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Debra Hewson: Striking a balance

A mix of strong community involvement and business leadership has made Odlum Brown CEO Debra Hewson one of B.C.’s most respected executives
Odlum Brown president and CEO Debra Hewson sits on the boards of the Alzheimer Society of B.C., the UBC Sauder School of Business and St. Paul’s Hospital Foundation | Chung Chow

The economy was humming along nicely when Debra Hewson became president and CEO of wealth management firm Odlum Brown.

It was 2007 and the financial services sector was populated with the likes of Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers. The global financial crisis was just around the corner.

Yet when the crash hit, Hewson hardly blinked. Instead of panicking and laying off staff, she had her team work extra hard to soothe client fears.

“We had these great relationships with our clients and we tried hard to stay in touch with them. Stuff happens and inevitably you come out the other side. What you don’t know at the beginning is what the other side will look like, but eventually you will get there.”

Hewson and her partners have been able to increase the firm’s assets under administration to more than $9 billion from about $6 billion when she took the helm.

But it’s Hewson’s community involvement, as much as her success running a 225-employee wealth management brokerage, that has cemented her stature in the B.C. business world and helped earn her a place among Business in Vancouver’s Influential Women in Business winners.

“She’s an unbelievable community leader and does a lot of volunteer work,” said Nancy MacKay, who is CEO of MacKay CEO Forums and has worked with Hewson through her peer group learning sessions.

“She has awesome respect from her peers and other CEOs.”

Hewson sits on the boards of the Alzheimer Society of BC, the University of British Columbia’s (UBC) Sauder School of Business and St. Paul’s Hospital Foundation. She also is an active fundraiser for YMCA Partners with Youth.

Through the years, she has also been on the board of directors at organizations as diverse as the United Way of the Lower Mainland, Collingwood School and MusicFest Vancouver.

“I learned at an early age that you get out of your community what you’re willing to put into it,” she said. “For me, it’s about finding the things I’m passionate about or have touched me.”

Her involvement with the Alzheimer Society came after her mother died of the disease. UBC is her alma mater and her three children have all attended Collingwood School.

Hewson tries to spend as much time with her three kids, ages 20, 18 and 14, and seems to have found a way to achieve work-life balance.

“I’ve been fortunate at Odlum to have a group of partners who believe in balanced lives and family,” she said. “In any given day I’m a mother, I’m a CEO, a friend, a sister – all of those things.”

Born in Winnipeg, Hewson moved to North Vancouver with her parents in the late 1960s, when she was 10 years old.

Following her BA in political science and psychology, she worked at the Bank of Montreal.

Keen to work for a smaller company and with a newfound interest in the stock market, she got a job at Canarim, the predecessor to what is today Canaccord Genuity.

She left that job for a chance to be involved in the sales side of bond trading at Pemberton Securities in 1984.

Odlum Brown was a client. She got along well enough with the company’s executives that they asked her to help them set up a retail fixed-income division in 1991.

Her rise in the firm was swift; she joined its board of directors and senior leadership team in 1994. She was promoted to director of trading and syndication in 1995 and to vice-president of compliance and technology in 1998.

Hewson’s six-year stint as COO started in 2001.

“I’ve worked in, I think, every part of this business except for perhaps the underwriting side,” she said. “Odlum has been a great opportunity for me because in a smaller firm you get to wear more hats.” •

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