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Successfully balancing a C-suite role and family life with three teenagers demands time management and teamwork, skills that alumna Sarah Davis says she learned when she began her career at EY.

“I learned to be very efficient,” she says of her days as a junior accountant. “You had to keep track of your time, work to tight time frames and study in the evening.” Like many young accountants, she completed her CA while learning the ropes at the firm.

Now CFO of Loblaw, Canada’s largest food distributor and one of its largest private sector employers, Davis leads a team of approximately 1,000, spanning the finance, real estate and strategy functions.

“The best advice I got early on is that you can’t be successful by yourself. You need the support of your colleagues,” she says. She makes it a priority to stay in contact with her team every day to make sure she knows what’s going on, and regularly uses town halls and “let’s talk” sessions, to give staff an opportunity to voice their concerns and discuss what’s working well in the business.

Keeping ahead of the competition

So, what’s it like working for Loblaw?

“Every day is different,” says Davis. “And I love the variety!”

Food retail is a highly competitive, tight-margin business. With the competition expanding beyond the traditional sources — Walmart has been adding a lot of square footage in food and Target has just arrived in Canada — brand is critical. It can make a difference to margin and keep customers coming back.

“Whether it’s Loblaw, Real Canadian Superstore or nofrills™, people identify what their experience is going to be. From a product perspective, we also feel our brands differentiate us — President’s Choice®, Blue Menu™, no name® or Joe Fresh — people choose to come because of the brands, says Davis.

“Today’s customer is always looking for the deal,” she says. “Given the environment, we have to stay focused on our customer and strengthening our proposition, delivering the best value, best service and best products.”

And Loblaw is well positioned, offering banners, brands and products that appeal to a broad spectrum of shoppers — from those shopping for a bargain to those looking for gourmet ingredients.

A key to the company’s success has been its entrepreneurial culture, drawing on Loblaw’s roots as a family business. “We try to keep parts of the business, like Joe Fresh, separate, so they can stay more entrepreneurial. We think of every store as its own business and we have franchises, so the company is made up of entrepreneurs.” It’s this mindset that keeps the business nimble and able to respond to customers’ evolving desires.

The value of mentors

Davis built her career in the telecom industry, taking on a variety of financial roles at Rogers and Bell Canada before she joined Loblaw in 2007.

She cites the importance of mentors in her career, and makes the time to mentor both at Loblaw and through the Women’s Executive Network (WXN).

A major influence was a CFO she worked with while she was a financial analyst. He saw her potential and helped create opportunities — to work on important projects, gain exposure to different parts of the business and to present to senior people.

“What I really appreciated was the feedback,” she says, recalling how he would come and see her after board meetings to give her direct feedback on the work she had done.

“I loved that,” says Davis. “And I learned to make sure that when people do work for you, it’s really important to give them feedback. It doesn’t always have to be positive.”

A keen observer, Davis says she started to notice early on the impact leaders’ actions had on their people, observations that would help shape her leadership style.

“I never took formal notes but made a mental note — if it was something fantastic, I remembered to do that for people. Other times I thought, ‘I’ll never do that,’ because of how it made me feel. There are lots of little things that you emulate from other leaders.”

A role model for women

As the executive sponsor of Women@Loblaw, a network for women in the organization that is focused on career development, exposure to senior leaders and networking, Davis plays a role in encouraging more women into leadership positions.

“Our goal is to have more women store managers,” she says. “We feel that management should reflect the workforce, which is split about evenly between men and women.”

Currently, about 22% of store managers are women, up from about 12% in 2008. The goal is to increase that over time through initiatives such as development and mentorship opportunities.

“It’s a tough job,” she says. “Many of the stores are open 24/7, and that can be difficult for a woman who has a family. But we need to make sure the opportunities are there and get more role models.”

Finding balance

A devoted mother, Davis says that having dinner with her family every day is one of the most important things to her. “We try to have a meal together every night,” she says. With cupboards full of Loblaw products, there’s never a shortage of interesting food at her house!

A personal recommendation is the President’s Choice hummus with chipotle and red pepper. “It’s good for you, too!” she laughs.

In a household of nine — Davis, her husband, three teenaged daughters, two cats and two dogs, there’s no shortage of activity. “Our down time is spent racing around with the kids to different activities, like competitive skating and hockey. We also love to ski and watch movies, because those are things we can do together.”

While she admits she could occasionally use a bit more sleep, Sarah appreciates the balance in her life. “I am fortunate enough to have a fulfilling career and still spend quality time with my family,” she says.