Polite and elegant, confident and precise, simple and feminine, Rebecca MacDonald with her appearance and bearing is the epitome of a successful businesswoman who has sold electricity and natural gas and built an empire that employs nearly 4,000 people. Thanks to the results she’s achieved, she was declared the most successful businesswoman in Canada seven times, until the rules were changed to allow other women to inch closer to her. In her own words, she’s a Canadian with Serbian origins. In her head she’s Canadian, she works like a Canadian, and when she comes to Belgrade she’s a foreigner.
In addition to many things she has learned and applies in her work, she is pleased that she has learned to control her ego, which is a great victory. That is why today she says that winners are those who can rein in their ego. In this sense, she is also a winner.
Born Ubavka Mitić in Sarajevo, she completed the First Belgrade Grammar School in what was then the capital of Yugoslavia. She had a good family upbringing from her father Miloš, an electrical engineer, and her mother Ljubica, a successful executive manager at the National Bank in Sarajevo who quit her career after the birth of her daughter. Ljubica wanted her daughter to be a medical doctor who could one day become a hospital director, but Ubavka wanted to be a journalist. As a student she made the difficult decision to leave home. She wanted to go to America, but couldn’t get a visa. She went to Canada instead, because she had someone there who could help her stay in the country legally. She didn’t speak the language, but she was diligent and able to pick it up quickly, aware that everything depended on her alone.
When she married Pearson MacDonald, a dashing Canadian and sixth generation Scot, she took up Rebecca as her middle name, knowing that her mother loved it because of the novel by Daphne du Maurier. Rebecca had a son and a daughter and lived rather modestly with her husband until one day she showed an interest in business. Many have falsely assumed that Rebecca simply continued her husband’s business after his tragic death, but the truth is that Pearson had a small business and later joined Rebecca’s after she had earned her first million dollars. He worked in his wife’s company for a year and a half, until his death.
“It seems to me that I’m the Serbian woman who has shaken Canada more than anyone else when it comes to business. I have never said I couldn’t do something. For me the glass is always half full, never half empty.”
What kept her going in those first years after arriving in Canada? What was it like to be a migrant then and what is it like now?
“What kept me going was the decision I had made to come to Canada and the fact that never ever did I think about the past again. I told myself there was no going back, that I’d either swim or drown. I got competitiveness and ambition from my mother and I never took no for an answer. For me, ‘no’ is really ‘maybe’.”
Today, she says, Canada is more open to migrants than it was when she first arrived in the country:
“Every year we have to import 300,000 people, because if we don’t import them, our birth rate goes down. My husband was the eleventh child in the family, my daughter was the 54th grandchild to my late mother-in-law. Sadly, Canadian families are now very small. I think that Canada’s immigration policy is wrong, that we’re importing people we shouldn’t import. When I came there, people were arriving from Europe, which isn’t the case now. Now we have migrants from Asia and Africa to do the jobs Europeans don’t want. Those people unfortunately need more time to adjust to the culture of life that we have in Europe.”
I knew nothing about business and had to learn everything on my own. For me, business was the lesson of life. Over time, business created me, and I created business
The education, working habits and views that she brought with her from the former Yugoslavia were in fact Rebecca’s assets in her new life in Canada. She arrived as an undergraduate student, but in the new country this was an excellent education that provided her with insight into the world: “Everything I had learned in Yugoslavia gave me an advantage in Canada. It was that broad education that provided me with the best chance of success.”
The first thing Rebecca learned from her husband was that anything can be sold. And the first job she had was gas distribution. Mr MacDonald, who had his own little business, was shocked, to put it mildly, when his wife told him she’d like to start her own business too. His fierce objection was followed by her fierce smashing of glasses, plates and anything else she could break, but she got what she wanted: next day she got her first phone line, a desk and a chair in his office. She set out on a path of uncertainty and many difficulties. Today she feels that her success story is at the same time proof of the American or Canadian dream come true:
“When I launched my small business, I never had it in my head that I had to have a big business. As a matter of fact I had nothing, because I started the business with no big bucks. And when you have nothing, you can gamble because you’ve got nothing to lose. Later, everything went in a logical order. Mind you, I knew nothing about business and had to learn everything on my own. For me, business was the lesson of life. Over time, business created me, and I created business.
In fact I’ve had three lives. In the first one, I had a private company which I sold. In the second I had another private company which I sold in England, and in the third life I have a public enterprise. I’m the biggest in my line of business in Canada, but my business is much bigger in the States because the American market is so much larger. If I were to make a comparison with how I started off in my husband’s office, with one chair, one desk and a phone, then from my current perspective I could say that this is a dream come true – albeit one I never dreamt.”
