of the company at any given time.

LC: Do you shop online?

MS: No. I prefer the in-store shopping experience.

LC: What kind of mobile do you have?

MS: I have a BlackBerry. I am a very big fan of [co-founder] Michael Lazaridis. I work with him at the Perimeter Institute and at Wilfred Laurier University, where his name is on the business school. I am a proud Canadian so I'll have a BlackBerry until they don't make them anymore. After all, BlackBerry put smart phones on the map.

LC: Let’s talk about law school. What was it like to go to the Faculty of Law in the early 1960s under Dean Cecil Wright? Do you remember your first day?

MS: I can remember the first day. There were only three women in the entire University of Toronto Law School when I attended. On the first day, Dean Wright assembled the first year class, and he said: ‘Look to the right. Look to the left. Only one of you will be here next year.’ That was the message. In his view there was no entitlement to a law degree. You had to work hard to get it. The dean was absolutely right.

LC: How did your male classmates treat you?

MS: I was never treated any differently by my professors—or by my classmates. At the law school I was accepted. I didn't realize that I was different until I went out into the working world. At that time you were made to feel different because there weren't many women lawyers around. I was brought up to believe that I could do anything I wanted as long as I had the smarts and the education and the training to do it. I've been at the forefront of change for quite a long time.

Early on, I was once told by someone for whom I worked that I shouldn't dress as well as I did because it was clear that I couldn't do it on the salary they were paying me. In his mind it gave rise to a suspicion that I had a Sugar Daddy. Can you imagine? This was in 1968 at my first job.

A little later at another job, the CEO said to me: ‘If you were a real woman, you wouldn't want this job.’

LC: How did you respond?

MS: In the first incident, I went into a long explanation about how my parents were subsidizing me. I wouldn’t do that today. Now I would know exactly what to say! In the second case, I just told myself that he was more insecure than he looked. He and I have met over the years, and I still think he's a Neanderthal but other people don't.

LC: I understand Mad Men is one of your favorite shows.

MS: I loved Mad Men because I can relate to it. I lived through that, and the show was so well written.

LC: I am watching it now and I get angry.

MS: Don't get angry. That is a huge mistake that women are making. Traditional feminism fought for equality of opportunity, not equality of results. Quotas and affirmative action imply that women aren’t capable of being successful on their own. It puts us in the ghetto of the unequal. We struggled so hard to be perceived as equals. I don't want to get anywhere because of a quota. If I succeed it’s because I'm a successful, experienced, educated, skilled person. It’s interesting that Angela Merkel, Margaret Thatcher or Sheryl Sandberg didn't need quotas and neither do I.

LC: So for you there was no ‘glass ceiling?’

MS: Of course there was a glass ceiling, I just punched through it! Could I do a lot better if I were starting out today? Of course I could. In today’s world I might be the CEO of a large company. I could never have been in those days. I did as well as I could by working harder, being better.

LC: You're one of a handful of women at the very top.

MS: I didn't need affirmative action to get myself here.

LC: It's 2016 and there should be more women at the top.

MS: There will be because we now have a critical mass of experienced, skilled women. This is evolution, not revolution. The revolution was equal opportunity.

We have a number of women in senior management at Canadian Tire. We have huge numbers of talented women in the junior positions. Our goal is to develop the best and the brightest of those, to prepare them for senior positions.

The worst thing we can do is to promote a woman who isn't ready to be promoted and who fails on the job. That allows men to say, ‘See, women can't hack it.’ You have to promote the right people. It takes a talent strategy; it takes a developmental strategy. We're going to give this a lot of attention at Canadian Tire.

LC: What's your favorite Canadian Tire product?

MS: Light bulbs. I love lighting and our Noma lights are fantastic. It’s a brand that we own. Now we’re working on even more innovation within the category at our Digital Garage. For example, if you put white lights on your Christmas tree and you decide you would like to change the colour to pink, you simply push a button and change the light colour. It's quite interesting.

LC What's the must-have Canadian Tire product for the summer?

MS: Anything from our private label Canvas line. The outdoor furniture, pillows, the couches, the gazebos, it’s endless. We're really exploring the future of our private label brands. We think those can differentiate us. Canvas has been a huge success. Everybody I know has Canvas on their patios.

LC: Is there a talent you would really like to have?

MS: I'm a pretty good writer but I would like to be able to write a novel. I'm not sure that I am imaginative enough for that. I love using the English language. I write my own speeches because I can do it better—in the sense that when I write it, I make sound like me. I like to sound like me.