Breaking down barriers

Breaking down barriers

 It’s not hard to understand why Kathy Gregory won the Lifetime Achievement Award at this year’s Canadian Mortgage Awards. As the head of Paradigm Quest, Gregory was the Canadian mortgage industry’s first female CEO, for starters. But to hear her tell it, her gender has never factored into anything she’s ever done.

“It’s hard for anybody to start a company and get recognition in a financial and institutional environment, regardless of your gender,” she says. “It wasn’t harder because I’m a woman – it’s just harder.”

However, despite her business acumen and straight-shooting demeanour, Gregory doesn’t mince words when describing some of the institutional barriers still that exist for women in the financial world.

“The reality is it’s probably much easier being a female entrepreneur than it is in the banking world because we have a 150-plus-year-old banking institution that has never had a female CEO. That trickle-down effect is enormous. If I wanted to be a female CEO at one of the Big Five, that’d be a problem. It’s definitely easier to be a female entrepreneur and lead a company than to be part of the banking oligopoly.”

Equal opportunity
Throughout her career, Gregory has made a point of paying little attention to the gender disparity that’s rampant in the upper echelons of the business world.

“If I ignore it, most people will ignore it because it’s not part of our discussion,” she says. “My whole career, I’ve been in boardrooms and meeting rooms, and looking back, if I was one of two women in a meeting, I’d ignore it. Don’t let them make it part of the conversation. They may come to the table with perceived views, but your ability to convince them you’ll be a success is gender-irrelevant.”

The mortgage industry in Canada is an old boys’ club no more. Over the past few decades, women have steadily been making headway in leadership roles at brokerages. Yet, acknowledging the many barriers preventing women from reaching the highest levels of the industry, Gregory proffers her usual unequivocally bold advice for tomorrow’s crop of leaders.

“The first thing I’d say is not to lean on, or use, the fact you’re female for anything. Ignore it. If it ever comes up, ignore it again. If you give it credence either way, you’re feeding into the bullshit. It’s your skill set and drive that are far more important. You need to be fearless, and with that comes decisiveness.”

As assertive as Gregory is, she’s quick to elucidate her recipe for success. Most entrepreneurs run failed ventures – in 10 years, up to 70% of startup businesses fail – but Gregory maintains that one way to buck that trend is by surrounding yourself with the brightest minds you can find.

“The challenge with starting a company is that you don’t know what will go wrong, and what you think will go wrong probably won’t, and you’ll be hit out of left field,” she says. “So surround yourself with people who don’t look, sound or smell like you. They have to be different. Surround yourself with really brilliant people who have different skill sets, but operate as a team. Sure, at the end of the day, the CEO makes the final decision, but he or she better make it with the best information from different skill sets. We drive this ship together. I may get most of the accolades, but it’s owed to a bunch of people.”

Finding the balance
Gregory has had a decorated career, including years of experience at banks, where she developed appreciation for their inherent conservatism. When she launched Paradigm Quest in 2005, her banking background helped her steer the nascent company to $1.5 billion in originations during its inaugural year. By the end of its third year, Paradigm Quest had $5 billion in assets under management.

“We broke even our first year,” Gregory says. “The banking background changes you into a conservative planner, but we overachieved.”

Today Paradigm Quest has more than $30 billion in assets under management and is one of Canada’s leading mortgage processors. Gregory admits growing Paradigm Quest into the juggernaut it is today hasn’t been without its sacrifices.

“I don’t even know what work-life balance means,” she says. “It’s hard for anybody professionally to work hard and be passionate about their role. I was single and raised my kids alone. But Wednesday is family day for us, and my kids know there are going to be a lot of dinners and travel, so not to schedule anything on that day.”

Indeed, Gregory spoke with CMP on a Wednesday – and, true to her word, she and her family were en route to the airport for a vacation.

“Our Wednesday family day is not negotiable 90% of the time, and my kids like that,” she says. “They like to have that structure that mom is coming home on Wednesday. It’s a day where we put down the phone down and don’t watch TV. We’ve done it for 20 years. Everyone at work knows not to schedule any client dinners on Wednesdays. It’s the indication to my family that it’s our time that matters.”
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