Turnaround Winner: Amiee Chan

Amiee Chan Norsat International Inc. When Amiee Chan, 40, accepted the position of president and CEO in 2006, Norsat International (NII-T), a public company providing microwave and satellite technology, was on the brink of insolvency with a year-end loss of over $4 million. With the U.S. military as its primary customer, the company was prone to unpredictable sales and hard-to-manage inventory. It was in serious debt, paying $30,000 a month in interest. Creditors were getting nervous and shareholders were losing faith. Norsat’s stock sank as low as 35 cents. Prior to her promotion, Chan had proven herself as the vice-president of operations by growing the company’s lagging microwave division by 20 per cent a year, when it had previously been in a 10 per cent decline. “It was sink or swim,” she recalls. Chan systematically executed her plan for regaining financial health. The company was top-heavy with executives, many of them working out of the U.S. She diplomatically explains a round of layoffs she engineered: “I brought the executive compensation down to be more in line with the size of the company.”

Norsat had to face another reality. The company had been doing a lot of posturing, including maintaining a posh office building in addition to a large distribution centre. Chan reduced rent by 40 per cent by consolidating the two sites and moving to a more modest and better located building (with 97 per cent of customers outside Canada, close proximity to the airport was just common sense). Chan’s team also worked with creditors to set up payment plans and they stuck to those plans. “We paid every one. We never missed a payment,” Chan proudly states. “When going through a turnaround,” Chan advises, “you want to solidify the team.” She did this by offering an employee share-purchase plan. Half the staff and all of management took advantage and the result was an injection of almost half a million dollars. Empowering her managers was another way Chan instilled pride of ownership. Managers are encouraged to treat their departments as if they were their own businesses – doing away with the centralized approval process that had dogged Norsat in the past. By December 2007, 16 months after Chan took the helm, Norsat operations were finally back in the profit column, with year-end net earnings of $1.5 million. Many would pat themselves on the back for a job well done. Not Chan. “The turnaround is not quite complete,” she says. “We are still working down inventory.” She is also looking to expand Norsat’s product line and the company has increased its R&D budget. It recently opened offices in Korea and Brazil to tap into new markets. All of this has not been easy for Chan. “It’s been long hours; it’s quite a juggling act,” she admits. Aside from the job, she is still active in several mentoring groups working with women in science and technology roles. She volunteers with Ms. Infinity and recently did a presentation to Girl Scouts about technology-based careers. She knows all too well how intimidating it can be, recalling she often felt like the lone woman at engineering school and in the boardroom. But, she says, “it can be an advantage too. People listen when I speak because I bring a different perspective.” Chan also finds time to have some fun. She laces up her skates and hits the ice with her women’s hockey team. She also values her extended family and admits she couldn’t raise her two children (ages four and eight) without their support. “I don’t live with my mom,” she laughs, “but I go to my mom’s house every day for dinner.” AND THE JUDGES SAY… “Amiee Chan is definitely a ‘wired woman’ in a field generally dominated by men”