FACILITYCalgary publisher Mark Kolke, in conversation with Susan Otterson
July 31, 2018
Interesting people drive by us all the time, they cross our paths – often we don’t pause long enough to get acquainted, to see how impressive they really are. Case in point: I met Susan Otterson of ABL Imaging Group about 15 years ago – she’d reached out to me to grab a coffee, she’d read something I’d written. My recollection was ‘interesting woman, driven, soccer addiction, photos …’.
We caught up again recently. My sense is she’s changed a lot, or not much, depending on your perspective. Here is her story, starting closer to the beginning:
Born in Vancouver, no siblings. Her mom and dad met, got pregnant, married, divorced – all before Susan was born. Raised by her maternal grandparents – retired farmers, in Calgary. Her early days were a tug-o-war custody battle between a troubled alcoholic mom, ‘ward of the province’ and grandparents. Dad was never in the picture.
School years in Calgary, summers in Stettler with aunts, uncles and cousins – she says, “it was very nurturing city and country childhood”. She was a ‘regular student’ – Connaught School, Mount Royal Junior High, Western Canada High (class of 83). Married at 19 – divorced/no kids, after ten years. First job, receptionist at 66CFR radio, but she wanted to go into sales. The attraction was money and the sales people seemed to have a lot more fun. Owner Gord Rawlinson supported her entry in a Marketing & Finance Program at Mount Royal College – part-time study, 4 years of night school. When she moved to a sales job at ABL Imaging in 1989 it must have been the right move – she’s still there, and she owns the place.
In 1994 she joined with two other employees to buy out the founder; a series of restructurings of partnerships led to Susan becoming sole owner in 2006. Everything was great, growing and humming along. ABL was then located in the Beltline, lower floor space (6,000 sq. ft.). Until the 2013 flood. Staff, volunteers, accommodating suppliers and plenty of lost sleep – led to relocation to her current headquarters in NE Calgary.
Along the way, she met her 2nd husband, John (Johnny) Picton – they’ve been together twelve years now. Their surprise wedding was sprung on guests at Susan’s 50th birthday party in 2015. A big hit (they hired actors – The April Fools – to orchestrate it as a party game). Yes, it seems soccer playing, image producing sales people have more fun!
Her life has seem some struggles, but Susan says. “I don’t suffer from poor-old-me syndrome”. And Susan knows how to have fun – she took up soccer 21 years ago at age 32 – plays for Infusion in an eight-team league – Fossil Football League, over 40 women.
Why are you successful? “Hard work. Optimism. I’m fearless. Sure, some things scare me but that doesn’t make me afraid … ”
What has held you back? “I’m not ‘great’ at sales.” ... considerable evidence to the contrary!
How do you see your business – commercial graphics for interior décor purposes and signs – going forward over the next quarter?
… business is ‘not bad right now’. There is always a lot of competition, particularly in signs – anyone with a printer in their basement – but you need a lot of resources to do this work consistently well …
And over the next five years?
… technology will continue to grow/evolve rapidly. Growth in corporate décor branding. People want more than painted walls. Printing on fabric is a big trend in the industry – it’s easier to handle and lightweight so shipping costs are lower. Customers wanting things ‘right away’ ...
What qualities distinguish your preferred colleagues, collaborators and suppliers?
… people who are responsible AND fun loving. People who are conservative, responsible, reliable and who do quality work. I’m not a best-price person. I want a fair price for a quality product.
What distinguishes you that causes people to choose Susan Otterson/ABL Imaging, and why do they do business with you, why have they hired you, over your competitors?
… long standing relationships. Word of mouth. Referrals. Trust. Quality. We’re not the cheapest. We handle everything, from A to Z.
How would you describe your leadership/management style?
… I’m pretty much a dictator [editor note: said with a huge grin]; I’m a bit of a control freak. It’s my strength and my weakness. I strive to control my surroundings and my circumstances …
What do you lose sleep over, what do you worry about?
… I’m not a worrier. If I have a lot of stress, I sleep a lot. Sleep rejuvenates me.
Who or what influenced you most – that has made a difference in your life, or that was a major turning point?
… my uncle Dennis – always self-employed. I worked for him in the summers, got a deep understanding of what it is like to own and operate a small business. And overcoming adversity – sometimes with self-doubts, but I learned so much from the 2013 flood. We worked from home and a supplier’s premises – staff and neighbours were tireless. They inspired me.
… playing soccer, we have an RV lot at Koocanusa Lake – we boat. I used to ski a lot – but I’ve got bad knees and I tore my Achilles last year. I’m recovering nicely …
What do you read?
… I like murder mysteries. P.D. James is a favourite author. I like fiction set in a historical context.
… 2019 Acura RDX, and a Honda Ridgeline .. with graphics by ABL Imaging of course ...
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