CEO of the Year 2010

Somewhere in the vicinity of 4:00 am, a handful of mildly ‘preserved’ twenty-something siblings and their barely legal age sister return from a night on the town. As they enter the darkened family home, joshing and jostling in the foyer, their attention is drawn to a muted glow in the living room. There they find their father, silently commanding attention from a wing back throne. The severity of his facial expression is made even starker thanks to the harsh illumination of an overhead lamp. The festivities? Over. The lecture for having kept 19-year-old Maria out so late? As another of the seven Coleman children, Maggie, puts it: “he made sure we knew how he felt.”

What he also felt, though the kids didn’t know it until later, was incredible joy at seeing how happy they were together. He’d barely been able to hold back the hugs. He would have loved to join in their exuberance, to bask in their sibling revelry, but a fatherly point had to be made and (regardless how hard it was on him) he was going to make it. In doing so, he inspired Maggie to forever dub him, ‘The Godfather’.

It’s an apt sobriquet. Frank Coleman has much in common with the iconic character Marlon Brando made famous. Both head the most influential families in their communities. They are each preternatural prognosticators, evincing gifts of strategy that Napoleon would have envied. They are entrepreneurial, insightful, forceful, and growth-oriented. They are wise Solomons whose audience and counsel are sought by many. They offer deals whose refusal comes with not-so-pretty consequences. And both are surrounded by a defensive circle of informants and gate keepers.

But Coleman is equally the anti-Corleone. What was sinister and threatening in one, is endearing and even sometimes quasi comical with the other. Vito’s armed inner circle is Frank’s loyal coterie. The Don’s immoral justification that “it’s just business” is flipped with Señor Frank to whom everything is personal. And where one is completely bereft of moral compass, the other overflows with decency. Frank Colemans people will never have to take a bullet for him (as if he’d ever let them), but they would eagerly agree to–and even request–the opportunity to praise their champion. Be thankful: it’s a story well worth the telling.

In the beginning
Frank made his grand entrance into the world in 1953, the eldest of eight children (three boys and five girls) born to Eugene and Lorraine Coleman. Though Eugene and his brothers were second generation owners of the Colemans retail business, Frank says his wasn’t a particularly privileged childhood in the financial sense. “We didn’t live in a glam house or anything, but we thought we were well off as a family. We were very close. We had opportunities to work, to go to university.” Indeed, he describes growing up in Corner Brook as a delightful idyll of summer vacations driving around in the family station wagon (yes, all 10 of them) and salmon fishing with his younger brothers.

Bill, eight years his junior, recalls one particular occasion when the two of them headed off to the lake before dawn. Hours later, fishless and fly-bitten, Bill had had enough. He curled up in the bottom of the boat and went to sleep. Frank, meanwhile, fished on, landing not one but two impressive salmon.

Formative years
It was apparent that between the fly fishing and back seat sing-alongs, Frank was unconsciously absorbing the Coleman code of conduct, an informal prescription of moral fortitude best articulated by father Eugene’s favorite poem (‘If’, by Rudyard Kipling): “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you… If you can wait and not be tired by waiting…”

At 10, however, Frank hadn’t yet developed the anger management skills that would become his trademark in later years. When a neighbour smacked one of his friends for some now long-forgotten misdemeanour? Young Frank repaid the lady’s too quick hand by spray painting her brand new car. “Of course, she grabbed me the next day in my backyard. I got in a lot of trouble for that one!” he laughs.

There’s a common adage that idle hands are the devil’s workshop, and that a heavy work load keeps you out of trouble. Whether that was Eugene’s motivation or not is impossible to discern (he passed away in 1991), but one thing is certain: he made sure Frank was rarely unoccupied. In addition to pushing him to excel in school and public speaking (Frank won first place every year), Eugene had no problem finding jobs for his son, along with Frank’s brothers and cousins, in the family business. No task was beneath them. From stocking shelves to bagging groceries to prepping produce, the Coleman kids were expected to do it all. In Frank’s opinion, sweeping the dark, dusty warehouse was the worst chore imaginable.

That is, until his father put him and his cousin Mike on the sales floor in the furniture department wearing pink shirts with matching ties, beige twill pants and seeksucker jackets. “He had seen it somewhere,” says Frank. “He said, ‘this is what salesmen should look like’. We looked like two fellows out of a Barnum and Bailey circus. That was the year I enjoyed the warehouse.”

Not all of Frank’s part-time employment was in the family business, however. He also spent one summer selling newspaper subscriptions, and another two in the Corner Brook economic development office. “And then I set up a little business of my own. I was selling advertising for a project that I thought I could do, and I did that for a summer.”

The casual jobs, however, were mere interludes punctuating the really serious work of higher education. Though Frank was a diligent student, earning a B.A. from St. Francis Xavier and a Master of Economics degree at Dalhousie, one of his most memorable lessons was again delivered by family.

