Marla Schwartz, President & CEO, Benecaid, on the Fearlessness of Female Entrepreneurs

In 2005, Marla Schwartz came out of early retirement to join Benecaid as President and CEO, having been an original investor in the business. Since then, Benecaid has grown exponentially and been recognized for three consecutive years in the Profit 200 Fastest Growing Companies and the Profit W100 Top Women Entrepreneurs.

Benecaid now administers on behalf of more than 60,000 Canadians providing them with innovative and sustainable health benefit plans. In 2006, Marla recruited a Board of Directors who have been instrumental in providing governance and oversight to the rapidly growing business.

Prior to Benecaid, in 1995 Marla joined a group of industry professionals to create Newcrest Capital as a Partner and Director. She was the sole female partner in a group of eleven partners. Newcrest was a tremendous success and captured a healthy market share in Canada.

Marla’s career started in the investment industry at Manulife as an Investment Analyst and later Assistant Vice President and Portfolio Manager. She became a Chartered Financial Analyst in 1986. In 1987, she joined Walwyn, later Midland Walwyn as Senior Vice President and Director participating in the turnaround and development of a successful Institutional Research, Sales and Trading Team.

We spoke to Marla about how she found returning to work after coming out of early retirement; how the break changed her approach to working life; and the challenges of coming in as President & CEO of an established company.

TNW: How does Benecaid distinguish itself from the competition?

MS: Benecaid is a solutions provider. We help small and medium sized businesses address their health benefits needs in an innovative and sustainable fashion.

TNW: Coming in as President & CEO of an established company, what was the biggest challenge that you faced and how did you overcome it?

MS: The business was managed by the original two partners in a patriarchal way. The platform was not scalable and the customer experience depended on who took the call. We introduced standardized processes to meet customer expectations. This necessitated new bankers, new computers, new systems, new premises and new suppliers.

TNW: How important is technology to the success of Benecaid?

MS: Extremely. We originally underestimated our technology requirements. Our business requires us to capture and store a large volume of data. We need to reliably accept, manage and back up all of that data 24/7.

TNW: What is next for your company?

MS: We are focused on our key annual and longer term objectives. All of our day to day activities are prioritized based on these objectives.

TNW: How do you see technology as a key growth driver?

Technology is fundamental to meeting our objectives. We use it to scale our business and allow our staff to spend more time thinking and analysing how best to meet the customer needs.

We also conduct more of our business electronically for efficiency and accuracy.

TNW: Since 2005, Benecaid has grown exponentially and been recognized for three consecutive years in the Profit 200 Fastest Growing Companies, so you are the perfect person to ask about scaling; a hot topic with our community at the moment. What is your advice for entrepreneurs looking to scale their business, especially in a time of recession?

Plan for success. Technology is a wonderful tool to scale the business, but it can also allow your team to be distracted. Projects, activities and ideas are plentiful, especially when technology provides you with new options. Make sure you know what business objectives you want to achieve before embarking on a new system or platform.

Flexibility is also critical. What your business needs today can be completely different to what it will need in three or five years. Don’t get stuck in a corner.

TNW: At Newcrest Capital, you were the only woman in a group of eleven partners. How did you ensure your voice was heard?

MS: I was extremely fortunate to have partners who were talented and hard working. As equal partners, our goals were congruent and we each had an equal voice and vote. Our trading desk was a highly charged environment, but I never felt I needed to be anyone other than myself to be valued or heard.  

TNW: What are your tips for women looking to succeed in male-dominated environments?

TNW: Be yourself. When I go to work, I am a person who happens to be female. I am also a Jewish mother who likes to feed everyone. But I have my own family.

I learned that you cannot look after everyone at the office and have energy left to nurture your family.

TNW: What is the best career or management decision you have made?

TNW: Taking the plunge outside of my comfort zone. I have made several career changes. It is important to try new roles and challenge yourself and the status quo.

Like many entrepreneurs, I am driven; failure is simply not an option.

Taking a leadership course to understand my strengths and weaknesses has really helped me in my interactions with our managers. We have also sent all of them to the same training course so we all have the same language and tools to help us meet our goals.

TNW: How did you find returning to work after you took a break to spend time with your family?

I could not wait to go back to work. I still have to work at striking a reasonable work-life balance, but I am getting much better.

TNW: Did your approach to business life or leadership change in any way as a result of the break?

Yes; I now take good care of me so I can be healthy and effective at work. Exercise, a healthy diet and cutting back on hours at the office have made a huge difference in my energy level and disposition.

TNW: What do you see as the benefits of all-women networks such as DWEN?

MS: It is invigorating to meet the members of DWEN. Women are the fastest growing segment of the workforce and are now better represented in leadership roles than when I entered the workplace.

The enthusiasm and fearless approach of the women I meet is really exciting and heartwarming.

The Dell Women's Entrepreneur Network (DWEN) celebrates the wonderful accomplishments of women in business, whilst looking forward at how we can progress and learn from each other. Natural networkers and relationship builders, women have innate flair for entrepreneurship. With DWEN, Dell is helping women in business to expand their networks while offering technology capabilities designed to help them innovate and grow their businesses.

The NextWomen is in partnership with DWEN to bring you a series of 40 interviews with the world's most influential female founders, investors and decision makers: The NextWomen DWEN Interview Series.

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