Industry Profile – Marie McNabb

Marie McNabb is a dairy farmer in Waterloo County who shares her expertise on the Gay Lea Foods Co-Operative Limited Board of Directors. She is also a leader in her community, stepping up to help in leadership roles in various organizations. As part of #AWNGetOnBoard week, she shares her experiences to help support and inspire other women in Getting on Board!

If you’re interested in connecting with Marie, contact her via email at callumlea@gmail.com

To start off, please tell us a bit about yourself and your career path.

Growing up in a farm family of six siblings, we were all encouraged by our Mom to go to

2015 Liam's Birthday

Marie McNabb with Husband Ken and three sons

university or college. I learned at an early age, the value of participating in volunteer organizations and the benefits they provide to people and the community. My earliest exposure was to 4-H, which brought me into contact with county Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food (OMAF) staff and the local leaders. All of this sparked my interest in taking agriculture at the University of Guelph.

After graduating, I worked with the OMAF(RA) for 14 years in Toronto, Dufferin County, Halton and Peel Regions. I held a number of positions over the years as Assistant Ag Rep, Acting Ag Rep, and Farm Management Specialist. I built up a clientele that respected my ability to respond to their needs.

Following the birth of my third child, I opted to join my husband as a 50 per cent partner in our dairy operation as well as start a part-time bookkeeping business. I have worked casually for an accountant for the past 10 years, assisting with the completion of applications for risk management programs. I work at Canada’s Outdoor Farm Show in the fall manning the show’s office acting as reception and the front line problem solver for exhibitors and attendees.

I have always been involved in community organizations. Since 4-H as a child and Junior Farmers as a teenager and young adult, I have served in board, executive and committee roles.  These included a Cooperative Nursery School, county 4-H associations, Minor Hockey Association, School Council, Dairy Producer Committee etc.

You are currently a director on the Gay Lea Foods Co-Operative Limited Board of Directors. How did you start on the board?

Gay Lea Foods Co-Operative is a dairy processing company owned by over 1,200 Ontario dairy producers. We have $660 million in sales with seven processing sites and 900 + employees. The Board is comprised of 10 dairy producers, of which two are women, and there have been women on the board since 2005. We are a Governance board and there are also 60 delegates (15 in each of four Zones).

I was asked to let my name stand as a Delegate in our Zone and was elected by fellow dairy producers in 2010. I ran for the Delegate position on the Audit Committee the following year. In 2012, a Director position was available in our Zone. I was approached by other Directors to consider the position, and I researched the position, talking to directors, delegates and members. I decided that I was very interested in the opportunity of learning more about the dairy processing industry and the challenge of being a Director of a dairy cooperative.  My husband also gave me the green light to go for it.

I felt I had the skills to bring to the board and was more than willing to learn what I didn’t know about the processing side. At no time did I get the feeling that being a woman was going to determine whether or not I was going to successful. Three of us were nominated and ran for the position. I was elected and completed first three-year term and just started my second term.

I believe that not enough women run for positions. We are just as qualified and have just as much time as our partners.

Can you tell us about what your responsibilities on the board include?

It takes commitment, time management and getting to know the voters. I made phone calls to people to encourage them to come to the annual meeting. I didn’t ask them to vote for me, but did ask them to support the election process. I was the first person to use a PowerPoint presentation in a speech and am still remembered for that.

As a Director, I am away roughly 55 days a year. Board meetings are two days a month in Mississauga. I sit on one board committee and I am responsible to several outside organizations such as Cooperatives and Mutuals Canada and OnCoop. Our day-to-day work involves daily emails with news articles from around the world covering dairy and related issues.  We also receive updates on Gay Lea business as it pertains to the board and will typically have 15 to 20 reports to read prior to board meetings. At the board table we make decisions on capital purchases of equipment, land, as well as discussions of acquisitions and alliances with other businesses. We are responsible for setting the strategic direction for the cooperative. The hiring and performance reviews of the CEO are board decisions as well.

Do you have tips for AWN members who are interested in or considering board positions? 

How do we as women get to the point of recognizing the ability to lead, in others and ourselves? Things I have done that led me to being asked to run for the board include networking in the community, imagining myself in leadership roles in local organizations, and stepping forward to showcase to others that I could move into a more complex leadership role.

It’s finding the balance that’s really tough for me, and my support network is vitally important to me for that.jpgAnother key aspect in taking on these leadership roles is the ability to represent the whole and not yourself. Also, it’s important to learn about and understanding your fiduciary responsibilities. Understanding this concept, you will be a much more respected leader.

Along the way I was willing to learn, make mistakes, own them and learn from those mistakes, and solve them either by apologizing or making it right for those involved (or both).

How do you define success? What steps do you take to get you there?

My definition of success has changed over the years. I relate it now more to happiness. Success is a combination of teaching, inspiring, motivating, leading, mentoring, visioning, goalsetting and being part of a team. I am happy when I can work toward these. If I, my family, co-workers, or fellow board directors cannot derive a sense of pleasure (or at least contentment) from a decision, I don’t think we have been successful.

What is the biggest professional/personal challenge that you’ve had to face? What did you learn from that experience?

I ran for a board because I felt I could save it. My husband could see I was not enjoying the experience when I came home frustrated and angry with the politics. I have always prided myself on being value driven and ethical. For the first time in my life, I withdrew from a volunteer commitment. It is not something I am proud of even though I was much happier once I made the decision to leave the organization. I had taught my kids that when you make a commitment, you see it through to completion and still believe this to be true! I learned that you are the best board member when you are passionate and committed. You must believe in the organization and their mandate.

Who would you say has been your biggest influencer/mentor? What have you learned from them?

I have several.  First my Mom, as my Dad passed away when I was 17. Mom saw that all of us had the opportunity to go to university or college. I am one of four girls and we are all university educated. Also five of my closest university friends have enjoyed careers in agriculture. These women and my family are my support team; along with my husband, Ken. He plays a very large part in my decisions in assessing whether we can manage the farm and the family, while one of us takes on leadership roles. It’s finding the balance that’s really tough for me, and my support network is vitally important to me for that.

What’s the most burning question for you right now in your career? 

I’ve been asked to consider stepping up for the executive of the Gay Lea Foods Co-Operative Limited Board. I need to fully consider the commitment of time, the learning curve, which I must be ready to take on and examine my own wants and needs (as well as my husband’s!) to make a decision.

How do you define agriculture?

My definition of agriculture is everything from primary agriculture to the food on the table and all points in between. It is an incredibly large industry and yet so small at times. It is dynamic, innovative, vibrant, and exciting. The young women in AWN who comment and explore all sorts of topics in this field inspire me.

I believe that agriculture must continue to cultivate leaders (you and me) who will speak to consumers about food. We must be prepared to answer questions on biotechnology, animal welfare, protecting our environment and farmland.

If you know of a woman whom you think would be a great person to profile, please send your suggestions to Stephanie Craig via email at contact.scraig@gmail.com

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