Wendy McDonald was a woman in a man’s world — the world of industrial bearings — and she succeeded brilliantly, even while raising 10 children.
McDonald, the former CEO of BC Bearing Engineers Ltd. died Dec. 30 at the age of 90.
Some six months before her death, she danced exuberantly all night with her children and grand-children, never leaving the dance floor at her 90th birthday party, said her lifelong friend Grace McCarthy.
“She had commitment, she had style, she had a tremendous personality. She loved her life, and lived it well,” McCarthy said.
McDonald was an accidental businesswoman who became a juggernaut.
Her career began when her first husband, Robert McPherson, was sent overseas as a pilot in the Second World War. He had started BC Bearings as a single machine shop in West Vancouver in 1936 and left his pregnant young wife to take charge during the war.
Take charge she did, incorporating BC Bearing Group in 1944 and expanding to Calgary, while looking after two young children.
By the time she retired as CEO in 2000, passing the reins on to her eldest son, the business had grown to 60 locations worldwide, including Peru and Chile, with sales of more than $200 million. Along the way her family grew to include 10 children, 28 grandchildren and 36 great-grandchildren.
But the road was far from smooth.
McDonald, then Wendy Stoker, was born in North Vancouver in 1922 and married MacPherson in 1942. Before her marriage, she had worked briefly as a fashion model, and at a telephone company. When MacPherson went overseas in 1944, the couple had one child and another on the way.
Upon returning from the war, MacPherson sent his wife back to the kitchen, where he believed she belonged, McDonald said in interviews during her life.
When MacPherson was killed in a plane crash, McDonald took over the business again. It was 1950 and she had four children to look after, the youngest only two months old.
The work world, well populated with women during the war, had changed. Men dominated. This was especially true in the business McDonald was now helming, which sold industrial products to tough-guy industries like forestry and mining.
Some of those men suggested, firmly, that McDonald should sell the business. Once, while she was travelling to meet with suppliers, the temporary manager McDonald had put in place attempted a takeover, informing her upon her return that she should leave the business and look after her children.
He was promptly fired, but he took many of the company’s staff with him. It was a setback, but not one McDonald couldn’t overcome.
McCarthy, chairman of the Children with Intestinal and Liver Disorders (C.H.I.L.D.) Foundation, on whose board McDonald served, said she liked to have a good laugh and kid around. She always signed her business correspondence “W. B. McDonald,” and took tremendous pleasure in watching jaws drop when she strode into a business meeting in Europe or South America, a woman in heels and a skirt. They invariably expected a man.
Men were often patronizing, McDonald told The Vancouver Sun in an interview at the time of her retirement.
“But you take it with a grain of salt and you do your own thing,” McDonald said.
In 1954, McDonald married William Dix, an artist and neon sign salesman and a widower who brought two children into the marriage. Together they had a son, bringing the clan to seven. Just three years later, Dix died in a boating accident at the family cottage on Halfmoon Bay near Sechelt, along with The Vancouver Sun’s assistant publisher Samuel Cromie.
McDonald’s third marriage brought more children and also ended too soon.
In the 1960s McDonald married mining promoter Syd McDonald, who brought three children of his own to the family, bringing the total to 10, eight of whom were teenagers at the same time, McDonald lamented in at least one interview.
But after her third husband died in 1969 McDonald told The Vancouver Sun: “Three is enough.”
McDonald melded the 10 children from her marriages beautifully, and it was a template for her business style: she believed relationships were the key to success.
McCarthy said she won over every suit in the business with her human touch: “She had a tremendous personality and she knew the names of every child of everyone she did business with.”
“Business was a little different back then,” McDonald said in the book You got that right!, on the history of BC Bearings, written by Lana Okerlund. “But it was still all about relationships.”
“You got that right,” was reportedly McDonald’s favourite expression.
It was her people skills that made her good at what she did, grandson Lance Ross said in an interview in 1996. She could relate to people and put them at ease, he said.
“I’m not very good on the computer,” McDonald told Canadian Business magazine in 2006. “I’d much rather write a note, or phone, or talk to somebody face-to-face.”
McDonald became the first female chair of the 103-year-old Vancouver Board of Trade in 1990. She also served on a number of corporate boards, co-owned the Vancouver Whitecaps, and won many awards throughout her career. In 1997 she was named to the Order of Canada.
“I think my husbands all would have been very proud, especially my first one, because he may have thought I couldn’t do anything,” McDonald said on receiving Business in Vancouver’s Influential Women in Business Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006.
But she remained humble, according to McCarthy. “She was unassuming and didn’t take the accolades as something she deserved, she was grateful, it never changed her personality,” said her friend.
Throughout its growth, BC Bearings remained family run, with son Robert MacPherson taking over as president, then CEO, son Scott MacPherson running the U.S. operations and son Bill Dix looking after the international offices. Other children and grandchildren, like Lance Ross, were also involved in the business at various times. In 2009, BC Bearing Group sold its North American assets to Atlanta-based Genuine Parts Co. for an undisclosed amount.
McDonald’s one piece of advice to women: Don’t forget who you are.
“I think you’ve got to have a lot of common sense and a sixth sense for people,” McDonald said in an interview with The Sun. “And you’ve got to act like a woman, not like a man.
“Men think differently. Just be yourself.”
Some of the awards and accolades garnered by Wendy McDonald:
1982: Canadian businesswoman of the year
1987: Better Business Bureau’s 75th anniversary business person of the year
1988: YWCA’s Woman of Distinction
1990: Elected first female chair of the 103-year-old Vancouver Board of Trade
1995: Receives honourary Doctor of Laws from Simon Fraser University
1997: Member of the Order of Canada
1999: Pacific Canada Entrepreneur of the year
2001: BC Businesswoman of the year
2005: Canadian Woman Entrepreneur lifetime achievement award
2006: Association of Women in Finance lifetime achievement award
2006: Business in Vancouver’s Influential Women in Business lifetime achievement award
2007: Inducted as Business Laureate into B.C. Hall of Fame
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