51 years after mother of eight buys business, Ottawa’s Glover Customs Brokers continues to thrive

Nancy-lee Glover
Nancy-lee Glover

Nancy-lee Glover still remembers her reaction when her mom told the family she was buying a business.

“It was like, ‘What are you doing? Don’t you have enough to do, Mom?’” Ms. Glover says with a laugh, recalling that day back in 1966.

The teenaged Nancy-lee could be forgiven for being a little skeptical of her mom’s decision to become an entrepreneur.

A mother of eight, Lenore Glover already had a lot on her plate. Suddenly, she was the owner and sole employee of a customs brokerage house she purchased from a husband-and-wife team who’d decided to retire.

Today, Nancy-lee would heartily agree her mom really did know best. Fifty-one years later, the firm that became known as Glover Customs Brokers is still going strong, long after most of its original clients called it quits.

Rare for an enterprise with that kind of longevity, Glover Customs Brokers has been run by a woman the entire time.

“I don’t think you ever set out to think that the business will be 50 years old,” says Ms. Glover, who began working for the company in the late 1970s and took over as CEO when her mother retired in the mid-1990s. “It just happens.”

It wasn’t always smooth sailing, particularly early on. Lenore invested her salary back into the business that first year, and a year later her husband died.

“It was fortuitous that she went back to work,” Ms. Glover says. “There wasn’t a lot of insurance money or anything that was going to carry her through. At the time, she was 48. So she would’ve had a tough time had she not had the business. Not only that, she still was a great mom, put her kids first, was the Girl Guide leader, supported my brother at his baseball games. She was really there for all of us.”

“I can remember having to go to the bank with my mother. They didn’t want to extend her enough credit to take care of (the business). They didn’t want to give her more credit because she was a woman. There was a real skepticism about whether women could make it in business.”

Through hard work and determination, Lenore Glover built up a loyal clientele and gradually added more staff. Even still, it wasn’t easy for a woman executive in the male-dominated world of business, her daughter says.

“I can remember having to go to the bank with my mother,” she recalls. “They didn’t want to extend her enough credit to take care of (the business). They didn’t want to give her more credit because she was a woman. There was a real skepticism about whether women could make it in business.

“They wanted a co-signer. My dad had passed away. I think I had to co-sign. It wasn’t a great amount of money, either.”

Other things were different, too. Five decades ago, electric typewriters and adding machines were the height of technology. Pens, pencils and carbon paper were the norm. Photocopiers? They were the stuff of science fiction.

“Back then, people were more patient,” says Ms. Glover, who now owns the six-employee firm with her sister Stephanie, who is not involved in the day-to-day operations. “Things took longer. It was a different time.”

She remembers touring the National Research Council as a university student and seeing a computer that filled an entire room but “probably didn’t do what a PC or a laptop does today. It’s absolutely amazing.”

Technology really didn’t evolve much until the 1980s, when the firm purchased its first computer – a product of now-defunct Altos Computer Systems – for the equivalent of $55,000 in today’s money.

“All it could do was prepare our customs entries, and it had an accounting function,” Ms. Glover says with a smile. “I’m sure it wasn’t as powerful as your phone, if you think about it.”

Forms that were once written by hand are now filed with the click of a mouse. Technology has allowed the business to process shipments at border crossings anywhere in Canada almost instantly.

Ms. Glover won’t name specific clients, saying only that they range from multimillion-dollar organizations that ship goods to and from other countries every day to small mom-and-pop outfits that might need her company’s services fewer than a dozen times a year.

Over the years, the firm’s mix of customers has expanded to reflect the changes in Ottawa’s economy, with more high-tech companies on the books these days. Glover has also diversified into consulting, providing guidance on customs regulations to clients in Canada and the United States. Ms. Glover won’t disclose revenues, but proudly says the company has turned a profit in all but one of its 50 years of existence.

In 1999, she was named one of the country’s top 100 businesswomen in Canadian Business magazine’s first-ever ranking of top women entrepreneurs based on gross revenues.

“At that time, it was a big surprise to know that there were women who had successful, long-term businesses with reasonable revenues,” she says. “If you look at (today’s list), you go, ‘Holy mackerel. Billion-dollar businesses.’”

Asked what accomplishments give her the most satisfaction, Ms. Glover pauses to reflect.

“I’m always proud when we get a challenge that we haven’t come up against before and manage to get the client or ourselves through it,” she says. “I get my particular satisfaction in any day from whether I can do something for a client that goes their way, that helps them out. It isn’t the transactional stuff that gives you your greatest satisfaction – it’s the fact that you’ve got a client who is moving up in the world in international trade and becoming known themselves.”

Happily married to her second husband, Richard, Ms. Glover has no children. She says she’s doubtful the Glover name will remain on the office door after she decides to put away her briefcase for good – but she does have 21 nieces and nephews, she adds with a chuckle, so “you never know.”

For now, she says, she has no plans to step away.

“I still enjoy it,” Ms. Glover says. “I still like the challenges. I like coming in to work every day.”