Monica deRegt: An Interview with Esther de Wolde
Esther de Wolde, CEO of Phantom Screens, says it did not even cross her mind to become the leader of a multi-million dollar corporation when she began over 20 years ago. Working as a finance director at the time for a different company, she helped her then-bosses, now-partners start up Phantom after they stumbled across the roll screen product at a Vancouver Home Show. Describing herself as a former “bean-counter,” de Wolde says she was in the right place at the right time, and was fortunate to have amazing bosses who saw something in her and who trusted her as a young 20-something to lead their new company. Giving God all the glory for her success, de Wolde sees her work as worship and believes strongly in servant leadership. Recently she agreed to an interview with Christian Courier about her experiences as a Christian leader in business.
Christian Courier: Tell us about your role with Phantom Screens and what you love about your company.
Esther de Wolde: In 1996 I was appointed to my current role of Chief Executive Officer of our company, Phantom Mfg. (Int’l) Ltd – North America's leading provider of retractable screens for doors, windows and outdoor living spaces, located in Abbotsford, B.C. I love our product but I love our people even more! We want anyone and everyone who comes into contact with our company through our products, employment, vendor or whomever to feel better for having done business with us.
Phantom Screens has seen remarkable growth in the last 20 years. To what do you attribute this level of success?
I was raised to “keep your head down, nose to the grindstone” and that seemed to work out for me. But of course I didn’t do it alone; I want to say the amazing team of people we have is what makes us successful, and that’s of course true, but through our ups and downs, good and bad decisions, the honest answer is I believe that God has blessed us for honouring him first in our company. Now don’t read that wrong – I also know his plan could be totally different too but for now it seems to be his will to keep us afloat.
Where do you find your inspiration as a leader? Can you share some of your goals?
My foundational inspiration came from my parents, who nurtured in me many traits, habits and skills to think and act entrepreneurially. Although they are, sadly, no longer living, I am thankful to feel surrounded by many inspiring people who know more than me, have experienced more than me, and can think, plan and execute better than me. How I learn from them varies from listening to their talks, reading their books, having them as a mentor or belonging to leadership development groups. I love to talk business and I’m sure it’s why God put my husband John and I together – he knew I needed someone I would respect and is far wiser than me, and willing to challenge me. And, ultimately, the best business book is actually the Bible. Any best-selling author, whether they know it or not, is preaching Biblical principles.That makes me smile all over.
My goal is to never stop learning and to skid into my grave feeling like I explored, read, served, played, travelled and influenced others for Jesus Christ as best as I could with what I’ve been given.
What have been some highlights and challenges you have experienced in business?
There are no two days alike because people aren’t a science; rather, they are more like art. This gives way to the constant challenge of making lemonade out of lemons and figuring out how to sell them for a profit. Invigorating stuff!
There are lots of highlights – getting into Home Depot and Lowe’s, selling screens to both U.S. presidential nominees, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, and many more. But the latest was a dream come true – restoring a Southern home in Mobile, Alabama, and incorporating our products into it to make the Phantom Screens Idea Home – all captured in a webTV series (experiencephantom.com). The journey over the last three years to make that happen has been nothing short of “pinch me, is this real?”
Have you encountered any surprises along the way?
Too many to count! I think one of the biggest surprises is that although education is wonderful and I am a big supporter of it, it sure doesn’t prepare you for real life in the business world, not for me anyways. The next biggest surprise is that every time I think I have seen it all in regards to people and their behaviours, something new and crazy happens. Situations which make you shake your head and think “you just can’t make this stuff up!” The other surprise is that it doesn’t matter how big your company grows, the problems are the same – they just have more zeros behind them.
How does your faith influence your leadership style and your business model?
My faith is my job. I can’t separate the two. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the words ‘work’ and ‘worship’ both derive from the Hebrew word for worship, avodah. I’ve learned how to present my Christian leadership model into a faith-friendly leadership style at Phantom by using our corporate values to express my faith principles, written in language that no one could argue with: to speak the truth, to serve each other, to pursue excellence, to practice stewardship.
Any moral citizen can buy into these values and be motivated to follow them in how they act and talk even though they might be from a different faith or have no faith at all. The fact that each of our corporate values is rooted in Scripture is neither here nor there to them. They can still accept the ideas and concepts, appreciating the result of them.
Also, just because I am a Christian does not mean I hire only Christians. In fact, the more non-Christians, the more people that can be reached and shown love and acceptance. I used to be scared of other religions being allowed to be talked about or present, but at a Franklin Graham work conference I attended 20 years ago he talked about boldness and what do we have to fear since God is almighty and in control of all things – that helped change my entire approach from fear and tolerance to love and acceptance of those who travel a different journey than I.
Can you share a little about your philosophy on leadership?
For me, servant leadership is where it is at. I’ve embedded it into the culture of our company through our values. I can’t expect anyone in my company to do something I’m not willing to do myself. Having this at the heart of what we do, there is no way any of us with an ego or lack of respect for others can survive at Phantom.
What character strengths make for a great leader in business world (Christian or non-Christian)?
In today’s world, I believe the character strengths that make a great leader are ones who are emotionally intelligent, humble and relational.
What are the top three things you believe every leader should be doing?
Top three things: love, know and understand your people and yourself, and put others first. By doing that you can build the best team who know more than you how to make things happen and if they know you genuinely love them, they will genuinely give you their absolute best. Being strategic and visionary is a given.
As a leader in your industry, do you feel that your level of responsibility extends beyond your business world into other areas of society? If so, please elaborate.
I totally do, yes! I believe this company, the profit, my salary, everything is not mine to begin with. I’m just entrusted with the management of it all as God’s steward and I believe God is very clear on what he expects out of giving me this responsibility. This includes taking proper care of my people, customers, and my fellow shareholders but also my local community and our place in this big wide world through helping those less fortunate than ourselves. We try to involve everybody in our company in this endeavor – it’s easy for us to write the big cheques but we want all of our staff to participate in the charity work that we do and support – whether baking for a bake sale to support our local charity, or writing to one of our 13 World Vision sponsored children. For many of our staff this is the first time they’ve been exposed to giving and it is fun to see them embrace the concept. In fact, it’s the unchurched and the lowest paid who often give the most!
What advice would you give to young, Christian entrepreneurs just starting out?
Assuming they are young, i.e., a millennial, I’d say to them, “Put down your smart phone and look me in the eye.” Then I’d say, “Be true to yourself and don’t seek self-worth by how many Facebook likes your business gets and don’t expect to be a huge success overnight. Work hard but keep doing that life/work balance you do so well. And above, below and besides everything else – put your Lord God first. Know what he requires of you and filter every personal and business move you make and think through this because if you are following his will and he wants you to succeed, then you will. And if not, he’ll re-direct you . . . if you listen to him.
Phantom Screens sells retractable screens to keep out insects and sun.
Esther de Wolde lives in Abbotsford, B.C. with her family and attends Gateway Community CRC. In addition to being CEO at Phantom Screens, Esther is a Certified General Accountant, a member of the Corporation Board of Directors of World Vision Canada and an active speaker and City Team member for the LeaderImpact Group.
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