Spa magnate and new chair of the Vancouver Board of Trade, Wendy Lisogar-Cocchia, attributes her rise in business to foresight, intelligent partnerships and remembering her roots.
One evening in a Vancouver hotel room in 1979, Lawrence Welk ordered up a midnight snack from room service. But when he opened his door at the knock, the young server was so awestruck at seeing the superstar in his pyjamas that she fumbled the hot soup, spilling it all over him.
Wendy Lisogar-Cocchia recalls her summers working at the Century Plaza Hotel with a chuckle. After all, it was doing a variety of jobs at her family’s hotel that helped her understand the business and still contributes to her success today as the CEO.
Eight years after the soup incident, when she was just 22, her father suffered a stroke and fell ill. Lisogar-Cocchia stepped in to run the business with the help of her mother and her husband, Sergio Cocchia (who had been involved in the management of the hotel since 1985).
Eventually, running the 250-suite hotel wasn’t enough of a challenge for the couple. In 2000, these self-described “serial entrepreneurs” decided to branch out. They launched the Absolute Spa at the Century, the success of which quickly led to the opening of 11 spas in 12 years under the Absolute Spa brand. Today, it is the largest luxury spa chain in Canada.
After opening their first spa, the Lisogar-Cocchia team saw an opportunity in distributing spa products, then in 2002 they branched into manufacturing their own line, launching Y-Spa for Men products, and, in 2007, Spa Binge Organics.
With successes like these, it’s no surprise that nine years ago Lisogar-Cocchia was named a director of the Vancouver Board of Trade, and in June this year she was named chair of the 124-year-old organization.
While today’s uncertain economy may make it a somewhat inauspicious time to step into the role, Lisogar-Cocchia believes the regional economy will weather the storm. To help local businesses through these tough times, the board has created the Economic Development Committee, which she describes as “a powerful, dedicated group of diverse individuals ready to take business challenges to the forefront of the appropriate governments or organizations.” Lisogar-Cocchia feels collaboration is the key to succeeding in the future and points to the support the board has put behind initiatives such as Premier Christy Clark’s trade mission to India and Asia as an example.
Increasing opportunities for collaboration is just one of her mandates as she takes on the one-year term as chair. Lisogar-Cocchia also wants to build on the existing cachet of the board by improving on its long-standing traditions. “The Vancouver Board of Trade has had a tremendous past for being the place for events and networking, and part of the reason they have been so powerfully successful in that is the high level of speakers that they have attracted,” Lisogar-Cocchia opines enthusiastically. To further boost the board’s prominence, she is looking to tap into the World Trade Centre brand, for which the board owns the licence. At this year’s Canadian Chamber of Commerce AGM, she discussed strategies with other licence holders to leverage this globally recognized brand across the country.
Because of its long history, the Vancouver Board of Trade is always attracting new business owners. Lisogar-Cocchia says the board plans to cater to the next generation by taking advantage of social media and bringing in speakers from leading-edge companies such as Google Inc. and Yahoo Inc. She also points to their Company of Young Professionals program as another draw, but notes that it has been the board’s ability to continually reinvent itself that has ultimately kept it current.
Lisogar-Cocchia also sees the board’s social policies as striking a chord with the younger set, noting that since the board has its foot in the door with various levels of government, it provides the perfect opportunity to present the board’s social concerns. This year she hopes to add the board’s voice to calls for addressing homelessness and mental health issues.
For Lisogar-Cocchia, social issues, philanthropy and business have always gone hand in hand. Twenty-five years ago she started the annual Women’s Media Golf Classic event, which has raised $2.6 million for children’s charities. Two years ago she and Cocchia founded the Pacific Autism Centre Society in support of British Columbians affected by autism spectrum disorders and organizations serving that community.
In sum, Lisogar-Cocchia holds a personal commitment to her charities, runs a multi-million-dollar group of companies, and has set several lofty goals to achieve during her 12-month tenure as chair of the Vancouver Board of Trade. She takes it all in stride, favouring a quote from American author Napoleon Hill: “Patience, persistence and perspiration make an unbeatable combination for success.”
Lisogar-Cocchia attributes a large part of her success to her upbringing: “Persistence comes from a trait that I inherited from my parents’ hard work ethic where there is no compromise for excellence. Be committed to excellence and, when it comes to meeting your own personal standards, be relentless.”
Her uncompromised commitment has earned her much respect from her peers. Carole Taylor, a former chair of the Vancouver Board of Trade, believes Lisogar-Cocchia’s enthusiasm and energy as a leader will see her through. “No challenge intimidates her, and that makes her an ideal chair for the board of trade. While the time demands of the board are great, Wendy is able to meet all her commitments, support her own work on behalf of autistic children and also run a tremendously successful B.C. business.”
According to Joe Segal, owner of Kingswood Capital Corp., “She has the drive and, accordingly, she sets the example. And you know setting the example provides the leadership.”
That leadership is fuelled by a passion for everything that Lisogar-Cocchia does, and the Vancouver Board of Trade is no exception. In fact, she jokes about the depth of her attachment, saying, “I love the Board of Trade,” and then teasingly adds, “it’s okay, my husband knows.”