Rebecca has been declared the most successful businesswoman in Canada seven times; when asked if this was because she behaved like a man at work or because being a woman manager had its advantages, this frail but spirited woman says:
“Being a woman manager is an advantage and I always behaved as a woman doing the job of a manager. I didn’t get into business to be a man, I got into it as a woman and I remain a woman today. Women have excellent advantages, they’re strong from their very birth and they don’t need to pretend to be men at all. As a woman, I stand firmly on my feet, or on my heels, to be precise, and I’m absolutely aware of who I was and who I am today. In my wardrobe I still have the dress I wore when I arrived from Belgrade and landed in Canada. People often confuse their values and when they earn money they think they’ve become something special.”
As a woman, I stand firmly on my feet, or on my heels, to be precise, and I’m absolutely aware of who I was and who I am today. In my wardrobe I still have the dress I wore when I arrived from Belgrade and landed in Canada. People often confuse their values and when they earn money they think they’ve become something special
For the last eight years, the glory days of the gas industry have been somewhat a thing of the past, so Rebecca had to adjust to the market and expand her line of work. Technology has brought about an incredible transformation of the world, including the gas industry, and this woman’s idea – as she so vividly and concisely puts it – is “to be in each and every basement and control everything that’s in the basement.”
Electricity is very cheap in North America, but very expensive in Europe, which is why these two have such different stances towards energy, she says for CorD, explaining:
“I’m in an industry that is indispensable in the 21st century – water, food and energy. Whatever the economy, you can’t live without these three, I’m in a branch that protects me from recession. Yet I never forget that Nikola Tesla used to say that energy is free, which didn’t suit Edison or anyone else for that matter. The future of energy is to have each individual controlling their own energy production, because energy is everywhere around us. This definitely won’t happen during my lifetime, but it certainly will happen.”
This successful woman also confirms the unwritten rule that businesspeople are close to the government, and the more successful they are, the closer they are to the top echelons of government. However, she strongly distances herself here:
“Politicians aren’t in business and they don’t do business. When this line is crossed, the entire country faces a problem. It’s businesspeople who create and sustain the economy, they are the ones who can explain to the people in the government what is good for the economy and what isn’t, and what laws are needed for growth and development. People in the government live in their own world of politics that has nothing to do with reality, and businesspeople can suggest to them a certain way of thinking which also implies making some practical moves.
I spend a lot of time with politicians and I don’t expect them to give me everything I ask, but I do expect them to hear me out, and not to make stupid decisions when they have already been forewarned. President Obama was an absolute idealist who didn’t take reality into account and he brought America to a halt. America stood still for eight years because of what he did, because of Obama. In Canada, you have socialism, not capitalism, although no one will ever admit that.”
Rebecca’s business empire stretches over Canada, America, England and Germany, while she also plans to expand to Japan. There are no business ties with Serbia, or with the Serbian diaspora anywhere in the world.
“While she was still alive, my mother always kept trying to recommend someone I could hire, and as a rule these people were always executives from Sarajevo or Belgrade. I could hardly believe just how many executives we used to have. We love to boast our titles, you know. In Canada no one asks you what you were or what you are now; they’re only interested in what you can do. In this sense, we’re such snobs, with absolutely no grounds to behave like that. I despise snobs you know, and even more so when someone is a snob but has nothing to show for it… We Serbs are rather stuck up and we overestimate our abilities. We think we know best, that the world revolves around us, that we have no equal anywhere on the planet. Such behaviour has cost us a lot, and it still does because we never seem to try to change our working habits, or any other habits for that matter. The West is ruthless, dollars don’t grow on trees, and as someone who started from scratch I know what it means to earn every cent. I know what it means to succeed and how hard that is, and I also know what the hardest thing is – to stay on top. Because when you make it out there, you become a target for everyone, and that’s something I’ve had to live with for years. That’s why I believe I have the right to speak about the amount of work it takes to succeed and to say that nothing can be achieved overnight, which is what we think here.”
When she became a member of the prestigious Horatio Alger Association in Washington some ten years ago, Rebecca stood in the Supreme Court room and felt that she had really made it – she had joined the club of the 300 most powerful people in the U.S. and Canada. Each year this Association admits nine U.S. citizens and one Canadian, by recommendation only. In 2008, she was the one member from Canada. The condition to join this elite club is to start with nothing and succeed in one’s field of work, just like Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford, Oprah Winfrey or others who are in this club with Rebecca. At that moment, Rebecca was on the verge of tears as she received the medal, thinking how that little girl from Belgrade had become a woman whose name was called out with such esteem. And she thought to herself: “This is something you can be proud of and pleased with yourself!”
