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Dayna Spiring wasn’t about to deny the magnitude of the moment. On Jan. 23, she was appointed the chair of the Winnipeg Football Club's board of directors, making her the first woman to carry such designation in the team’s 89-year history.
She understood what it meant in the greater context, another notable footnote in a long history of women breaking into male-dominated industries. But she was careful not to overplay her new role. It's significant, she says, but also long overdue.
"I’d be lying to you if I said I wasn’t proud of that fact," she said in a phone interview with the Free Press earlier this week. "At the same time, it’s about time."
'There was one person in the room who looked a lot different than the others but we get over that and move on. There’s no question I bring a different perspective. We’ll see how it goes' ‐ Dayna Spiring
At the time of the announcement, which came by a press release late Wednesday afternoon, Spiring wasn’t made available for interviews. That’s because she was already hard at work, busy attending her first meeting in Toronto with the Canadian Football League’s board of governors — yet another seat she now occupies.
Spiring is just the second woman to possess such influence, and the first in more than 25 years, since Jo-Anne Polak became alternate governor for the Ottawa Rough Riders, from 1989 to 1991. It will be in this room — full of men, egos and agendas and where all the major CFL decisions are made — that she will be expected to make the most noise, as the lone advocate of the Blue Bombers organization.
This, she says, she has no problem embracing.
"There was one person in the room who looked a lot different than the others but we get over that and move on," says Spiring, who maintained she was well received by her male peers. "There’s no question I bring a different perspective. We’ll see how it goes."
'You only have to spend five minutes or less with Dayna to realize she’s a remarkably smart woman and she’s very committed to this' – CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie
She faced similar environments after graduating from the University of Manitoba faculty of law, taking a job as an associate with the firm Aikens, MacAulay & Thorvaldson. Specializing in commercial and securities law, Spiring excelled despite the obvious disadvantages of a culture made up mostly of men, developing a thick skin and a keen eye for business, knowing when to strike at the right moment.
"You only have to spend five minutes or less with Dayna to realize she’s a remarkably smart woman and she’s very committed to this," CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie said over the phone. "She’s a great listener, so watching her she pays attention to everything and she’ll be methodical around the issues. I have no doubt that she’s not only welcome but she’s going to end up being remembered with someone who will make a great contribution to the league."
Spiring’s husband, Charlie, is one of Winnipeg’s most successful entrepreneurs. About seven years after selling his former firm Wellington Capital West to National Bank Financial for a hefty price tag of $333 million, he now heads Wellington-Altus Private Wealth, the company that recently hired Bombers middle linebacker Adam Bighill.
"When I was running my Wellington-One, I used her all the time to bounce ideas off, help me with marketing, recruiting, and she would walk into meetings with anybody and not be intimidated one little bit. And these are all 20-, 30-, 40-year veterans of my business that talk a big game and are full of s--- and she just saw through it like anything," Charlie Spiring says. "She can read people incredibly well. She’s really comfortable with what she knows and what’s even more impressive is how she handles stuff she doesn’t know."
He adds: "Of all the people around the boardroom of the CFL, she’s probably the least knowledgeable football fan. But she’s there for her business acumen, her lawyer skills, her understanding of concussions and how to make sense of it and cut the crap out."
As challenging an environment the CFL board of governors can be for a woman, it pales in comparison to what she would experience years after leaving her law career, when she joined the Canadian Wheat Board. She spent seven years as legal counsel for the CWB before being promoted to chief strategy officer, where Spiring played an integral role in securing the majority sale of the company to private investors.
It was a mission that required travelling to different parts of the world, including the Middle East, China and Japan – cultures where gender inequality is entrenched – and Spiring had a seat at the head of the table for it all.
"I can tell you when I was at the Wheat Board I cannot remember meetings that I went to that there was another woman," she says. "That was an Old Boys’ Club, too."
Spiring, who will turn 42 in July, was born in Brandon but is quick to point out she moved to Winnipeg when she was 12 and is a devoted Bomber fan. The city has always held a special place in her heart, so much so that she now dedicates much of her life to showing how great it is to others as the president and CEO of Economic Development Winnipeg. Recently, she helped spearhead last spring's downtown Whiteout parties during the Winnipeg Jets' playoff run.
Her love for Winnipeg is ultimately what drew Spiring to the Bombers, an organization she believes is an intimate part of the city’s social fabric. Now, as chair of the team’s board, she views this as an extension to her current role improving and showcasing her home city to others.
