SHOW THEM WHO’S BOSS
At Toronto’s Best Bargains, a mother-and-daughters team use the soft touch to tackle a male-dominated industry.
by Joanne M. Brathwaite
A relationship with a parent can sometimes be a challenge on an ordinary day. That familial bond is compounded by business partnership — especially when Mom is also your boss. The Toronto-based family business Best Bargains has risen to that challenge and turned it into an asset.
Anita Agarwal is the Chief Operating Officer of Best Bargains, a business that she co-runs with her mother and sister. She says that being a leader in a female-run enterprise has come with equal shares of frustration and fulfillment.
Who’s in charge, here?
“People instinctively expect a man to be in charge,” Anita states.
“The jewellery industry is still pretty much male-dominated. We get a lot of first-time clients coming in and asking, ‘Can I speak to the boss?’ and it’s always a shock to them when one of us turns around and says, ‘I am the boss!’”
While the Agarwals may face additional challenges that their male peers are less likely to encounter, Anita feels that as women, she and her mother and sister bring natural abilities that are useful in business: women tend to be great networkers, have inherent skills for negotiating and are good at multi-tasking. These are all of the same skills that women rely on to manage their families.
“As a small business, I think our female clients appreciate us more. We offer advice and ideas… it’s more of an exchange,” Anita says. “Sometimes it’s intimidating for women to make purchasing decisions for their stores, so we develop close business relationships with our clients, and invest in them.”
“We add that personal touch,” says Anita’s mother, Sheela.
WOMEN HELPING WOMEN
Anita says it’s important to empower women in the jewellery industry, whether they are new to the business or long-standing business owners. “We try our best to support other female-owned operations, whether its sourcing appraisers, suppliers or vendors,” she says. “It’s hard to find them sometimes, but we do our best.
I think that’s important.”
Both Sheela and Anita are excited by the next steps that they have taken to diversify their business. Most recently, the company became Certified Women-Owned through WEConnect, an international network dedicated to helping female business owners. “It’s also about changing the perception of female-owned businesses. We can do the same things as men in this industry,” says Anita. “There are no limitations.”
She adds that Best Bargains recently teamed up with Accenture’s mentorship program. “It will help us with business development, strategic planning and bolstering client relations. We decided that in our twenty-second year of business it might be a good strategy to be part of these exciting new networks. Hopefully we can share some of this new knowledge with others.”
In addition to her efforts to empower women in the industry, Anita continues to advocate for investing in youth and making it easier for young people and students interested in the jewellery business to enter the field. “It would be nice to have more youth involvement and mentorship programs, to give them business coaching, and opportunities to work, grow and learn within the jewellery industry,” she says.
BUSINESS AS USUAL
In the meantime, the family continues to deliver on the other aspects of their business that they feel set Best Bargains apart from its competitors. For Sheela Agarwal, that means providing timely delivery and a focus on customer service.
In fact, Sheela has been recognized for her business acumen. The organization of Women in International Trade recently named her “Women Exporter of the Year (2012).”
Anita agrees: “We always handle our customer feedback. If there’s a comment or inquiry, it won’t go into some empty void. Our customers will always hear from us. I love interacting with people, every day.”
She adds that being one’s own boss means that the hours can be long, although the payoffs are rewarding: “The extra hours can sometimes be a little challenging, for sure. We work long days, not your typical nine-to-five… But I love that I get to do other things, like consulting.
“Being self-employed and family-run also means that I also get the freedom to take on new challenges and find new ways to solve them. I’m more involved in strategy, and I organize the day-to-day details. “Mom handles the finances. She pays close attention to legislation and policy, and the bulk of the details related to business. She’s really the boss!”
Anita turns to her mother. “Right, mom?” she asks. Sheela gives an almost imperceptible nod, and smiles. CJ