A win-win career

A win-win career
Manitoba skip Jennifer Jones during the gold medal game at this year’s Scotties Tournament of Hearts. Photo: Reuters/Mark Blinch
Jennifer Jones is a bit of a planner but, at the moment, she’s taking it one day at a time. First it was a career in law. Well, curling actually came first. Then the law degree. Then came more curling, a flexible job in corporate law, more curling, more law. And now a baby along with a life straddling two provinces.

“I definitely live in the moment and I never say never,” notes the Winnipeg native, cradling her baby Isabella at the Ontario home of the infant’s father. “I wanted to have a career and I wanted a family and a curling career. In a perfect world, this is what I wanted.”

The suggestion, early on, was that it couldn’t be done. There were naysayers in law school who maintained that being a world-class curler was not compatible with a career in law. Jones refused to heed those warnings and soon proved them wrong.

After graduating from the University of Manitoba, she went into private practice at Aikins Law in Winnipeg where partner Jim Ferguson proved an amazing mentor. But when Charlie Spiring, founder of Wellington West and a big Winnipeg booster, offered her a part-time job in her hometown as the wealth management firm’s first in-house counsel with the flexibility to continue curling, she switched. It was 2005 and Jones was skip of the Canadian championship women’s curling team preparing for her first Olympic trials. “I had to tell him, Dave Filman, [another partner at Aikins] we wanted his star employee,” recalls Spiring, now chairman and director of National Bank Financial, with a chuckle. “Going in we understood if we wanted her skillset as a lawyer, we had to work with her skills as a curler. It was a win-win.”

That Olympic opportunity didn’t come but there were many other curling successes. And Wellington West remained on a steep growth curve. Jones was now working full time doing contracts, governance, and employment law and the pace increased. But she kept throwing those rocks. So that meant the files and the work came on the road with her. During one world competition Jones recalls stealing off to her room for a conference call.

The company had grown up, but there were still places for it to go. And during those days, says Spiring, it was full-speed ahead. Everyone did whatever it took, and that usually meant long days.

By then Kish Kapoor entered the picture as president of Wellington West Holdings. His job was to prepare the company for one of two inevitabilities: taking it public or selling it. He concentrated on making everything transparent and Jones quickly worked toward standardizing contracts to ensure the company had complete control of its obligations and rights and making sure the board was also up to date and onside. But Kapoor also saw Jones’ international profile as an athlete as an asset. “We encouraged that. We promoted that. And we leveraged all of that.” Jones was front and centre of the annual reports and promotional material presenting Wellington West as an award-winning brand with world-class effort, says Kapoor. “She was a great ambassador for us.”

By 2011, Wellington West had become a major player in the country’s independent financial services landscape with 180 brokers and annual revenues nearing $200 million. Montreal-based National Bank, which had a 17-per-cent stake of Wellington West and a desire for a larger national presence, purchased it for $333 million. “That was the busiest year of my life,” says Jones, who stickhandled and transitioned the sale for Wellington West. She also handled her own transition to National Bank’s new organizational structure, which included maintaining the Winnipeg office as its western base. Again, flexibility in her job, now in the bank’s regulatory compliance office, was key for Jones, whose curling ambitions and success continued.

She was living the dream. She had won four national championships and a world title. But there were still things she hoped to achieve. Early in 2012, however, Jones blew out her knee, threatening her progress leading up to the Olympic year. And the anterior cruciate ligament surgery which followed in June wasn’t an entirely simple affair. Jones was pregnant with her first child, so instead of a general anesthetic, she received an epidural, fully conscious while the knee underwent retreading. Rehabilitation began almost immediately and the knee responded favourably.

In November, Isabella arrived, four weeks early and not at home in Winnipeg, where Jones’ mom was ready to assist. And not at Winnipeg’s Health Sciences Centre, where Jones sits on the board of the foundation, but in Ontario where she was watching her team compete in Brantford while also visiting the baby’s father, Brent Laing, who plays second for Glenn Howard and lives in Horseshoe Valley. Training followed soon after and then came the Scotties Tournament of Hearts where the Jones rink showed well, but was outplayed by Rachel Homan who became the women’s national champion.

But the Jones team had already won a spot at the Olympic trials and that’s where living one day at a time comes into play. In a sport where residence plays an important role, Jones and Laing are maintaining their respective homes in neighbouring provinces. Both are vying for the spot to represent Canada in curling at the Olympics and that, along with Isabella, is where the focus will remain until after the trials in December. There is a possibility a trip to Sochi, Russia, in 2014 could be a family affair where Isabella, likely in the company of a grandparent, could end up watching both her parents compete in the Olympics.

Jones is pumped and she’s ready. “I’m playing better than I ever have.” And, for the first time in her curling career, she has the home-field advantage. Curling’s rich Canadian heritage will undoubtedly be evident in Winnipeg, making the Olympic trials so much sweeter for the Jones rink. She points to the Canadian finals, which attracted 1.1 million viewers, while competing against the Academy Awards. Curling in this country does not go unnoticed.

With or without the Olympics, Jones knows she’s living her dream. “What we’ve achieved so far is way beyond my wildest dreams: Not staying with the status quo and try to evolve women’s curling.”

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