By Ray Penner
Photographs by Bob Holtsman Photography
If you were a neighbour of Karen and Bruce Craven, you might have looked out your window one evening and seen them parked in their driveway, engaged in animated discussion. An hour later, you would have seen they were still there. Another hour goes by; still there. Knowing the Cravens, you could have correctly guessed what the discussion was about: business.
If you’re starting out, you need to find and talk to business people who have been where you’re going.
“We were making a tough decision about whether or not to carry on with one of our programs,” explains Bruce. The program was losing money, but he felt it was essential to their overall philosophy of holistic improvement of people’s lives through physiotherapy and exercise. Karen was concerned about the bottom line; you can’t keep running programs that are unprofitable. “At the end of the night, we decided to keep the program” says Bruce. “It was absolutely the right thing to do. It kept us true to our core values. Otherwise, we would not be where we are today.”
Partners in both marriage and business, Karen and Bruce have managed to achieve the critical balance between the practical and aspirational that keeps a business moving forward. That balance didn’t come easily. At the beginning, in 2004, it was Karen who decided to go out on her own as a physiotherapist, convinced that she could offer a unique consultation service that combined both physio and exercise.
During those early days, Bruce – who was fast becoming one of the country’s top sport physiotherapists and sport scientists – provided the safety net of a steady income. In 2009, the couple decided to dispense with the net and shape their future together as Craven SPORT services. It was a bold move. They had three children at home – 9-year-old twins (a boy and a girl) and an 11-year-old girl.
Despite their shared devotion to health and wellness and their joy in helping others, “Working together was awful at first,” admits Karen. If she could go back in time and give herself good advice, it would be to determine roles right from the start. “We didn’t do that. We needed to learn to trust the other person to do their job, and not to meddle.”
Defining roles meant that one of them had to take on the operational side of Craven SPORT services – which was virtually everything that both Karen and Bruce did not like about business. That role fell to Karen by default, according to Bruce. “If I had taken on those responsibilities, it would have been a disaster. I can’t focus on the day-to-day,” he says. Karen agrees, offering a more complete explanation.
Over the years, when we’ve run into problems, it’s because we haven’t paid attention to the things we’re not good at!
“If you’re going to run a business, you have to be totally honest,” she says. “It would have been a waste of Bruce’s talents if he did not dedicate himself fully to our clients. Top athletes call him ‘the movement whisperer’ because he’s capable of seeing things others simply do not see. I was the one who had to leave my comfort zone and become a business manager. It was a horrible feeling. I didn’t know what I was doing.” Karen, however, is not the kind of person who, when faced with a challenge, does nothing.
“If you’re starting out, you need to find and talk to business people who have been where you’re going,” she says. For her, that was the late Doug Gillespie, who owned Saskatoon Fastprint and had been in business for more than 25 years. “Doug taught me a lot,” says Karen. She augmented the mentorship by taking courses on the essentials, like cash flow management, labour laws, financial statements, marketing, and business planning. She also started attending international conferences, where she could confide in her counterparts in other cities.
Karen learned the importance of hiring and engaging the right people to fill the gaps. “My first hire was a bookkeeper, who saved a ton of stress.” The Cravens also sought advice from legal and accounting firms that understood small business. Most importantly, they followed that advice. Their most recent consultant is an HR professional who helped Karen produce, after 10 years in business, a complete human resources manual, which has now solved many persistent concerns. As Karen points out, “Over the years, when we’ve run into problems, it’s because we haven’t paid attention to the things we’re not good at!”
There are some things about business, though, that you can learn only with time. “If you’re starting a business, you should expect to put in five years of really, really hard work. After that, it starts to get better, and you can work more on the business than in the business,” says Karen. During that period you develop a more balanced perspective as well, where the ups and downs of the business become expected and less traumatic. “But you’ll still have sleepless nights,” Karen laughs, adding that just after going through a major expansion, Craven SPORT services forged ahead again with a new, expanded training facility – something she eventually agreed was necessary, but nevertheless hard to justify financially.
All of the above is behind the scenes. Walk into Craven SPORT services, and you see enthusiastic staff greeting clients who range from Olympic hopefuls to seniors who just want to keep gardening. The energy and optimism is palatable. It’s what makes those driveway talks worthwhile for Karen and Bruce. After 10 years of aligning vision with the hard principles of sound management, Craven SPORT services is now hitting its stride.
First published in the March 2019 edition of The Business Advisor.