Before the days of Linkedin, there were head-hunters. Recruiters, I mean: paid professionals hired to find the right person for the right job. “That was interesting work,” recalls Fanny Bodart, who was a recruiter in Europe for a company called Nicholson International. “It was not always easy, but the most interesting things are not easy.” As I interview Fanny, sitting across a small desk from her at Fredericton’s entreprenurial hub, Planet Hatch, I begin to understand that almost nothing in her life has been easy. I also get the impression of a steadfast, pragmatic woman, who has conquered most of life’s profoundest problems without ever stopping to notice. Now, as the owner of newly-incorporated, independent real estate brokerage, The Property Ladies, and the mother of four grown children, most of whom have left home to settle successfully in other Canadian cities, maybe she has time to reflect on her victories. Or maybe not. She seems busy.
You could say the decision was made for her. In the early 2000s, she became a single mother of four children in total (Tina, Victoria, Max and Charlotte), which made it understandably difficult to be a full-time international recruiter. Then, Nicholson International went out of business, her mother passed away, and her divorce was finalized all at about the same time, and suddenly life was a blank slate.
“Canada was almost never in the news, which I liked because it meant nothing bad was happening.” She came to New Brunswick on the PNP entrepreneurial stream. During two exploratory visits, she took the opportunity to buy a house, a car, a fridge and a stove, and to arrange for just enough beds and transportation from the airport. When she returned to Belgium, she discovered that her youngest daughter, Tina, who was only one at the time, had hip dysplasia and needed an operation. So in between the exploratory visits and the final voyage, Fanny and her other children (who ranged between the ages of seven and twelve) rallied around their youngest cohort. Tina was in the hospital for two weeks, and had only just been released when it was time for the flight to Canada. Thus, with four children in tow, one in a double hip cast as heavy as a mini-fridge, plus a friend’s 18-year old daughter who was supposed to be rendering her assistance as a nanny, Fanny threaded her way through three major airports: Brussels, Heathrow, and Montréal, missing a connection, losing luggage, trying over and over to contact her Canadian driver and apprise him of changes to her travel itinerary.
In Montréal, the bleary-eyed, somnambulating family finally found their way to the plane bound for Fredericton. “They never slept on any plane or airport floor, but in that last flight … they fell asleep, all of them,” recalls Fanny. “By that time, I had these big glazed eyes, and the stewardess said ‘do you want a beer, hon?’ and I said ‘yes!’” She had two. They were on the house.
The children awoke the next day in Douglas, New Brunswick. Except for beds, appliances, excited children and the racket arising therefrom, the house was empty. The first thing she did was to drive to the Douglas Irving for groceries. Home again, and having recovered from the shock of a convenience store grocery bill, she began cooking her first Canadian breakfast and heard a knock on the door. It was the neighbours, who knew that the family had only just landed, and wanted to know if they needed anything. Chairs for one thing. “We lived there for five years, and we’re still in touch with them. We call them our Canadian grandparents.” Fanny would never forget their hospitality, and she’s been paying it forward to other newcomers ever since.
In the month that followed, her children adapted seamlessly to Canadian life. “My 7-year-old [Victoria] only spoke Flemish. She would go out and introduce herself to neighbours in Flemish. In a couple of weeks she could speak English.” Once they were in school, at École Ste. Anne and Bâtisseurs, Fanny turned to the task of building a career completely from scratch.
Finding a job in Canada is a challenge for all newcomers. “I ran into ‘it’s not Canadian experience’ a lot, but hey they’re not going to play the fanfare at the airport when you come. You’re basically on your own. I started knocking on doors and getting to know people, I started helping other newcomers.” In fact, from that moment forward, Fanny became an advocate and an unofficial consultant for other newcomers like herself. Unfortunately, this was not a paid position. “At some point I realized everybody was making money while I was doing a lot of the legwork, while I also understood more and more that newcomers have specific knowledge gaps and need a lot of extra support and information… that’s what motivated me to get my real estate license, was to help represent those newcomers, which I still do…” With her real-estate license Fanny was able to carry out what had become a personal mission, helping other newcomers during exploratory visits and arrivals, while providing for her family.
Becoming a real-estate agent is not as easy as some of the recruitment materials might have you believe, and for once in her life, Fanny had to settle for a slow start. “At first I kept it low-profile because I had all these kids.” Preferring the less-involved buyer transactions to the more lucrative seller transactions, and finding that business went in waves and seasons, she budgeted wisely. Times of abundance provided for times of scarcity. Initially, she struggled to find a support network to get her business growing, but by 2016, she was ready for a new challenge. And that’s when she started The Property Ladies and hired Melissa Murray, also a mother of four, also driven and ambitious.
“I always say, if you want something done, ask a busy woman because it will get checked off her to do list… Melissa is like that. Melissa is my perfect counterpart.” Fanny met Melissa when she first hired her as a housekeeper. It wasn’t long before she discovered that Melissa was an organizational genius. “She built a system to make sure my house was always clean… light fixtures, baseboards… even the beds were on rotation. She had it all written down, and the next person just took it from there.”
Melissa is now the second Property Lady. While she worked as Fanny’s housekeeper, she got her real-estate license, and although being a mother of four children is keeping her from becoming a full-fledged agent (as it did for Fanny in the beginning), she supports The Property Ladies behind the scenes, managing operations and leveraging social media to tremendous effect. Together with Paul, Fanny’s partner (who is her ‘fixer of everything’ including repairs at properties that might otherwise have not been ready for listing), Melissa and Fanny have built a real-estate business model that succeeds in moving property quickly, focusing on building long-term client relationships rather than simply on transactions, and that serves newcomers from all over the world. While Fanny deals mainly with newcomers from Europe, at the time of writing, she is hiring agents who can serve Chinese and Middle-Eastern newcomers and wants to expand her buyer agent network to other countries and languages.
Like some other more involved real-estate agents, Fanny often plays the role of counsellor, therapist, lawyer, advisor and becomes a friend for life with many of her clients. She continues to offer her passionate support to other newcomers on exploratory visits and shares her network and contacts with them to make sure they get the best start possible.
As our conversation draws to a close, I ask about her children: “Charlotte is at UNB finishing up a BA degree and working at Teed Saunders Doyle…, Max is working for a plowing/landscaping business and contemplating college in the fall… Victoria is at SMU in Halifax finishing up her first year in criminology. Tina is in Grade 7 at Nashwaaksis Middle School and enjoying being a teenager. I am extremely proud of all 4 of them.”
I think to ask if she’s relaxing at all now that she has only one child at home, but this is answered for me when she explains that her home is still bustling, and that she’s been hosting exchange students from places like China and Turkey through a program called Canada Homestay International, which places international students in the Canadian public school system. She talks about these children as though they were her own: “I have student children everywhere now; I’ve been doing this for 6 or 7 years. I have one in Montreal, and one in Toronto; I have one boy who’s at UNB, and the others stay in touch after they return to their country.” I decided to leave my question about relaxing unasked. For busy women like Fanny Bodart and Melissa Murray, there is no taking it easy, except maybe after everything is done. Whenever that is.