Meet Nicola MacNaughton, occupational therapist, entrepreneur, and President & CEO of OCCUPATIONAL CONCEPTS. Boasting a state of the art facility in Moncton as well as a satellite office based in Bathurst, the company exists to help individuals get back to living following an injury or illness, working to help remove barriers that keep people from leading the lives they’re passionate about. It’s no surprise that a company focused on the well-being of others sprang from MacNaughton’s desire to make a real difference in the field of occupational therapy.
Upon graduating from McGill University with a Bachelor of Science in Occupational Therapy, Nicola immediately secured a position with Worker’s Compensation in New Brunswick. She spent a decade with the organization and enjoyed her time immensely, but all the while she was privately plotting a new course of direction for herself. “I found that change was often very slow in a large corporation, and that I’d need to be in another environment in order to make a difference at the pace I wanted to,” says MacNaughton. “That’s when I began to look at starting my own private practice.”
She began the company in a small office by herself in 1999, while simultaneously pursuing her Masters in Occupational Therapy from Dalhousie University via their distance education program.
“Maybe it’s because I like to move quickly and be in charge of my own destiny, but I believe if you have those innate abilities or desires, it makes sense to listen to them and to create opportunities for yourself,” explains MacNaughton.
Nicola recalls conversations around her kitchen table when she was growing up. Her family would brainstorm ideas about startup businesses, planning companies they could all run together. She feels that aspect of her upbringing steered her in the direction of entrepreneurship.
Yet, when explore the question of nature vs. nurture with regards to entrepreneurs, MacNaughton responded that it’s likely a bit of both.
“I think there’s probably a little bit of entrepreneur in all of us, and it depends how it gets nurtured as you grow your opportunities, take risks to challenge yourself, and move into leadership roles.”
For MacNaughton, building her company’s brand identity and forging a clear direction ahead were not concerns. “Identifying our purpose is one thing we’ve never struggled with; we help people get back to living following an injury or illness,” says Nicola. “We really haven’t diverted from that for the last 17 years. As an organization, we believe that everybody deserves to be healthy and enjoy a good quality of life, whether that means being able to work, take care of yourself, play with your children, or participate in other activities. That’s why we exist, and that’s what we’re all passionate about here.”
For the first decade after its inception, the growth strategy of the company was based entirely around customer demand. Quite simply, as demand grew, they brought on new staff. Only in the past few years has there been a concerted effort to drive growth within the company, which meant considering a formal management system. “I realized that my decision making was based on an intuition rather than a logical or formulaic management system”, explains MacNaughton. She reached out to a consultant firm, Symplicity Designs, for help in enacting these strategies.
“It was really Greek to us at that time,” laughs Nicola, but the company soon found its bearings. “We quickly learned that within our organization we were always making decisions, sometimes based on gut feelings, sometimes on data. But we realized that we never really had a system before for defining what our problems were, for measuring and analyzing what was really going on within the organization.”
Thankfully, MacNaughton had the support of her loyal staff to see her through the organization’s growing pains. “My employees are fantastic, and they followed me as I zigzagged around the organization,” explains Nicola with a smile. “But it was starting to wear thin, and I think we were all getting exhausted trying to grow the business and improve without a formalized approach.
The formal management system eliminated that stress. We now have a very clear strategic path.” Another insight that came to her at this time was the importance of initiating a formal system for recruiting and hiring. “There have been times that I’ve made emotional decisions versus business decisions that haven’t always been right for the organization,” explains MacNaughton.
“It’s really important to have a good system of getting the right people in the right seats from the start.”
Part of enacting the new strategy was fostering an environment where employees feel their input is valued. “Everybody participates now,” says MacNaughton. “We record employees’ ideas every week, and the great ones are put into a project hopper.” In addition, daily meetings are held where employees are engaged about any difficulties they might be experiencing, and what could be improved to make their jobs easier.
“We ask our employees what prevented them from having a perfect day, or being able to get their client back to living, and we use that data to continuously improve our service offerings,” explains MacNaughton. This focus on supporting employees never comes at the expense at theclients, however. “All of our decisions are ultimately based on how we can best get our clients what they need.”
MacNaughton speaks glowingly of her clients and employees, and how they both motivate her. “It’s so easy to come in everyday knowing that you’re helping people work towards achieving a good quality of life. And the employees that we have here are constantly inspiring. They’re so loyal and so passionate about the work that they’re doing, and it makes you want to be there to support them and remove any barriers that keep them from being able to do their work.”
Though MacNaughton had always thought of Occupational Concepts as a small company, over the course of 18 years she had grown it from a small office to a 16,000 square foot facility with a second location and 29 employees in her employ. This required an adjustment in thinking.
MacNaughton finally settled on a vision, which can be easily expressed as 10-10- 10: to expand to 10 locations in 10 years, with a net worth of $10 million.An ambitious goal to be sure, and not one that can be easily accomplished without a good support network.
“I belong to the Atlantic Chapter of the Entrepreneur’s Organization, a fantastic forum that I attend once a month,” says Nicola. The group consists of 9 individuals, and functions as a safe environment to discuss issues, challenges, and successes. Having a network of like-minded professionals to relate with is a necessary part of the process for MacNaughton.
“It gets pretty lonely as an entrepreneur sometimes,” she admits. “You always need to come in to work with a smile on your face even if there’s two dollars in the bank. You’re just smiling, thinking ‘somehow we’re going to make this all work.’”
The Entrepreneur’s Organization has been incredibly encouraging throughout the past years, often inviting guest speakers to keep everyone motivated. “They bring in challenging entrepreneurs who push us to the next level,” raves MacNaughton. The insight they offer is often invaluable. “Sometimes you just don’t know what you don’t know. That’s what I love about EO. There’s always something new to learn.”
Though the road can be tough, Nicola ultimately wouldn’t trade her experiences for the world, and she has nothing but words of encouragement for the next generation of entrepreneurs. “Go for it! Obviously there’s ups and downs, but being able to drive an organization is a fantastic feeling. There’s always excitement.”
Her own advice for burgeoning entrepreneurs?
Surround yourself with great mentors, and don’t be afraid to ask for help.
“I’ve never had a problem going up to someone, whether it’s my accountant or a bank manager or a colleague, and admitting that I’m having challenges and need some help,” admits MacNaughton. “That kind transparency can open you up to the best advice.”
Part of enacting the new strategy was fostering an environment where employees feel theirinput is valued. “Everybody participates now,” says MacNaughton. “We record employees’ ideas every week, and the great ones are put into a project hopper.” In addition, daily meetings are held where employees are engaged about any difficulties they might be experiencing, and what could be improved to make their jobs easier.
“We ask our employees what prevented them from having a perfect day, or being able to get their client back to living, and we use that data to continuously improve our service offerings,” explains MacNaughton. This focus on supporting employees never comes at the expense of the client.
“It’s so easy to come in everyday knowing that you’re helping people work towards achieving a good quality of life. And the employees that we have here are constantly inspiring. They’re so loyal and so passionate about the work that they’re doing, and it makes you want to be there to support them and remove any barriers that keep them from being able to do their work.”
October 22, 2019