“I was at university, and I phoned my father and said I needed some money. ‘Okay’, he said, and he sent me $100. I phoned him back and I said, “$100? That’s not enough. That’s chicken feed.’ And he says, ‘Oh, is that right? I’ll look after that.’ Four or five days later, an envelope shows up and there’s something in it and it shook. I opened it up and there was this little note. And the note said: ‘This is chicken feed. That was money.’ I never forgot that.”

Coming of age
In the final months before his graduation from Dalhousie, Frank was introduced to Yvonne Hennebury, an attractive St. John’s native and nurse. That same night, he wrote a note to himself that this was the girl he wanted to marry. She, however, wasn’t equally impressed by the introverted student. Yvonne reportedly could have had her choice of suitors, but she was more interested in building her career and doing missionary work overseas. Fortunately for Frank, Yvonne’s sister had taken a liking to him and quietly encouraged the subject of his admiration to give him a second look, all the while encouraging Frank not to pursue Yvonne too aggressively. The strategy worked. Yvonne soon liked him enough to warn off a potential rival by describing the unsuspecting Frank as “a nerd”. Six months after they first met, Frank proposed. Before another six months had passed, they were married.

Frank’s first career opportunity was as a senior economist with Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro, but he was living in Halifax at the time and didn’t have the money to fly to St. John’s on the premise of an interview that might not pan out. “I wouldn’t ask my father for it,” he says, remembering the chicken feed. Instead, he approached what was then the Unemployment office and asked them for the money. The funds were provided following verification that there was an actual interview pending, a proceeding which impressed the future boss and secured Frank the job.

Yvonne, meanwhile, tried to continue her nursing career, but she and Frank had both agreed they wanted a large family and she eventually had to give up nursing. “When we had two children, it was too hard to keep up,” she says. “I agreed to say home with the children.”

Towards the end of his seventh year with Hydro, Frank needed a new challenge, so he began teaching night classes at Memorial University. “Then I started a company selling satellite dishes, and then I started a consulting company.” With four children at home and Frank working day and night, it wasn’t long before something had to give.

In 1983, Frank Coleman resigned his safe, steady job at Hydro to become a full-time private consultant. He was soon engaged with environmental impact studies for the Hibernia offshore oil development. “I did some work for Sealand Helicopters. I did some work in agriculture, and I found that all very fascinating.”

He says he would have been content to continue following his entrepreneurial instincts, but fate had something else in store.

Destiny
“I guess I always knew in the back of my mind that I was going to return to Colemans,” says Frank of the invitation to return to the family firm. “I tried to fight it for a long time. I guess perhaps I felt that I had to prove, to myself, that I could make it on my own.”

At that point, he’d been gone from the company for 18 years. He had to relearn the culture of the business, understand the drivers required to move it forward, and reacquaint himself with the market and products. Most importantly, he had to earn the trust of the people around him. There wasn’t any jealousy or resentment, but there was a natural curiosity about whether or not he was up to the task. Frank had joined the company in a senior management role and he was determined to quickly deliver an impressive performance.

Upon his arrival, he found an entrepreneurial business with hard working leadership and equally diligent staff. What they lacked, he found, was the infrastructure to carry the business to the next level. Specifically, they had limited computing capacity and no HR function. Frank had identified a niche where he was needed. Within 60 months, he had made his bones–and earned the company’s top post.

Seeing Results
Fast forward 24 years, and everyone can finally, clearly, see what Frank had so readily perceived. The results are, pardon the pun, frankly astounding. The company’s technology investment has grown into a Point of Sale business intelligence software that would make Sam Walton proud. Sales data from all 12 grocery stores, by department, is updated every two minutes. Each day, sales and inventory values are published internally and data automatically compared against results from the same day in the previous year. And each week, complete sales and gross profit reports are available for management review.

Scott Bennett, director of Colemans five-person information technology department, thrills to the company’s progressive environment. “We’ve brought in consultants from around the world, bought systems in the U.K.. It makes it very exciting to work here,” he says. When pressed, he admits he might be able to make more money elsewhere, but shakes his head at the thought of even considering that possibility. “I’m paid well, I have a lifestyle in Corner Brook that’s second to none, and I have a boss who gives me lots of leeway to make decisions.”

That autonomy is balanced by accountability. Thanks to the technology systems he’s helped put in place, Bennett and his fellow department heads know they will be held accountable for their decisions every Tuesday morning. That’s when Frank holds his weekly management group meetings. “We don’t manage the business by quarters, or by six month intervals, or annual statements,” asserts Frank. “We manage the business by day. We work with a sense of urgency so that we can fix problems before they become issues.”

Despite last year’s recessionary environment, and in spite of operating in an ultra-competitive retail environment against heavy-hitters like Loblaws, Sobeys and WalMart, Colemans annual retail sales are up 17 per cent. And shareholder return on equity is up by a comparably comfortable double-digit figure.

