2012 Winners

Thunder Bay | Young Entrepreneur of the Year

Genevieve Knauff

Genevieve Knauff

A lot of novice entrepreneurs may not have decided to leave a management role in a company to start a new business during one of the worst recessions northwestern Ontario has ever faced. But Genevieve Knauff is not the average businesswoman.

As a young registered professional forester – or R.P.F. – Knauff dreamed of becoming a leader in the forestry sector by the time she was 50. Instead, at the age of 32, she was promoted to the position of president of GreenForest Management Inc., one of the largest forest management companies in Ontario.

But by 2009, Knauff, like others in the forestry sector, had to admit that the industry was in crisis.

"It was a difficult time for the sector in northwestern Ontario. I had so many friends who had lost their jobs, or homes or businesses," says Knauff.

She felt she needed to stop relying on a single sector and saw an opportunity to use her expertise to help Northern businesses, municipalities and First Nations do the same, by diversifying their economies.

So Knauff resigned from her position and found herself in need of business cards the next day for gck Consulting Ltd., a business and economic development firm that provides services to clients in Northern Ontario, including municipalities, businesses, First Nations and not-for-profit organizations.

Knauff says she initially tried building partnerships with other engineering and consulting firms but no one wanted to take a chance on a young forester with no apparent business credentials. "So I ended up going to the bank and taking a chance on myself."

Knauff overcame the challenge of establishing a reputation in the business consulting field where people value letters behind one's name. Today, she is in high demand for her skills in negotiating, developing funding applications and creating business plans.

"I realized that my business was successful when I got a phone call from a forestry sector icon asking me to join a team he was assembling to acquire a mill. All I can think is 'How did you get my number? I'm not in the phone book and I don't have a website. How did you find me?' At the same time, I am so proud to be able to work with legendary entrepreneurs and humbled to be a part of regionally significant projects."

According to Knauff, the true test of a consultant is whether or not she did what she said she was going to do, within budget, on time and, most importantly, is the client happy. In other words, are you a trustworthy person? She says she finds this is especially true of her First Nations clients among whom reputation is based on relationship-building.

Another reason she appreciates her First Nations clients is how well they treat her. When her children became critically ill earlier this year and Knauff, a single mother, had to bring them to London's Children's Hospital, she turned off her phone and put business on hold. "When I got back, my First Nations clients were beyond understanding. They said, 'We offered tobacco for your family. We prayed for your children.'"

Another trait that has set Knauff apart is her ability to look at a challenge creatively, to look outside of the bureaucracy and the norm. "I'm the annoying person at the table that says, 'Why can't we do it like this?' So people tend to avoid saying 'no' around me because they know it's going to elicit that response."

Knauff is optimistic about the future of Northern Ontario's economy and the role gck Consulting Ltd. will play. Not only is Knauff indirectly helping to diversify the region's economy, but she has also managed to grow her own business from zero to seven employees since 2009 and hopes to add three more by the end of this year.

"I moved away a number of times but I always found my way back home and I want my kids to be able to have a job here," she says.

Sponsored by: