Remarkable. This is the word I use to describe not only my meeting with Shirley Westeinde, but also the woman herself. And stunning. At 70 years old, Mrs. Westeinde is a powerhouse among business owners, yet looks 20 years younger than her age. After spending an hour talking, listening and learning our conversation could have lasted hours longer. I thoroughly enjoyed meeting Mrs. Westeinde and left inspired on many levels. Read on and see for yourself why Shirley Westeinde is a woman worth celebrating.
Tell me about the Westeinde story:
We started in 1978 with just myself and my husband (John). He came home from work one day and said "that's it, I'm starting my own company" (after having worked for other construction/development companies locally). We had three children under the age of 12 and although the prospect of starting our own company was unknown it was also something we were going to do. We have since built the organization into the Westeinde Group of Companies offering many diverse business lines (development, green development, asbestos removal, real estate and others) with 78 employees and $100 million in revenue. We sold the construction line to Aecon and now focus on development and our real estate properties.
Our children have joined the company and we have created a family of organizations. Our son John runs a Green Development company and Jeff runs an Asbestos removal company. Our daughter Julie graduated University in Engineering and has her own company as well.
Being a stay at home mom were some of the happiest years of my life
What was your involvement when you started?
When we started the company I was trained as a VON (nurse) and was initially expecting to help out where needed: office, accounting, operations. As the company grew, I grew along with it and eventually I was hiring employees to replace me as I moved into more strategic areas within the company. I had to take courses at Algonquin to get the training I required to handle my duties, and I had young children at home. All of this was new to me but it was both fascinating and rewarding and I kept at it.
The success of the Westeinde legacy is impressive. Why is it so successful?
Our company philosophy is simple: be good to your clients and give back to your community. We offered quality work and built relationships with our clients and our staff. Soon our work spoke for itself and our reputation grew. We built the Canadian Embassy in Jamaica among other notable developments. It's a wonderful legacy to leave our children and grandchildren.
Our success however, can be directly attributed to our employees. Given the nature of our business (family owned) our employees have always felt like they are part of the family when working for us. And we treat them as such. We have good communication with our employees and we care about them. It's widely known in the industry that having Westeinde employment on your resume assumes a certain level of competence and ability.
Being a woman in the construction/development industry must have been unusual at the time?
Yes. There were few, if any, women in the industry at the time.
I have worked hard to increase the profile of women in the construction industry, but more so have worked hard to expose young women to the industry, engineering and other aspects of this business. When I was the Chair of The Canadian Construction Association several of the local Associations held events for girls in grade 9-10 to inform them about options for a career in the Construction industry, specifically Engineering, Superintendent or Project Manager.
Did you experience challenges because of this?
Yes, but I didn't care. That didn't stop me. I kept on learning and growing and as a result gained respect and opportunities. I received my RPA (Real Property Administration) from the Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA) and was then asked to join the Board in 1994. I now spend much of my time on boards and committees. This takes up 1-2 days a week of my time.
Receiving the Order of Canada (2009) was a highlight in my life
What Committees/Boards are you currently involved in?
I sit on both the Royal Ottawa Hospital and Royal Ottawa Hospital Research Committees (Chair), the Ottawa Hospital Research Board , Success by Six (with Dr. Kushman) which is now called Growing up Great. I've had to limit myself to a handful because there are so many to be involved in. I am very proud of the work we have done recently with the Royal Ottawa Hospital and this is personally rewarding for me.
What is your current passion?
My work with the Royal Ottawa Hospital. I became involved with mental health years ago when an employee of ours showed signs of depression that none of us were able to define as depression. We noticed his work was faltering, but never noticed that he was illustrating symptoms of depression. Shortly thereafter he tried to commit suicide. He was unsuccessful but never fully recovered from the attempt. He later came to see myself and my husband John. He wanted to educate us on the symptoms and signs of depression so we would be able to identify this in our employees if it ever arose. My work with the Royal Ottawa Hospital is because of that incident and the responsibility I have to try to better understand mental health issues.
You are a woman of many "firsts". Can you tell us about this:
I was the first female Chair of the Ottawa Economic Development Corporation (OCEDCO). I was also the first female President of BOMA Ottawa (hasn't been one since). I am also an Honourary Lieutenant Colonel in the Army working with the base/battalion in Petawawa (since 2007). This is a direct appointment from the Government of Canada. This is one of the hardest things I have ever done as I don't have a military background. I wear a uniform, with my medals of distinction (including the Queen's Jubilee and Order of Canada) and must learn the policies and procedures of the military. My role is to be a mentor. I have recently spoken with my battalion about the issues of mental health in soldiers returning from assignments like Afghanistan, and our responsibility to support them. I hope to do more. My assignment has been renewed for another two years.
What makes you happiest?
Being a stay at home mother were some of the happiest times of my life. However, being a Grandma is my new favourite role in life. I have 9 grandchildren that I love spending time with. We do overnights, with dinner and a movie and I love having them around and being a part of their lives. Just last night I was making the rounds to see their Halloween costumes and meet them for trick or treating. I love every aspect of being a Grandmother. Family and health are the important things in life.
1st female Chair of the Canadian Construction Association
Has received the Order of Canada (2009)
Favourite colour: pink
What is important to you?
Family and health. I was recently diagnosed with Fibromyalgia which can be very painful. It is somewhat mitigated by exercise, so I start each day with exercise. If I have an 8am meeting, I get up early to exercise by 6 am so I don't miss my workout. I love to exercise and feel good about doing it. In fact, our whole family is very fitness and health oriented. All of my children have run marathons and some, along with their kids, have climbed Mt Kilimanjaro.
Given your position at Westeinde and your Board commitments, do you make time for yourself?
(laughs). No. I don't have time. I would love to read a book, but I don't have enough time in my day. I am working hard to make sure I create time for myself because I now realize the importance of it. My husband and I have planned month long vacations in recent years that require a commitment two years in advance. This ensures we book it and stick to it! We were recently scheduled to go to Tibet and had to cancel for health reasons, but we have been fortunate to travel to exciting locations including South America, China and Africa.
What is your proudest moment?
I would have to say my proudest moment is when I received the Order of Canada for my work in advancing women in the construction industry and my community involvement. I received the call one morning and naturally assumed they were contacting me about someone I had nominated for the award. When the gentleman said I had won, I thought it was my son playing a joke on me. He then asked me two questions: 1) would I be willing to accept the Order and 2) I would I be able to keep this quiet until the announcement was made? They called me in November; the announcement was made Jan 1st. It was hard to keep to myself, but once I hung up the phone I went down the hall to see my son and whispered to him that I had won. His response: "well of course you did Mom. You deserve it." It was obvious to him and others that I was deserving of this award.
Do you have a close group of girlfriends?
Yes, I've been a part of a Sorority called Beta Sigma Phi for 44 years. In the last 28 years I have been with one chapter of about 9-15 women. I am the youngest at 70 and we get together monthly for dinners and to catch up. We also spend a weekend annually at my cottage for fun and laughs. I do have two very close friends outside of the Sorority that I can pour my heart out to. I am blessed with good friends.
What's next for Shirley Westeinde?
I have been asked over the years to run in politics, and had considered it at one time. I am not certain it is right for me, particularly now at this stage, but if the circumstance were right I may consider it.
Will Shirley Westeinde retire?
I am in retirement preparation mode. There are a number of preparations myself and John have to make in order to make retirement a reality for us. We have to get "our house in order" so to speak. But I have freedom in my work now, meaning I come and go as I want and take Fridays and Mondays off as a general rule (when I can).