Rather than dreading her turn in the Tuesday morning hot seat, Janet Joyce looks forward to her participation in those regular progress meetings. Joyce manages the 830-employee company’s Human Resources department, and she relishes her inclusion at the departmental level. She describes the fact that she reports directly to Frank as a “very enlightened approach”. “HR typically reports to Finance,” she says.

That statement reminds her of a time when Frank overheard one of her colleagues teasing her about HR not being a revenue generator. “He was not amused,” she says about the perception of the department he founded more than two decades earlier.

Colemans, explains Joyce, is a business where the people on the front lines frame the customer service experience. “Our profitability is tied to the engagement of our employees, and Frank really gets that.”

The employees get it too, ‘it’ being formal Respectful Workplace and Guaranteed Fair Treatment policies, an Employee Family Assistance program (to support staff in times of crisis), an Employee Caring program (to recognize joyful and tragic moments), a Wellness Program for health promotion, Reward and Recognition and Something to Look Forward To programs (to recognize employee contributions in a concrete manner). Wages are competitive, orientation and mentorship programs are in place, there’s flexible scheduling, recruiting bonuses and even a Colemans scholarship. Not to mention the regular training in food preparation and presentation.

The most effective weapon in Joyce’s recruit and retain arsenal, however, is often Frank himself. “I was in his office this time for a meeting, and a bakery assistant who was leaving the company came up to his office to say good-bye. She said she couldn’t go without shaking his hand. This was someone who worked in the basement of the building, and we were on the top floor. It’s not like he passed the bakery on his way to the office every day, but he had obviously made an effort to meet and talk with the people who worked there. That made a powerful impression on me.”

Gentlemanly Behavior
Indeed, the character of the man is integral to the story of the CEO. Frank Coleman’s worst faults (brace yourself) are playing Andrea Bocelli at full volume first thing in the morning, using every pot in the house whenever he cooks and occasionally showing up late for meetings.

Family is always his top priority. He can be forceful and direct, but he doesn’t get mad – ever. Anger, he says, is counterproductive. He is consistently respectful of the people around him: family, friend and co-worker alike. Both the current and former mayors of Corner Brook (Neville Greeley and Priscilla Boutcher) affirm the City is fortunate to have such a civically-minded company in their community. They couldn’t even report a single development or tax-related dispute with the company. He is reliably charitable and selfless, a man his admirers report is defined by his ability to serve others. Childhood friend and president of Rocky Mountain Liquor, Peter Byrne, describes him as having the moral authority to be a CEO.

In conducting the interviews for this story, subjects invariably asked what the angle and purpose would be. At first, it appeared there must be something to hide. Soon, it became apparent that people were genuinely concerned that the story do Mr. Frank justice. In a reversal of the mafia code of silence, word of the story soon got around. Before long, potential subjects were emailing and calling with offers to do interviews – a first for this scribe.

The obvious and only conclusion is that Frank Coleman is truly one of a kind–but not entirely. Even as he forges ahead with growth, the father in Frank carefully nurtures the next generation Coleman clan. Son Aidan, in particular, appears to have inherited his father’s talent with paint. He plans to redecorate the family home some night after his unsuspecting parents have gone to sleep. He says the current uniform vellum-toned hue is “driving him crazy.” His plan is to get hyped up on coffee, and assign each room its own vibrant shade. In the Coleman family, painting is the equivalent of sleeping with the fishes.

Dawn Chafe
About Dawn Chafe

For the past 19 years, Dawn has been editor of Atlantic Canada’s most award-winning and largest circulation business magazine: Atlantic Business Magazine. Under her editorial direction, Atlantic Business Magazine has won 14 Atlantic Journalism Awards, three TABBIE international business press awards and two KRW national business press awards.

2 Comments to “CEO of the Year 2010”

  1. Avatar TracyAnn Fardy // June 25, 2010 at 2:10 pm // Reply

    Dear Ms Chafe,

    I was able to take some time to read your ‘Frank Coleman’ article in full. I cried, I giggled, produced goosebumps and was immensely proud of my Uncle Frank. I live in Ontario and seldom see the Coleman family yet I often marvel at what an amazing family Uncle Frank and Aunt Yvonne have raised !
    Uncle Frank is truly genuine and when he looks at me and asks how I am doing ? His eyes warm my heart and I know he has shut off his busy world and is awaiting truth as he shows me his love.
    I am so thankful that your article captured my Uncle Frank and the amazing, caring intellectual he is ! I was simply compelled to compliment you on your excellent writing skills. You allow your readers to not see words but instead jump into a world, like Frank Colemans and experince a great wonder !

    Thank You Dawn !

    Tracy Ann Fardy

    • Dawn Chafe Dawn Chafe // June 25, 2010 at 2:54 pm // Reply

      Thank you for your very kind words. I’ve written hundreds of articles and interviewed thousands of people in my career, and I have to agree with you that Frank and Yvonne are two very special people. They are their family are, frankly – pun intended – delightful. I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to get to know them better.

      Dawn

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