Chasing unpopular dreams, embracing risk, hiring resourceful employees and using her voice to advocate for women in business are just a few of the most valuable lessons Allie Hughes (Gammon) has learned in her career.
The founder and owner of Hughes & Co. took the stage with focus coach Ruth Unrau for a talk-show style interview at a WINspirational Women event at Loft 123 in St. Catharines recently. Women in Niagara and the Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce host WINspirational Women events once per quarter.
Starting young, with a dream
Before founding one of Niagara’s most successful digital inbound marketing and sales enablement agencies, Hughes worked for the federal government in communications, then pensions and employment insurance before moving on to Niagara College, where she worked on a team tasked with bringing the now nationally recognized Canadian Food and Wine Institute to life.
“I had a lot of trust and freedom…I had a really wonderful learning opportunity, and hung out with really amazing people who let me learn from them. I can’t speak highly enough about Niagara College,” she said, adding she has fond memories of working with CFWI dean Craig Youdale.
The CFWI’s successful launch encouraged her to keep chasing her own dream. Meanwhile, her personal life was also drastically changing – she departed Humber College to study Communications at Brock University and work in Career Services. She also married her husband Owen Hughes, who was working in Brock’s Biochemistry department and left to pursue his passion in real estate – a decision that was unpopular among many as it meant starting at $10 per hour.
“It wasn’t something that made everyone in our lives very comfortable for him to do and he did it anyways…failure has just never been an option” for either of them, she said, adding that although she experiences small failures as an entrepreneur, having a healthy relationship with failure is important.
Both Allie and Owen’s relentlessness paid off – he’s now a senior corporate/commercial appraiser at Colliers International Canada, valuing real estate on a large scale, and she owns a widely recognized digital marketing agency in Niagara, with a group of talented staff serving prestigious clients. But the journey hasn’t been easy. Hughes’ rise to success was partly driven by feelings of desperation and unfulfillment as she watched her husband work his way up.
“I wasn’t doing big shit at the time and I was always hard-wired to be like that. I felt desperate and unfulfilled and sad all the time. I was viciously jealous of all the success and opportunity he had, and I just couldn’t get past it. I needed something that was mine to do. I felt like I was failing myself by not going after what I wanted, so I did.”
She started small, taking on marketing jobs as a one-woman freelancer whose strengths included creative work, strategy and planning before transitioning to hiring employees.
“In the beginning, it was just me scrambling to find something that made me feel whole and human,” she said.
Achieving success on a monumental scale
Over the years, she’s hired more than a dozen staff and purchased the historic Quebec Bank building on Front Street in downtown Thorold. Along with her internal motivation, Hughes credits her business-minded parents, unflinchingly supportive husband and wider network of friends and business peers for her success. The Hughes & Co. team is a major factor in the company’s success, and she’s invested in her employees’ personal and professional happiness.
From the day she hired her first employee, she’s always committed to being a great employer, and employee loyalty has paid off – Hughes & Co. has a “remarkably low staff turnover. I care so much that they come to work, that they love it and that (they know) they’re important to me and that their work matters to me and our clients.”
At a marketing company that handles millions of dollars in accounts, difficult decisions sometimes have to be made, from choosing software to deciding which projects to take on. A naturally decisive person, Hughes has always made gut decisions quickly, without second-guessing herself.
“I don’t consider things that don’t feel good,” she said about her decision making process. “When I know something is good, I stick with my gut and I’m quick to rely on numbers and information. I like to weigh things by opportunity.”
Because she doesn’t have an emotional connection with the money in her business, she finds it relatively easy to make decisions.
“I see that money as just the gas that keeps the car going. Our recurring revenue model is strong and stable,” she said, adding she’d rather know her fast, decisive decisions are “going to blow up in my face quickly. If I am going to make a terrible decision, and if it fails, I can make another decision. If I waste six months, that opportunity is gone…or I never learn the lesson. I just do it as fast as I can. If it’s not going to work, just get it over with. We waste a lot of time thinking.”
