2018 Best EMBAs: Claudia Desilets, McGill-HEC Montreal

Claudia Desilets

McGill-HEC Montreal

“I’m a great listener, I am positive, realistic and take my responsibilities seriously.”

Age: 47

Hometown: Drummondville, Quebec, Canada

Family Members: I am the second of a family of 3 and I am married to Stephane, who is also an owner of a family business. We have 3 children: Isabelle (18), Charles-Olivier (16), and Eve (10)

Fun fact about myself: I sell shit (manure) and it’s a big success!

Undergraduate School and Degree: Laval University (Quebec), Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration.

Where are you currently working: My brother and I are the second generation in my family’s businesses.  He and I are gradually taking over from my dad. We cover key elements of the value chain for eggs: we are egg producers with farms in four Canadian provinces, we have a feed mill to supply our own production and for external customers, and we recycle the manure of our hens to make fertilizer for different markets. I am the President of the fertilizer business, but I’m active in all three businesses.

Extracurricular activities, Community Work and Leadership Roles:

I am on the school board where my two youngest children are studying.

I am the Vice Chair of the board of NutriGroup, the second largest Canadian egg grader.

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? The capstone paper was a great achievement for me. This final program deliverable is an applied research paper of 75,000 words. I’ve never written such a long paper. To devote that amount of time to one subject and to deeply explore it is a luxury that we, as entrepreneurs, wrongly, do not allow ourselves. I learned so much, both for myself and for our businesses.

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? In 1995, my father offered me the opportunity to found my company to solve an environmental problem on our farms. This was the beginning of Acti-Sol. New market, new product, everything was to be done. I developed a brand image: the Mother Hen. Today, Acti-Sol is recognized by experts in both horticulture and organic farming. Over the years, we have added products to offer a complete line for home gardeners. On top of that, our business practices are sustainable. It is the heat of the hens that dries the manure and allows us to transform it into organic fertilizer. There is no additional source of energy. Nothing is lost, nothing is created. We turned a product that nobody wanted into a value-added product. This is my greatest achievement. It is quite an accomplishment to sell manure and make a success of it!

What was your favorite MBA course and what was the biggest insight you gained about business from it?

The Worldly Mindset. We were away in beautiful Argentina. With all the history and politics that Argentina has been through, it was a real eye-opener in terms of the importance of being able to adapt in order to survive.  It was a complete immersion experience, with field studies to foreign and local companies and a series of speakers, experts, entrepreneurs, and others who came to share their experiences. We also tested our own ability to adapt by researching and developing our own projects.

Why did you choose this executive MBA program? I was advised by an industrial psychologist. I was at a stage in my career, where I had to think about the future and what I wanted to do next. I needed this boost of intellectual energy. The casting process in the McGill-HEC EMBA attracted me. They place a real emphasis on diversity within the group, which makes the experience more rewarding. The program also insists on reflecting daily as an important way to learn and grow. It’s a very valuable practice that we have learned to embed.

What did you enjoy most about business school in general? The learning mix of soft and hard skills. I thought I was going to get a ton of theory (and yes, there was plenty), but the experience would not have been complete without the soft skills. The “Savoir-être” (not just learning how to do, but also learning how to be) and the understanding of ourselves and others are key elements of the program.

What is the biggest lesson you gained during your MBA and how did you apply it at work? Know how to surround yourself with the right people. We may have the best strategy, but if the team is not on the same page, we won’t go far. A competent, responsible and committed team that knows how to delegate and manage its resources is one of the key elements for successful companies. We must look for that specific sense of accountability and ability to delegate when we hire. Hiring for the culture fit and values that are similar to the ones of our organization might be way more valuable than hiring for the technical expertise. That is our goal.

Give us a story during your time as an executive MBA on how you were able to juggle work, family and education? At first, I wondered how I would be able to do everything without letting something drop. When it came time to take holidays, I did not really have time, but I took them anyway. On the plane, I did my readings. Every morning, I got up 2 hours earlier than my family to advance my paper. And at the end, I came back 2 days earlier than the family to attend an exhibition of my industry. I juggled the best I could between family, work and school, and I’m proud to say I succeeded.

What is the biggest myth about going back to school? That you are too old. We had people from 34 to 56 and the age difference was not really apparent. You can learn from everyone and sometimes, the learnings come from where you least expect them.

What was your biggest regret in business school? I did not enough take enough advantage of the richness in the class. The experience of my colleagues is so vast and one of the key features of the program. It’s important to create as many opportunities as you can to exchange with everyone.

Which MBA classmate do you most admire? France St-Louis. She is well-organized and structured. With her, you know where you stand. She is loyal and humble.  She is a woman who looks for challenges and she knows how to achieve them brilliantly. I learned a lot just being with her.

‘’I knew I wanted to go to business school when…I went to an information session and saw the stars in the eyes of the graduates. One said that he learned a new way to think (reflection), that he still uses it and that it helps him gain time.”

‘’If I hadn’t gone to business school, I would be…missing all that great experience to improve at being a strong and authentic leader.”

What is your ultimate long-term professional goal? To make our family business grow by continuing to find ways to create value.

In one sentence, how would you like your peers to remember you? Someone that they can count on, that will listen and help them see more clearly.

Favorite book: Good to Great

What are the top two items on your bucket list?

Climb the Machu Picchu

To take a trip, according to their choice, with each of my children after their studies

What made Claudia Désilets such an invaluable addition to the class of 2018?

“When Claudia started the EMBA program, it seemed clear to her classmates that she was a quiet, gentle, low key person.  But on the inside, Claudia has always been a fighter, a tenacious entrepreneur who’s made a success of one branch of the family business – Acti-Sol. It’s Claudia that shepherded this natural fertilizer product, made from chicken manure, into the great success it is today, solving two issues big issues – what could farmers do with their manure? And how could growing practices be made more ‘green’?  Claudia is also a board member at Nutri-group, a farmer-owned egg-grading and distribution organization, where she continues a role in shaping the industry’s evolution, and she’s a very involved mother of three children, so a going concern on many levels, despite her exterior calm.

Claudia’s evolution over the course of the program – gaining in confidence, gaining in presence, and bringing the tenacious inside more to the outside, was a revelation, and ultimately, an inspiration to her classmates.  She blossomed, without losing an ounce of her humility and authenticity.

Claudia is an interesting mix of entrepreneurial spirit and big picture structure. The entrepreneur in her enabled her to launch and make a success of Acti-Sol. Her more structured side is coming to the fore now as she takes a greater role in the other businesses in Groupe Inovo, the family holding, and focuses on developing the processes and structures needed as the organization grows.

Claudia’s family business perspective was very enriching for the class. The long-term horizon, the importance of nurturing relationships, the pride and responsibility of being a key employer in one’s community, and the need to always come up with a solution and never give up. These dimensions of her world, delivered in her thoughtful, candid, open way led to some profound discussions throughout the year.  We’re looking forward to where she will take things next. Her capstone paper for the program was a fascinating study of how smaller firms should prepare for the challenges of rapid growth, so we have no doubt we’ll be hearing, and learning more from her and Groupe Inovo.”

Professor Louis Hébert

Co-Academic Director, EMBA McGill-HEC Montreal

Module Director, Analytic Mindset Module, EMBA McGill-HEC

MBA Program Director, HEC Montreal

Professor of Management, HEC Montreal



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