By Norman DeBono, The London Free Press Sunday, January 13, 2013 9:02:12 EST PM
Jill Dee Ferguson knows where her entrepreneurial drive comes from.
The seed was planted as a young woman witnessing her parents establishing and expanding Voyageur Transportation in London into the thriving business it is today. That seed flourished when she looks back on the experience, such as being awakened at 5 a.m. by her father when she was in Grade 12 to help him drive customers to Toronto when flights were cancelled because of a storm. “My dad would say me to me, ‘Jill, you have to drive.’ We did three trips to Toronto airport in different vehicles. I remember radioing my dad at one point and saying, ‘Can we get something to eat?”
As a young woman, it was a crash course in what it takes to grow a business. “My parents worked tirelessly, they were at work at 5 a.m. and home by 6:30 at night,” she said of Norman and Darlene Ferguson. “But it did not affect our home life. This was the time before cellphones and there was a Voyageur phone in our home, and we would answer it in the morning before going to school.” If people are indeed born to business and entrepreneurship, then Ferguson has that lineage. Not only did her parents establish Voyageur, but it has diversified under the directorship of her brothers Perry and Dwayne. “We grew up with parents who are hard workers. They have been retired 26 years and just try to get a hold of them, they are in Florida and never home,” Ferguson said. Although she may have been born to business, she took a long path to get there. Graduating from Fanshawe College as a physical fitness instructor, Ferguson worked at many different jobs, some at the same time.
The longest tenure was at Voyageur where she loved working with her family, but she needed more flexible hours for her son, Tayler. “I don’t like the stigma of being a single parent, but I was one. To me it was a challenge. I left because I wanted to be a better parent, I needed more flexible time,” Ferguson said. “At the time Voyageur was growing. I remember Tayler being an infant and a dispatcher could not go to work, so I packed him up and worked the night shift. I brought a little bed for him.” Having held her share of jobs, Ferguson was vacationing with her sister P.J. Ferguson who founded ABL Employment in Burlington. Her sister asked if she would be interested in a part-time job. “I needed the money. I was cut back to four days a week at my job. I knew nothing about the industry, nothing,” Ferguson said of employment agencies. But she is a fast learner, and took to it immediately. It was only a few months later they discussed opening a London office. The office opened in August 2003 and has grown into Ferguson becoming a partner in the growing employment service business.
“This is a caring industry. These people are coming to get a job that may pay them $12 an hour, but they need that to pay their rent, or get a bus pass. This job makes a difference in people’s lives. If you get someone a job, it changes their life. “Most people never have the opportunity to do that. That is what drives me.” Her first days running ABL were spent on the phone, making about 100 cold calls a week, telemarketing and hitting the streets, knocking on doors of businesses asking if they need workers. “I had my first customer in the first three weeks,” she said.
ABL matches an employer’s needs with workers looking for a job, and advertising for workers while networking with businesses to determine their needs. ABL has carved a niche in London in the light industry, manufacturing area, Ferguson said. “As soon as we find a company we start the recruitment process and it never stops. “ABL is uniquely different, we get a lot of success from referrals. Our recruits love the work, they love us, they refer their friends to us,” she added. Sales have grown steadily in recent years with sales topping $5.65 million for the London office alone, climbing 15% last year, 17% the year before, 42% in 2010 and 60% in 2009. Those kinds of numbers won the business a high ranking in Profit magazine’s list of entrepreneurial women in Canada for 2011, when ABL landed in the No. 19 spot of the top 100.
“It’s been very steady,” Ferguson said of sales. “We have grown a lot in the last three years.” ABL experienced significant growth beginning in 2009, ironically in the midst of a recession, a sign Ferguson was taking market share from competition. The secret to growing during that time is that she kept all her staff, and reinvested during the down time.“We kept our people. We did not let them go,” Ferguson said. She also credits a diversified customer base for the company’s growth.
“We do not rely on any one industry. If we were just doing automotive, then what would we do now? Ferguson works out of her Byron home, without even a desk at the London office at Dundas and Waterloo streets, relying on a regional manager and her staff of seven at offices in London and Woodstock.
ABL opened on Richmond St. before moving to its present location about two years ago. The company opened a Woodstock office in March to serve a growing client base in Oxford County.
Ferguson doesn’t have any regrets about not staying in the family business. “It was obviously not my thing. I love being with my family, we could all work together, and be happy. This is definitely my passion, I will never do anything else.
“I love what I do, I really do. I have a great life, a great life.”
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Ski or sun: Sun
iPhone or BlackBerry: BlackBerry
Bottled water or tap: tap
Burger or dog: burger
Beer or wine: neither
Coffee or tea: coffee
Fiction or nonfiction: nonfiction
DVD or movie theatre: DVD
Manual or automatic: automatic
Snowblower or shovel: shovel
Dog or cat: cat
Mittens or gloves: gloves
Winter or summer: summer
Book or e-reader: both
Country or city: city (beach)
Shower or bath: both
Hockey or baseball: baseball
Tims or Starbucks: Tims
Born: Guelph, moved to London when she was in Grade 11
Family: son Tayler, 23, who works at ABL and is a student at Western University
Education: Lucas secondary school, Fanshawe College, physical fitness instructor
Other jobs: Fitness instructor; Barney’s waitress; Air Ontario flight attendant; Voyageur Transportation; Timex salesperson; A.S. May Powell (food brokerage business)
If you get someone a job, it changes their life. Most people never have the opportunity to do that. That is what drives me.