Rebecca MacDonald: My business grew together with my children

1,300 people work for her. She provides 1.7 million consumers throughout Canada and America with gas and electricity. Her business is worth two billion dollars. Several times she has been announced the business woman of Canada. She runs her business with passion and believes in destiny

Exclusively For Biznis magazine Marina Lazarević*

Ubavka Mitić, today Rebecca MacDonald arrived in Canada at the age of 22, a little bit more than thirty years ago. Her plan was not to create big business. She married Pearson Macdonald and now has two children by him. Today 1,300 people work for her. Her business is worth two billion dollars. Her company provides a million and seven hundred consumers with gas and electricity. She has been declared the businesswoman of Canada several times. She is the richest Serbian woman in the world. She does not see her success in relation to the dollar- but with respect to her children. She believes in destiny and considers that her destiny had been to come to Canada and enter this business.

What did your life look like before you came to Canada?

– I grew up in Yugoslavia, alongside very strict parents. I finished the First Belgrade High School and enrolled in the study of medicine, not because I loved medicine, but because my mother and father wanted me to. When I was 22 I ran away to Canada. At that time it was easy to obtain a visa for Canada. That country was far enough from mum and dad, from Yugoslavia, from Europe… I thought that Canada was the country of potential. I was relatively young then, but I had definitely decided that I had finished with life in Yugoslavia and never mentioned that I would return to Yugoslavia. That is why I never felt nostalgia, desire to return… When I make a decision, I am totally focused on it, nothing can prevent me in its execution.

How did your business empire arise?

When I came to Canada I did not speak the language, I had no protection, or help. If you do not earn money- you cannot live… I had no plan to create big business. Coming to Canada was shocking for me. At that time there were few immigrants in Canada, everything was different from what it is today. Emigrants were seen as lower class. When you do not speak the language, do not know the rules of behaviour of that country, you are a second class citizen. Now there is a lot of help for emigrants. In the last 30 years a very large number of people have moved there… I had a terribly strong desire to prove my parents that I could do it! That was the principal driving force. My life’s turning point in every sense was marriage. I have always said that I married my husband because of his looks, because he was very handsome, but for his surname too. It was much harder to say “Mitić” than “MacDonald” in the business world. He taught me about the most important thing that you must learn in North America- and that is the sales. He broadened my horizons, and was telling me:” You can have the most beautiful and the best glasses in the world, but if you don’t sell them, no one will ever hear of those glasses!”

Sales are present everywhere. When you go looking for a job, you must “sell yourself” in the interview… When I learned that, the rest was coincidence, I believe in destiny…

So in 1984. a contract was signed between the federal government and West Canada that energy would be deregulated, and in 1986., on Halloween the contract came into operation. I had accidentally heard of that. My husband had his business with water filters then. I was attracted by the fact that it is rarely that you find yourself in an “embryo” time, the time when a business is starting… I talked to my husband and said I would like to start that business. He was strongly against; he thought it was for the game for big players, that I had nothing to do there. However, I am terribly persistent when I set my mind on something.

I arranged with him to take just the telephone line. I had no office either, just a desk on his address, where he had his small business… And that is how I began- the telephone and me. I started making appointments for meetings with the potential consumers and to offer them services, to provide them with energy instead of the distributional companies. I had registered as a firm that would deal in gas supply. I remember when I went into the distribution company to tell them I intended to have my own consumers, at that stage I had to sign a contract with the distribution company because they were conveying the gas. They laughed at me. They said I had no chance to make it, no chance at all… Today a great number of people present on that meeting are working for me. I repeat that I am terribly persistent and at the same time believe in building a career “step by step”. I never skipped steps, I never considered big business. I was thinking and moving step by step… Before you learn how to run you have to crawl… First you have to straighten yourself a little bit, then you can walk, and only then run… I have come across many obstacles. It was hard. When I went to West Canada for gas negotiations for the Petroleum Club- they threw me out. Women were not permitted access to that club. I was the only woman who had ever considered dealing in this business.

Did you sometimes feel fear, a desire to give up everything?

– In Yugoslavia there were no divisions into women’s and men’s jobs. My parents had brought me up like that and I had grown up thinking that women could do all that men could. I was not prejudiced concerning that. When I came to Canada, women were mostly good secretaries, teachers, but the most important thing for them was to go to certain country clubs and marry wisely… That was the ambition of women. That was the overall philosophy of the whole North America. The fact that I got the first consumer with whom I signed the contract had kept me in this business. That was my motivation to persist. I was telling myself that I could do it. That it was possible! My first meeting, and then my first client was a juice producer Allen apple juice”. I had come to a meeting with their vice-president and manager. We sat in the boardroom and waited. It was quiet. Then they asked me when my boss was coming. I said: “I am the boss!” Then their engineer wanted me to turn giga joules (GJ) into cubic metres of gas (m3). That was very simple mathematics and I did it. That was the calculation of their consumption. And I got the contract. With the company “Allen apple juice” I signed the contract in 1988. and they have remained my clients to this very day. That was my driving force- when I signed the first contract and got the first consumer I wanted the second, the third, the hundredth, the thousandth one…Now there are 1.7 million consumers. And that number is constantly increasing. We are the biggest company in North America…

What is success for you?

– People’s success is seen only through their children, not through their business. You can be very successful in business, but very unsuccessful parents. I do not regard my success with respect to dollar, but with respect to my children. Business is a nice thing, it brings income. However, I have a great number of friends, very successful businessmen who have very unsuccessful families and children. They often ask me for advice. They rule empires, but they cannot govern their own family. As soon as children have a lot of money, they become more spoilt; they lose touch with reality. I have kept the dress in which I came to Canada to this very day. From time to time I open the wardrobe and look at that dress. One has to remind oneself from where he/she started. Millions, billions, planes- that is all very well, but you must know who you are. People who know me from Yugoslavia, from more than 30 years ago will certainly tell you that I have never changed. I am the same, because I know who I am. I feel comfortable in my skin. Money gives you certain credit. Money has given me the freedom of thinking. The hardest thing was to have a small business. It is much easier to have a big business. On the way to big business you go through all kinds of “children’s diseases” and that teaches you a lot of things. The hardest thing was to earn the first million.

What does your work day look like?

– I get up a six in the morning. I leave the house around seven at the latest. I always have a meeting over breakfast; I most often put meals together with meetings. Then hour after hour I have meetings, my work day finishes around 18.00. Between 18.00 and 19.00 I like to sit in my office and clear up all paperwork. From 19.00 I go to receptions- I try to get back home to Toronto around 23.00. Sometimes I return later. I sleep little. That comes with age.

How do you relax?

– I only relax when I go to my summerhouse on the Lakes or to my house in the Dominican Republic. When I am in Toronto telephones keep ringing, there is no relaxation there. Technology is a very good and a very bad thing. You are always on the short leash- they always find you.

What do you believe in?

– I believe in cash. I believe in destiny. I believe in destiny terribly strongly. I consider that all of us are born for a reason. My destiny had been to come here, to enter this business. I am certain about it.

*Marina Lazarević is PR Consultant of the Communis Agency
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