Speaking her mind
What she has thought a lot about is how to navigate an ever-evolving, male-dominated industry in a region that has traditionally been slow to adapt to change.
Equality for female entrepreneurs is a “very significant and real” issue in Niagara.
“I have clients all over the world. Working in my own backyard as a woman is much harder than everywhere else. I find it difficult to be a female business owner in Niagara.”
From being called a “really nice girl” at business pitches (“I’m a professional business woman who’s here to take your money. I’m not a ‘nice girl’.”) to being talked over at business meetings and even hearing that her business was blatantly dismissed as a “hobby”, Hughes and many other female business owners in Niagara and beyond endure sexism daily. Noting Niagara as a community that’s been traditionally late to adopt statistically and anecdotally, she said, “We don’t get on a lot of bandwagons quickly. It’s unfortunate that equality is a bandwagon.”
As for how she deals with it, “I’m not shy about it anymore. The last time I was asked what the education of my staff team was, I said, ‘I don’t think you asked (the male competitors) that. Making people aware of the fact that you’re cognizant of how rude they’re being.”
Though it’s a challenging time for women in business, it’s up to each to speak out. “The more there’s reason to talk about how women are made to feel small, the more we work to push against that as a group. We’re on the right track.”
When all the decisions have been made, pitches given and clients taken care of, it’s time to take a much-needed vacation. Working in a two-entrepreneur household can be challenging, but the couple has learned to navigate any obstacles and enjoy the fruits of their labour. They’ve found they have to travel to unplug – staycations aren’t an option and only result in one or both pulling out a laptop. She fondly remembers trips to Boston and to Disney with her parents.
“I literally don’t turn it off. It’s not healthy in some people’s minds, but I love working so much. I love my job. I love the company. I love my clients. I love making change for them. I love it and I live it. That’s why we have to go away – (Owen)’s the same way.”
Whether they’re on vacation or at home together, Hughes loves spending time with her husband, and treasures the occasional evening in front of a campfire. “We play, but we both love working.”
Asked what her advice to women looking to start a business would be, she stressed that a market study is essential to success, as well as understanding revenue streams and growth targets.
“You’ve got to treat it like a business. There are a million ways to run a business but all of them have to bring money in the door. It’s so irresponsible to cast aside and hope. It really bugs me when people say things like, ‘Just noodle on it.’ Call a businessperson and see what they think of your idea. The ‘no’s’ shouldn’t tell you to not do it. It’s about figuring out how it grows and where it comes from.”
Once they get a business up and running, managing clients and their expectations is a major factor in success.
“Managing expectations is everything. When we started, I just did anything for anyone.”
In the years since, Hughes has learned the word ‘no’ and how to use it. “Understand how powerful it is to know your limits, then you start making real money, people trust you more.”
Working at Hughes & Co.
Asked by an audience member what she looks for in employees, she advised entrepreneurs to hire people whose strengths complement their weaknesses, and to train for any additional skills.
“I look for people who are incredibly resourceful. I do not like to be asked questions people can find the answer for. People who are positively motivated – they walk into the office and are very confident in their core competencies. I can teach people how to do what we do. I need people willing to learn and how to resource themselves into a good position.
“Part of what makes my business successful is not only the breadth of knowledge across the room but the depth of knowledge of each individual. Without that pool, we’re not much of anything.”
After answering Ruth’s tough questions, the ladies had some fun. Here are a few miscellaneous tidbits about Allie Hughes.
Favourite word: Persnickety
Least favourite word: Moist
What turns her on?: Getting more girls involved in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). Hughes & Co. sponsors a couple of girls to attend STEM leadership camps each year.
What career would she have if she wasn’t in marketing?: “I would love to be a criminal investigator. I’m so nosy, I’d be awesome at it.”
If heaven exists, what do you think God would say to you at the Pearly Gates?: “No thanks.”
Allison Smith is a community-minded freelance content developer who specializes in working with small to medium-sized businesses and non-profits to tell their stories in a way that makes readers want to engage. Connect with her at aesmithwriting.com.