2006 Alumni

Public Sector Northwest

Mary Long-Irwin

Mary Long-IrwinMary Long-Irwin is a class act.

The president of the Thunder Bay Chamber of Commerce (TBCC) is credited with fostering activity between businesses, creating leadership strength, and positively impacting her workplace along with numerous other sectors.

"You cannot move mountains on your own," she says. "You need to do this with community partners and leaders."

Long-Irwin, a mother of two, loyal volunteer, teacher, mentor and motivator, is the voice of many small and medium size enterprises as Chamber president.

The born-and-raised Thunder Bay farm girl was introduced to the realities of running a business early on. Her father was an egg producer, responsible for raising 45,000 chickens. Understanding profit margins, overhead costs and inventory was instilled in Long-Irwin at a tender age.

"I truly believe that the business community is the very bedrock of our community," she says.

As a single mother in the 1980s, when women were just beginning to make an impact on the economy, Long-Irwin opened the first microwave retail outlet in Thunder Bay. Microwave World grew to be the third-highest grossing independent retailer of microwave ovens in Canada. Her two daughters, Carole and Carla, worked alongside her and learned the business from the ground up. Today, Carla is an administrator of a major building conglomerate in Toronto, while Carole is the proud owner of the award-winning Pita Pit, which employs 18 people in Thunder Bay. Carole was named Young Entrepreneur of the Year at last year's Influential Women ceremony.

After her success as a retail owner-operator, Long-Irwin found a niche as a small business adviser with the Northwest Enterprise Centre at Confederation College. This lead to another move when she accepted the general manager's position at the Superior North Community Development Corp., a federal government agency in Terrace Bay that has helped over 500 businesses in communities stretching along Lake Superior's north shore from Manitouwadge to Dorion. The beneficiaries of over $15 million in small loans, the success rate for these businesses was over 99 per cent.

"I like working with groups of people to see an idea grow to reality."

In 2000, Long-Irwin accepted her current position at the TBCC with an agenda to bring a fresh approach to the organization and put it on more sound financial footing.

Irwin and her team devised a plan to grow the membership, strengthen and expand services.

"We take a look at the needs of the business community as a whole. Judging from them they recognize that we are entering an era of radical change. The chamber can help to move the momentum along. If we don't take the time to look at where we are and where we want to go and use it to implement a strategic plan, then I get a strong sense that we will stay behind and that is not where we want to be."
For six years Long-Irwin has worked closely with her dedicated staff of seven along with board and community leaders and government representatives.

Membership has increased from 940 to 1,150 and the organization has built win-win partnerships with business and community leaders in spite of the economic softening in the northwest. She knows the importance of encouraging people and businesses to buy locally, but she equally understands the need for proprietors to extend their products beyond the provincial and national borders.

That's why she spearheaded an e-commerce website that was ultimately turned over to the private sector. Each local shop participating in the virtual mall could achieve greater market share by supporting the "shop locally, sell globally" philosophy.

One of Long-Irwin's goals is to keep income and youth in the North. To that end, she has taken it upon herself to lead the drive to establish a $37-million Multi-Purpose Protective and Emergency Service Training and Research Complex that will enable municipal, provincial and national police forces and firefighters to train in the northwest as opposed to travelling to southern Ontario. Thunder Bay alone spends about $5 million annually on such training initiatives. This project will bring significant revenue to the area and savings to the organizations that use it. Construction is expected to begin this summer.

The TBCC has been recognized for its lobbying efforts on forestry and manufacturing issues, such as the local Bombardier plant's push to manufacture bi-level cars for clients all over the world. Queen's Park has heard Long-Irwin's call for Northern issues to be remedied in the North.

"The North must have a say in what affects us," she says adamantly. "When they take raw materials from the North we must have a say in how the taxes and resources are managed."

Long-Irwin is equally firm on contracts, such as light rail manufacturing, to be kept in Canada.

"I am very passionate about these issues," she says realizing that momentum doesn't work if it is just one person.

The North is made up of very resilient and strong-minded people seeking solutions to sector challenges, she says.

"You need to get community leaders from various sectors to all work together.

You need to convince your colleagues that this is the right issue to support.

When we all support it together it is very difficult for the government not to hear it, federally or provincially."

Long-Irwin has risen to the challenge of entrepreneurial leader, motivator and mentor. She serves as the COO for the Northwestern Ontario Associated Chamber of Commerce and has supported numerous issues, such as the provincially adopted Grow Bonds community investment initiative, to help generate further diversity in the northeast and northwest.

As part of her personal and social contribution to Thunder Bay, Long-Irwin volunteers her time to support the fight against Cystic Fibrosis. It keeps her connected to daughter Carla, who has been diagnosed with the disease. Long-Irwin is close to both daughters and speaks with Carla regularly.

Perhaps helping to fight the disease beside her daughter has given her the determination to understand and address challenges in life and business.
She is a focused woman with a drive to succeed.

"This is part of the excitement. I clearly believe that I am an advocate for business and my job is to lobby their issues and never give up; do not ever give up."

-Kelly Louiseize

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