When Donna Gerrits decided she was moving back to Canada from California in the 1980s, she received multiple job offers. But the one that appealed most was an offer from her brother, to join Royal Woodworking.
The company, a family owned and operated business, was founded in 1976 by the Rowe and Gerrits families. It produces custom wood moldings that are shipped throughout Canada and the United States.
Ms Gerrits was, in essence, a one-woman office, working for her two brothers answering phones, writing cheques, making coffee and picking up lunch. She enjoyed her job, especially the part where she got to sell the company’s products.
“You have to believe in the product and company to sell it. I felt good about doing it,” she says.
The company had few customers in the beginning, but she discovered she got a thrill out of people’s positive responses to the product as she continued to sell it. Today, she and her two older brothers—Frank and Rick Gerrits—own the business where she is constantly dealing with problems as a manager.
“People come to me with issues all day long. That is a part of being a manager. I don’t like to avoid problems.”
But there is one task she has really had a problem with—slowing down.
“I did not do well at slowing down. I fought it,” she said.
She developed hypothyroidism causing Graves disease, meaning she could not do many of the activities she loved, including soccer or mountain biking. The prescription: no physical activity for three years and her treatment included surgeries. Thankfully, she is better now.
“Friends and family workers gave me the boost when I needed it. Doctors were amazing,” she said.
What did she learn from her experience?
“Never take life for granted. When, all of a sudden, your lifestyle changes, it makes you appreciate your youth and health. It was not a serious illness, just a very inconvenient [sic], but there are people suffering from more serious things.”
Her illness lasted until May and now she considers herself recovered. These days, her hobbies seem just as intense as her working life. One hobby she loves is adventure racing, which is like a triathlon. You do it as a team of three or four people and it involves mountain biking, trail running and canoeing. It usually lasts about eight to 10 hours and she has even competed in ones that run two days straight. She used to compete in about six races a year before she was ill. She doubts she will go back to that and estimates she will do one or two a year.
What does she like about the gruelling activity that is adventure racing?
She enjoys the challenge and being part of a team.
“I believe in teamwork. A successful life is an awful lot about teamwork. You cannot do everything yourself,” she said.
On top of all this physical exercise, she golfs twice a week and plays soccer.
“I live for my soccer games,” she said.
What does she like so much about the sport?
“The social aspect, working as a team, competitiveness, the physical feeling of working hard, how you feel afterward.”
She attributes at least part of her success at work to her family upbringing. She was born to hard-working parents—her father, a plant foreman in a concrete factory and her mother, a homemaker.
“My parents were hard workers. Watching them, (hard work) comes naturally. We had chores. That is what you did.”
Ms Gerrits got to train staff at Royal Woodworking and found she was good in a managerial role, identifying strengths as problem solving, organization, sales and marketing and accounting.
What she found challenging? Growth.
“A lot of people do not like change. We have to help them get through it”.
Royal Woodworking has built a factory in Bradford. The building is a 70,000-square-foot factory completed in 2006.
As she sits in the back yard of her Aurora home with its kidney shaped pool, generous porch and hot tub where she sits and relaxes after soccer games, work seems a distant world away. All that can be heard is the sound of birds, crickets and her restless white dog, Abbey, as well as the crack of a golfer teeing off.
“Abbey, get out of there. No eating plants,” she says to her dog during the interview.
She has lived here for four years, completing much of the inside work upstairs herself, including installing trim and flooring, as well as painting. Ms Gerrits lives on the Highland Gate Golf Club and has just acquired a wee kitten, Lucy, bought because her previous cat went missing. She believes a hungry coyote got a hold of her missing feline. Her children were so upset, she bought a mini replacement.
How does she even have time to look after animals with her busy work life?
“It is tough. I don’t stop. I don’t watch TV. I find time for a social life. I work hard and play hard.”
Having two children 10 years apart—a 23-year-old daughter and a 13-year-old son—has enabled her to basically raise one child at a time. This has made her life easier, she says, since they have required different levels of attention at different times. At one stage, she was raising a toddler and a teenager at the same time. As a child, she wanted to be a hotel manager in a fancy hotel, one you might find in Las Vegas, New York City or Paris.
“At the end of the day, I was just destined to be some kind of manager,” Ms Gerrits said.
She has been a single mother for eight years and has been divorced twice.
What is difficult about being a single mom?
Not having someone to take over when you’re tired, she said.
“You do not have someone there constantly to lean on, but that makes you stronger.
“I don’t mind being single. I am a hopeless romantic. There is hope for me.”
Perhaps her personality was best described by her mother at her 40th birthday.
“Donna is gonna do what Donna wants to do,” Ms Gerrits says, imitating her mother. “I am determined.
“Some people like to call it stubborn, but I like determined. It is nicer.”
By: Simone Joseph