People in the government live in their own world of politics that has nothing to do with reality, and businesspeople can suggest to them a certain way of thinking which also implies making some practical moves
When after a long time she arrived in Belgrade from Canada to visit her friends Ana and Vlade Divac, she was disappointed. The next time she came, she saw a slight improvement, and now she feels that something is on the move; that things are looking up: “I think people in Serbia have begun to realise that it’s useless to constantly blame America or anyone else. Let’s blame ourselves a little. I had a call from General MacKenzie [commander of sector Sarajevo during UNPROFOR in 1992, note by R.S.] during Dayton and he told me that “Mr Milošević gave them everything!” What could I say after that except that Milošević deceived his own citizens, his own people.”
Many young people have left Serbia and are still leaving. Mrs MacDonald thinks that Serbia’s biggest tragedy is that it has young, educated, capable and talented people who don’t see their future in their own country.
“To be honest and true, this isn’t only Serbia’s problem, but many other countries’ as well. You have an educated workforce and simply no work for them. My heart breaks when I see young men and women with university degrees working in cafes because they can’t find other work. My traders usually don’t have university degrees, but they have higher salaries than doctors. I used to tell my children to study something they can live off and sustain themselves. My son majored in business and finance and he’s got his own company in the same branch as his father once had, and my daughter worked as a therapist for a while until she chose to raise children because she believes that her main vocation is that of a mother. In this sense I think I’ve been a good mother, because I always thought they should find their future in whatever suits them best.”
Patriarch Irinej calls her Ubavka, and she speaks of him with great affection and respect. Her donations focus on Canada and her home country, and she donates to Serbia through the Ana and Vlade Divac Foundation. She mostly helps young people, primarily through scholarships. She’s thinking about focusing her donations to Serbia only on sick and talented children. She has also helped the Serbian Orthodox Church in Toronto and donated money for the reconstruction of a monastery near Toronto which was in a very poor state.
The issue of the equality of women is more pronounced in Canada and America than it was in Yugoslavia at the time when Rebecca left. She remembers all the advantages of the system at the time, which in certain areas was very humane and advanced.
In Canada no one asks you what you were or what you are now; they’re only interested in what you can do. In this sense, we’re such snobs, with absolutely no grounds to behave like that
“I have felt on my own skin how much the world of men doesn’t want to accept a woman. But once you’re in, you’re accepted through and through. I had a lot of difficulties as a woman in the world of business, and an immigrant on top of that. That was why my wish to succeed and show them I can do it was even greater. I’m very critical towards Canadian institutions because of their treatment of women. Once I even said it publicly: Stop seeing a woman as a risk, try to see her as an opportunity. And all those bankers and other businessmen and politicians whom I reproached now admit that I did open their eyes when it comes to women in business. In my companies, 54% of employees are women. There’s a foundation for women in my company. I show by example that my fight for the better position of women in Canada is not just a slogan, but something that can be done.”
The Centre for Arthritis and Autoimmune Disease in Toronto was created by Rebecca after she experienced serious health problems when she got rheumatoid arthritis. Having recovered, she helped build an entire floor in the hospital for the Centre for Arthritis and Autoimmune Disease, which looks more like a hotel or an art gallery than a hospital, requesting that any woman from any part of Canada should be offered an opportunity to receive treatment there.
“I’ve heard such touching words of gratitude from some of the patients there; I’ve felt what it means to help someone save their life. That’s the beauty of giving. I’m not in love with money, I see it rather as something that gives me freedom. I have enough and more, and I want to share that surplus with people who need money.”
In the 1990s, when the rest of the world saw Serbia as the epitome of evil, Rebecca told everyone: I’m a Serbian-born Canadian, look at me and see that we’re not murderers. Today she says:
“I’m terribly annoyed by corruption in Serbia. I hope things are getting better, I do hope so. I’ve noticed that better ambassadors are coming from Serbia, because in the past I personally witnessed that we had ambassadors who couldn’t speak English. Today we have an ambassador who can speak English and French, and who does his job perfectly.
“I feel sorry that privatisation in Serbia went into foreign hands and that our riches are being used by someone else, and not our people. Because once you lose your natural riches, your water, what have you got left? You’ve got cheap labour. We’re much better than that and we don’t deserve to stoop so low. Whoever is running policy in Serbia must get out of business entirely, because there is simply no other way. I think that some new, young people will change that harmful practise. And especially those young people who left Serbia and are now successful in America.
“I know it’s easy to criticise. The hardest thing is to actually do something to help, to change. I love my people, I come from those people, but we’re not united and we don’t know how to fight for a common idea, a common cause. We have to look to the future. Invest in young experts, in production; let’s finally agree with each other and stop being jealous of each other. There’s nothing more negative than jealousy. And envy at someone’s success.”