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Lunch With: ARC Financial co-founder sits down with young interior designer

Mac Van Wielingen shares wisdom on making tough decisions with Amanda Hamilton

Sep 6, 2013

by Tim Querengesser

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Mac Van Wielingen and Amanda Hamilton
Photograph A.J. Valadka

THE DINERS

YOUNG EXEC: Amanda Hamilton
HISTORY: Hamilton started Amanda Hamilton Interior Design in 2009
NUMBER OF EMPLOYEES: Two full-time
LUNCH: “I’m going to let you just bring something to me – some fish, something that has some kick to it. I don’t even need to know what it is,” Hamilton tells the waiter. Then she admits she didn’t want to read the menu

SENIOR EXEC: Mac Van Wielingen
HISTORY: Van Wielingen, along with partners, started ARC Financial in 1989. Before that he ran Nesbit Financial’s corporate finance group in Alberta; before that he was a securities analyst. ARC also features a philanthropic organization called the Viewpoint Foundation
LUNCH: Spinach salad, salmon fillet added, sparkling water
Amanda Hamilton and Mac Van Wielingen aren’t strangers. In 2006, when Hamilton had just finished her bachelor of applied interior  design at Mount Royal University, she worked for Van Wielingen, designing a recreation room at ARC Financial’s Viewpoint Foundation office. Van Wielingen describes this work as a “huge contribution” to beauty in his life, and, on the flip side, Van Wielingen was Hamilton’s “first client.” And she says he made an impression on her.

“I recall sitting around the boardroom table, and I hadn’t done a very good job of convincing you of something, a finish or a texture, and you turned to me … and I remember you saying, ‘Why did you make that decision?’ You were basically saying to me, ‘If you can’t convince me that you’re passionate about whatever the decision was, how am I supposed to get on board for it?’ I’ve remembered that moment ever since,” Hamilton says.

“I’ve always said that my greatest mentor has been my discomfort.” – Mac Van Wielingen, Co-founder, ARC financial

Now that she’s in business on her own designing interiors for custom homes and Calgary restaurants, Hamilton has selected Van Wielingen for her lunch partner at Calgary’s Prego Cucina Italiano. She needs his help, too, given that she’s at something of a crossroads in her career, looking to maintain a balance between the creative parts of design that she loves and what she calls the “people management” of growing her business beyond its current complement of two employees. She wants to bring in more money in order to allow her to live the good life – travel, fine food and freedom from financial worry – but isn’t sure how to get these without creating more obligations and complications for herself. That first lesson – knowing why – hovers over the conversation.

“I’m not selling products. I’m only as good as my hours,” Hamilton says after the waiter takes their orders. “Can I create more passive income by maybe playing with my brand a little bit? We’re kind of thinking of doing an accessories line … and doing more retail. But of course all of these things take massive amounts of time, and then I’m also managing 25 active projects.” She adds that, ideally, money would flow “in and out naturally.”

It’s a lot to chew on, and Van Wielingen’s spinach insalata hasn’t even arrived yet.

“If you really become money focused, I would expect that you’d see other negatives come into your life that could work against you and your business, versus being driven by the passion for the work,” he says. “But nevertheless, you’re constrained by your time, unless you bring in another designer …”

“And then it’s added costs,” Hamilton says, jumping in before Van Wielingen finishes his sentence. More employees bring personal costs – wages, time, energy. “It’s always this sort of …”

Van Wielingen jumps in before Hamilton finishes her thought, too. “You could build up a significant design company,” he says, emphasizing the word ‘significant’.

“And that’s why I’m on the fence right now,” Hamilton says. “I initially thought I would want a firm maybe of six to 12 people. First and foremost I think I’m an entrepreneur. I’m not always a very good entrepreneur, I’m not as good as I probably could be, but it’s this learning process of what works for me.”

Hamilton used to have five employees, but at that size says she felt that work had become a grind, and this makes her wary of growing again. But perhaps that’s the only way to more money? The dilemma goes back to that lesson she remembers Van Wielingen gave her. She knows her options, but doesn’t know why to choose one over the other.

“I think ultimately at some point you have to make a decision,” Van Wielingen says. “Particularly if you go beyond three or four [employees] and you expand, you really have to turn towards the organization in a sense … and provide that organization and people what it is that they need.”

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“I think that’s the problem,” Hamilton says. “I guess I’m afraid that I’m going to lose the fulfillment that I get from interior design if I’m managing people 75 per cent of the time.”

“It doesn’t have to be as consuming as you might fear,” Van Wielingen says. But he suggests that the real challenge isn’t finding time but doing something useful with it – and for him, that’s meant doing things that are difficult. “I’ve always said that my greatest mentor has been my discomfort.” This is a subject to which they’ll return later in the afternoon. The food arrives – Hamilton’s open order results in a noodles and seafood concoction – and then Van Wielingen continues. “I think it’s very possible to develop other sources of income, which is in a sense what you’re talking about. But it’d be very interesting to explore other sources of income that are directly related to your work and your expertise. There may be an optimal model for you that doesn’t compromise your core business. For example, maybe some of the retail ideas, accessories for example, maybe do it as a joint venture. You go to somebody who can make that product for you.”

“So I have to release control?” Hamilton says, laughing. “That sounds scary, I like it.” Van Wielingen presses even closer to Hamilton’s source of discomfort.

“One question I wanted to ask you – this is now the pragmatic financial side of me talking: Have you actually done the financial analytical work and the modeling around what it would look like to build your business up to different levels?”

“No,” Hamilton says. “And I think that’s the part that I need to get to. I need to be able to understand my numbers better, that’s part of the issue. … Frankly, being that I’m a creative individual … it’s like looking at a different language to me.”

“That could be an area of real opportunity for you – you have to turn toward the discomfort of working with numbers,” he says.

“So how do I do that – the modeling?” Hamilton asks.

Van Wielingen suggests that the analysis would be conceptual and not complex, and that she could do it herself. She should create different possible business sizes, see what the costs and benefits would be and figure out which would allow her to have the greatest amount of time to focus on design while also making enough money to support her lifestyle. “There’s no question in my mind that you have the potential to grow your business,” he says. “At the end of the day you may just say you just want to be a two- or three-person business. I don’t know where you’ll end up.”

His closing suggestion about growth is blunt, though. If Hamilton grows, “You don’t bring in staff, you bring in a partner,” he says.

“So you think bringing in a partner could be a positive?” Hamilton asks.

“It could be because it could explicitly deal with that issue – the workload, the leadership load,” Van Wielingen says.

“You’re asking me to release control again,” Hamilton says. “It’s tough for capable entrepreneurs to do that.”

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