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Gary December Gems – The It's Not Where You Start Issue

Gary December Gems – The It’s Not Where You Start Issue

This December 1st marks the 50th anniversary of my company, i24 Call Management Solutions. We started out as Alert Answering Service which was founded by my Grandmother, Florence Blair, when she was 64 years old – the same age I turned last February 14th.  Florence began in the industry as an operator some thirty years earlier which goes to show that it’s not where you start that’s important, it’s where you finish. And she finished on top. 

At 64, Granny could have waited a year and collected her old-age pension, but she tossed aside any idea of retirement when she decided to start her own business. Unusual I’d say, especially at her age and in her era. Even Helen Reddy had yet to proclaim, “I Am Woman”. 

My grandmother didn’t come from a business family. She was the quintessential granny and I have her handwritten recipe book to prove it. But she was also fiercely independent and driven to make her mark and leave a legacy. Luckily for my father and me, she passed that “ambition” gene along. 

Family recipe book

The idea of opening her own business was germinated when two businessmen approached her with an offer that they thought she couldn’t refuse.  At the time she had worked her way up from operator to general manager of Montreal Answering Service. They wanted her to jump ship and relocate to Ottawa for at least a year to help them start a brand new telephone answering service and they enticed her with a tidy sum of money to complete the project.

She refused. She didn’t want to be separated from her family for so long so she countered with her own proposal. She would go only if she was able to leave and return to Montreal when she had accomplished the mission at hand.  Working twelve-hour days, seven days a week, she was back home in just under six months.  Not only did she now have some cash to burn, but she also had the realization that she could do for herself what she had just helped these two businessmen do in Ottawa. 

That same drive was handed down to my father who grew up in poverty in Griffintown, along the industrial Lachine canal. Unlike many of his boyhood friends, he never accepted his station in life and made a decision to live beyond the shadows of derelict factories and city towers.  

Gary Gems – January Ski and Contrition Edition

In time he would realize there were two ways to escape the shame and poverty of growing up on the wrong side of the tracks. One was to do what his friends with the pockets full of cash were doing and risk spending time behind bars. It turned out though that his vanity made the decision to remain on an honest path easier as he truly believed he was far too “pretty” to survive in jail. 

The other option and what would become his eventual way out was to insinuate himself into a higher social level. His first job was pumping gas and he told me that he would give especially good service to the gentlemen with fancy cars. He was very good at small talk and wanted to know how they had made their money. 

His epiphany came when one of the gentlemen replied that he owned a junkyard, a junkyard!  While my father was impressed by his success, he told the man that even if the money was great, he couldn’t imagine that he’d get a lot of respect as the owner of a junkyard.  He was then even more shocked to hear the man’s response.   

– “Son, when I’m spending hard-earned money in someone else’s business, no one asks me or cares about how I made mine”. 

Ron Blair

We sometimes can point to a moment in our lives when someone or something flicks a switch and suddenly the light comes on. For my father, it was letting go of any shame he felt for his present situation and laser-focussing on becoming like the guy getting his tank filled.

His gift of gab really did pay off.  He left the gas station shortly thereafter and in the next decade honed his sales skills selling life insurance before quickly rising to become one of the most successful radio sales directors in the city. 


It was at this precise time that Florence made up her mind to start her own telephone answering service.  Never very good at accepting no as an answer, after a year of her constant pressuring, my father, who was very happy in his career path, finally acquiesced and taking a huge risk gambled everything to jump aboard and manage the newly established Alert Answering Service. 

My grandmother may have been 64 years old at the time, but Florence didn’t buy into the concept of “acting your age”. She acted the way she felt. From the very first day of operation until her retirement sixteen years later, she was the person who turned on the lights every morning and turned them off each night.  She would often say, with a cackle in her voice, that she didn’t hang with people her own age because they were all too old.  

After decades of always portraying my grandmother as being so old when she started the business, one day as I was approaching 60, I suddenly realized that age really is relative. After all, I was only five years away from sixty-four and, also never feeling my age, felt that the best was still yet to come.    

My grandmother begrudgingly retired at 80, still in remarkable physical and mental health.  I was thirty years old at the time and my hope was that she would have at least a few good years of retirement. In only the way she could, she spent the next twenty years traveling the entire planet, something she had never had the time or financial ability to do until then, finally passing away at the age of 100 years and three months. 

Gary Gems – January Ski and Contrition Edition

In 2004, several years after her retirement, my grandmother was inducted into the Canadian Call Management Association’s “Mothers of Invention” Hall of Fame which honours the early women pioneers of the industry who had all started their own businesses.  I was honoured to accept the award on her behalf and presented it to her shortly thereafter, on her 99th birthday.

These days, when I catch my reflection in a mirror I’m slightly taken aback. The face staring back at me couldn’t possibly belong to the young man standing before the mirror. I feel like Dorian Gray.  As the reflection ages, I remain the same person with the same heart beating in my chest that beat while listening to Granny’s stories.  I learned a lot from those stories and by watching my grandmother and father at work. I learned that our past can be both a great weight and a great crutch that stops us from growing to our potential. But more importantly, I learned that It’s Not Where You Start it’s Where You Finish that counts most. 

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