Women in Business Awards: Above and Beyond

Mandy Farmer: Victoria business with a community focus

That Mandy Farmer would end up at the helm of her father’s Accent Inns hotel chain was not a foregone conclusion.

“It’s a total fluke,” the personable CEO says with a smile from Accent’s Victoria hotel. Her father, Terry Farmer, founded the company 26 years ago, which today also includes properties in Kamloops, Kelowna and the Lower Mainland.

Having just finished her undergrad degree in psychology in Quebec, Farmer found herself in need of a job and convinced her father to allow her to be his agent for the hotels back East, liaising with travel agents and tour operators to get the word out about Accent Inns.

“That was my foot in the door,” says Farmer, who did have some experience working at the Empress and Accent Inn hotels growing up.

“I think my father handled it very well. I ask him now and he says, ‘Oh, I always knew,’ but I remember it very differently,” she says, explaining that as the she and her brother were growing up, it was important that they neither felt compelled to enter the “family business” or a sense of entitlement to it; their involvement would need to be desired and earned.

As Farmer brought more and more ideas forward, eventually her father encouraged her to look after more of the hotel responsibilities until “I finally knew what I wanted to do,” she says. “It was at that point that my dad and I started to talk about succession issues.

“It all fell into place and the good part about it is my dad and I really enjoy working together,” says Farmer, this year’s Black Press Women in Business Above and Beyond Award-winner.

Through that time, the two shared an office and travelled the world together, promoting the business and allowing Terry to impart the knowledge gained over his decades in business. “He taught himself the hotel industry so what he knew wasn’t written down anywhere. I said, ‘I need to see what you do; I need to get what’s in your brain into my brain.’”

Today, Mandy Farmer is president and CEO of the company’s six hotels, but if you look at her business cards, you’ll notice that her “official” title is crossed out, replaced with “bike lover.” The title is reflective of her passion for mountain biking, but also the sense of humour she brings to business.

When not at the office, you might well find Farmer on a bike ride with her husband, Geoff Wong, or on a hike with her daughter Ginger, 6, and son Oscar, 5.

Farmer has also brought her passion for mountain biking to Accent Inns, and proudly proclaims the hotels as the most bike-friendly in the province, allowing bikes into the rooms and providing cleaning and repair stations, not to mention a mechanic-quality tool set for guests to use.

In addition, Farmer donates her time and talents to organizations such as Tourism Victoria, where she is vice-chair, and Pacific Institute for Sport Excellence, where she is a director.

Even those who haven’t stayed with Accent Inns in their travels around B.C. will likely still know of the company’s work in the community.

“We’ve always done this – it’s part of our DNA – but it’s also important to our employees,” Farmer says, noting proudly that Accent Inns has been named as one of the best companies to work for in B.C. and community giving is part of that.

Whether it’s providing a hotel room for the family of a child undergoing medical treatment or hosting a Charity in Changing Times seminar to help non-profit organizations make the most of their fundraising dollars, “it’s just a part of who we are.

That said, “we’ve always said to employees that we don’t want to tell you where we should put our company donations. At each property they have money they can spend and they all come together and talk about where they want to put it,” Farmer explains. “They also know they can do anything to raise money,” whether it’s a barbecue for a visiting hockey team or a jelly bean count contest in the lobby.

Many of these stories and personal insights you’ll find told with characteristic humour in Farmer’s online blog, Confessions of a CEO.

“Fun is part of our brand,” she explains. “Our customers are down to earth people so we get to be down to earth and we get to have fun. We don’t take ourselves too seriously and it makes us very welcoming.”

Take the name tag initiative, for example. On the surface, Farmer changing her nametag from president and CEO to “bike lover” might just seem like fun, but there’s also a business case; it encourages guests to stop and ask staff members about their adopted “title.” In Farmer’s case, she can tell them about all the best places to bike in the Capital Region. Another staff member – “micro-brewery aficionado” – can tell guests about where to go for locally crafted beer. “Suddenly you’re having a real conversation.”