Partnerships and Innovation

Office of Partnerships and Innovation
Office of Partnerships and Innovation

Effective mentoring through WE-CAN helps Kathy Wray smooth out the financial peaks and valleys

Photo of Kaoru Miller, owner of Cha Cha Tea
Kathy Wray, CEO of Southeastern Telecommunications Services.

Southeastern Telecommunications Services participates in programs offered by Queen’s Partnerships and Innovation (QPI), made possible with support from the Government of Canada to Queen’s University and the WE-CAN Project through the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario.

That a mentor can help an entrepreneur might seem pretty obvious; what isn’t always so obvious, however, is how.

When Kathy Wray was offered the chance through Queen’s Partnerships and Innovation’s (QPI) WE-CAN (Women Entrepreneurs Can) program for female entrepreneurs to work with a more experienced entrepreneur, she jumped at the opportunity. The CEO of Kingston-based Southeastern Telecommunications Services, which does business locally and mainly along the 401 corridor from Belleville to Cornwall, had a number of reasons why she made the decision. Wray and a fellow employee, Jordan Long, had bought the firm in 2014 (she started with the firm in 2006), and had been growing it ever since. A small firm, just 15 employees, in a sector dominated by such giants as Bell and COGECO, they had carved a space for themselves providing companies with their internal phone systems by being innovative and nimble, and able to respond far more quickly than the major firms when their customers had a problem. With a bigger firm, you might connect with a call centre; Wray would have a truck rolling fast to solve your problem. That aside, she faced the standard challenges of a small firm. “When you’re working in a company day-in and out, it’s hard to put your head up and see what is ahead – there are just so many distractions.” As well, she says, “When you’re an employee, and you’ve got a problem, you can always go to your boss. When you’re the boss you don’t really have anyone to call on.” Connecting with local entrepreneur Judith Pineault seemed like a great way to deal with her challenges.

That she was able to connect with Pineault was a bit of good luck. A long-time local entrepreneur Pineault and her husband had just concluded the sale of their firm, Eastern Fluid Power, a custom design/build firm specializing in fluid power and electro-mechanical technologies in December 2019. Almost before she had time to wonder what came next, QPI contacted her to see if she would be interested in acting as a mentor to women enrolled in their WE-CAN Project. “The timing,” she says, “couldn’t have been better.” In addition to her experience creating and running Eastern Fluid Power, Pineault had developed valuable connections for any fledgling entrepreneur to tap into the larger local business community, thanks to her six years on the board of Kingston Economic Development Corporation, including a stint as its chair. She also understands the unique challenges of the female entrepreneur. Even today, says Pineault, she must, far more than her male counterpart, juggle the “very real” competing priorities of work and their family. By coincidence, Pineault and Wray had in fact done business before – several years ago Southeastern Telecommunications had installed an internal phone service at Eastern Fluid Power.

Pineault and Wray began working together in June 2020. Meeting via Zoom was a bit of a challenge. “The mentoring relationship is built on trust and integrity,” says Pineault. “Especially when you do have to have more difficult or sensitive conversations. And it’s hard when you can’t just drive over and discuss them over a cup of coffee.” They made it work. “The weekly calls helped me stay on top of things and stay focused. Keep things moving forward,” says Wray. If she needed her, “Judith could jump on a call and offer suggestions.” Pineault also connected her with the other women she mentored so they could thrash out problems together.

As well as taking advantage of Pineault’s more extensive experience in predictable ways (“Say on marketing, I’d say share my ideas with her, and she’d tell me, ‘I did that; it didn’t work.’”), Wray was able to tap into her mentor’s experience in a way that neither woman might have foreseen.

In addition to providing customers with their phone systems for their businesses (increasingly those that are VOIP-based), Southeastern Telecommunications also provides network cabling to companies to run their systems on and installs fibre-optic cables in newly constructed buildings. Their customers include small to medium businesses in all sectors. “You name them, we do cabling all day long,” says Wray. It is a business prone to peaks and troughs in terms of cash flows, however. Money pours out when the work is underway, followed by a big infusion when the work is paid for. It makes it hard to plan and budget month by month. Although as Wray points out, Southeastern Telecom is essentially a service, in this one way it resembled the situation that Pineault had to deal with as a manufacturer at Eastern Fluid Power, where their work developing systems was also strongly project based and prone to the same ebbs and flows. Working together, the two women were able to identify ways that Wray’s company could mitigate the peaks and valleys of its revenue by emphasizing services that provided more consistent cash flows such as monthly paid services for cloud-based VOIP phone systems. Responding to the effects of COVID-19, Wray is also looking at tech that will allow companies to blend home-based workers seamlessly with their company-based phone systems, another regular revenue possibility.

Pineault and Wray will wind up their nine-month mentoring relationship this March, with Southeastern Telecommunications now set more firmly on its path to the future. To other female entrepreneurs, Wray says, “Definitely reach out to WE-CAN. They have the resources, and so much support. They can definitely find someone to help you