Jul 22, 2012, 12:51 PM
Michael J. Weiss
The Sound of Data
To Michele Sexsmith, being the Practice Leader for the media, retail, real estate and manufacturing industries is a lot like skiing. “It’s unpredictable,” she says. “You may have a general plan but you have to adapt to circumstances. On a mountain, you worry about the weather, the conditions of the snow and the steepness of the terrain. At work, it’s understanding customer needs, different points of view, internal structures and working through them. In both cases, when you get everything right, it’s an amazing feeling.”
Although she has 25 years of experience in geodemography and market research, Michele didn’t discover her passion for skiing until she was 35. That’s when she and her husband, Malcolm, who now works in technical sales for a geothermal heating company, began exploring family sports with their two young sons. “I knew it was going to be either skiing or hockey,” she remembers. “But I didn’t want to spend my time sitting on a bench at an ice rink.” She signed up for skiing lessons and got so good that she became a ski instructor. Today, every winter weekend you can find her on the slopes of Mount St. Louis Moonstone, either skiing or teaching the basics to beginners—both kids and adults.
Learning to traverse sharp turns has proved good training as an EA practice leader. Michele oversees a range of client projects, from helping retailers determine the best sites for opening stores to developing the optimum media mix for reaching targeted customers. She says that the favourite part of her job is working with clients—“presenting results that have met the client’s objectives and then seeing how they’re going to use them to make additional decisions and improve their efficiency,” she explains. “I like the intellectual challenge. You’ll have a discussion about methodology and then get into how to interpret findings from an analysis.”
“In my family, we had to choose an instrument at age five,” she says. “My father had this dream that we would be like the Von Trapp family in ‘Sound of Music.’”
Michele says she learned a lot about business from her father, a dairy farmer from New York. Born in Rochester, N.Y., she was one of seven children raised on the farm. “Farming is like running a small business because you have to balance your resources and prioritize your goals,” she explains. “I heard a lot of stories from my father at the dinner table.” She also learned to play classical piano and accordion as a youngster. “In my family, we had to choose an instrument at age five,” she says. “My father had this dream that we would be like the Von Trapp family in ‘Sound of Music.’”
Intending to pursue a career in experimental psychology—“the analytical framework is very much like direct response modeling,” she says—Michele earned an honour’s bachelor’s degree in psychology from Hamilton College. She spent her early years at Compusearch, where she first met Jan Kestle, who later became that company’s president. Initially hired as a researcher, Michele moved into marketing and then sales, expanding the practices in retail, automotive and finance. In the 1990s, she began focusing on the automotive industry with Blackburn Polk Vehicle Information Services. “I worked on market research for new vehicle introductions and market share tracking,” she recalls, “creating the methodology for a database approach to tracking brand loyalty and profiling new car buyers.” After serving as Chief Operating Officer of Polk Canada for four years, she returned to school, enrolling in a master’s degree program in education at Nipissing University and becoming a professor in the post-graduate Research Analyst Program at Georgian College.
But Michele missed the data analytics world, and so when she heard her old Compusearch colleague had begun a new company called Environics Analytics, she knew that fate was intervening. She reconnected with Jan and joined the marketing analytics start-up. “I thought that if I wanted to come back to Toronto, I’d rather work with people I liked on applications that really interested me,” she says.
But the work hasn’t always been a walk in the park—or rather, a glide down a bunny trail. She puts in long hours helping clients identify their core customers and uncover growth opportunities. “It’s a challenging process, requiring a lot of time and support,” she observes. “You have to have empathy for the client and help them articulate their needs and objectives.” Although she likes landing new business, she particularly enjoys getting repeat business, because that means EA is making a difference. “It’s especially gratifying when a client asks us to come back and work on more strategic projects,” she notes.
Such successes have allowed Michele and Malcolm to move into a lakeside house in Coldwater, a God’s Country community about 90 minutes north of Toronto. The location makes for a long commute, so Michele rents a room three nights a week from friends in suburban Etobicoke, and works from her Coldwater home every Friday. “It’s not an ideal marital arrangement, but we’ve settled into a routine,” says Michele. “It’s a new trend for career empty nesters that’s been coined ‘living apart together.’ Malcolm can do his thing and I can be one hundred percent focused on my work when I’m in town.”
And while during the summer months she might spend her downtime plying a lake on a pontoon boat, she’s really just waiting for the snow to return. With her focus and her passion—for both client success and the perfect downhill run—Michele is the closest a geek can come to being a ski bum. “Skiing the mountains,” she says, “is the closest I’ll ever get to heaven on earth.”
–Michael J. Weiss