Teresa Spinelli is owner of the Italian Centre Shop.
Tell me how you came to be running the business?
Spinelli: How I came to run the business is really because of family misfortune. Very traditional Italian family and my brother was supposed to take over the business. Unfortunately, he passed away just before his 33rd birthday. A couple of months later, my dad was diagnosed with cancer. That left me.
What were your biggest challenges initially and still today in running the business?
Spinelli: My biggest challenge initially was getting respect from the longtime employees. They were loyal to my dad and thought of me as the spoiled little girl who used to play cashier. Taking direction from a woman was also very difficult, not just for them but me, too. There were many conversations that they started with “Who do you think you are …” or some version of that. I told them who I was and that I was here for the long haul. Wasn’t going anywhere. I was willing to listen to their concerns but I was now in charge. I had the final say.
Still today, when I’m at a business conference or a trade show, they tend to speak to my husband or purchaser (also male) and I have to interrupt the conversation and make sure they know that I’m a serious business owner.
Men often apologize for their weaknesses. As a woman, we apologize for our strengths.
What’s your best piece of advice for women entrepreneurs and women thinking of becoming entrepreneurs?
Spinelli: Best piece of advice for women entrepreneurs is really not much different than what I would tell a man thinking of becoming an entrepreneur:
Make sure you have a passion for the business you’ve chosen. It’s going to take up a lot of your waking hours and take time from your sleeping hours. Be willing to work hard. Be clear about what you want to achieve. Listen to your gut. Don’t be afraid to fail and take responsibility for everything.
What have been some of key factors behind the company’s success?
Spinelli: Some key factors behind our company’s success is people. First my dad. My dad was a very generous man and the best example I know of the more you give, the more you get. When he first opened his store, his motto was “Eat today, pay when you can.”
Imagine, being an immigrant family new in Canada with all the cultural changes, no job and you still had to feed your family. To this day (my dad passed away in 2000), weekly someone will tell me how my dad helped their family, whether it was with groceries, or doing their taxes or helping with a mortgage payment. Those families, third generations now, are still loyal to us. When you have more, you don’t build a fence, you build a bigger table.
Our employees. The better we treat our employees, the better they treat our customers. Our staff really enjoy coming to work. We give them an environment where they will motivate themselves. Although we have over 500 employees, and none are related to me by blood, we truly are a family business, we care about each other and support each other in the same way every family does.
What are your future growth plans for the company? In Calgary? In Edmonton? Elsewhere?
Spinelli: We’re still growing and really hope to open two more stores in Calgary. We’re looking in the suburbs outside Edmonton and looking in Saskatoon and Victoria.
We’re different and people want us in their communities. Lots of possibilities.
– Mario Toneguzzi