"I love this city and we’ve done a lousy job of showing the world how great we are and I’m excited to be a part of doing that," Spiring says. "The Winnipeg Jets, when they had their run, it brought our community together and it made Winnipeg better. It put us on the map worldwide. I want to do that same thing for the Bombers. A strong team reflects a strong community and I hope to be a part of that."
David Asper was vice-chair of the Bombers board when he first approached Spiring about joining the team in 2015. Asper had recognized her passion for Winnipeg and business acumen and believed she would be a perfect fit. The fact she was a woman was merely a bonus, though he recognized the pressing need for female participation as a better way to represent the community the board serves.
"The gender thing is nice but I don’t even see the gender," Asper says. "What I see most is a very, very capable individual."
Spiring didn’t wait long to make her mark. That year Winnipeg was hosting the championship game and Spiring was asked to join the Grey Cup committee. More specifically, she was in charge of putting on the gala dinner, an undertaking viewed by some as a logistical nightmare since it would be the first event to be held in the new grand ballroom at RBC Convention Centre.
It was a smashing success, earning Spiring the respect of her fellow board members, while setting a path for her eventual run to the top.
"I don’t know that anyone has done anything that she pulled off. She pulled off a stunning way to christen that room," Asper says.
Not long after, Spiring was elected vice-chair, one step under then-board chair Jeff Martin. From there, she became the obvious successor to lead the group of 13, and will now spend the next three years making sure the board's proposed strategy is being followed by Bombers president and CEO Wade Miller.
Unlike Martin, who garnered praise from his colleagues for his work on the board but kept out of the public's eye, Spiring says she plans to be visible, as least as much as she feels is necessary. Since Miller took over in 2013, he has instituted a governance model that leaves most communication with the public up to him. Miller agrees with the suggestion from Spiring’s husband that he " probably likes her, fears her and respects her all at once."
'If I had issues with Wade, I would tell him that and we’d debate them and that’s how it’s supposed to work' – Dayna Spiring on working with Bombers CEO Wade Miller
"We’ll both have strong opinions and we have a collective vision of the board," Miller says.
Because of Miller’s strong personality and the board’s commitment to staying out of the spotlight, a common perception is the board lacks the autonomy to call the shots. Spiring was quick to dismiss the suggestion, painting a much different picture of what goes on behind the scenes.
"If I had issues with Wade, I would tell him that and we’d debate them and that’s how it’s supposed to work," Spiring says. "We’ve got a lot of strong members on this board and whether you hear from them publicly or whether we have our debates behind closed doors, that’s maybe part of it. But I don’t feel like the board doesn’t have any autonomy. I certainly wouldn’t be there if I didn’t think I had the ability to do what I’m put in place to do."
She adds: "I’ll be as visible as I need to be to do my job. I’m probably not going to be marching in and out of the locker room because I’m not sure that’s totally appropriate. Everyone is going to have their own style and as long as we’re respecting the roles and responsibilities that we’ve put in place, then that’s OK."
Under Miller’s leadership, the club has proven more than capable, turning a profit on the business side while ensuring a quality culture in the locker room and product on the field. The Bombers have made the playoffs the past three seasons and have a combined 33-21 regular-season record over that stretch, and one playoff win.
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What's still missing, though, is a Grey Cup victory, a drought that is now entering an eye-popping 29 years. So as good as it has been when compared to previous regimes, a dip in production, either on the business or football side, would be enough to create angst among a restless fan base. If that happens, strong leadership is essential, with the potential for some tough decisions to be made.
"We want to win championships and make memories, and make sure there are a lot of people at the stadium," Miller says. "That’s our vision and purpose and that’s what we’re working towards and that’s the most important."
As president and CEO of a company, on four boards and now responsible for steering the ship for the Bombers, Spiring admits life can be hectic. Her secret, she says, is to "have a very good assistant and write everything down."
Life doesn’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon and that excites Spiring. She’s feeling motivated and believes in not only what the Bombers are doing but also the vision being put forth by commissioner Ambrosie in an ambitious plan referred to as CFL 2.0. She wants to see the CFL grow, and she’s dedicated to help it reach new heights while she has the chance.
"It’s difficult for me to say no when there’s something that I believe in and that I’m excited about and think I can make a difference on," Spiring says. "So for right now I’m going to do that and someday I’ll ride off into the sunset and take some more time off. But I’m not quite ready for that."
After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.
President and CEO of Economic Development Winnipeg, Spiring is the chair of the WFC board of directors, following a three-year tenure as the vice-chair.
Craig Evans, Vice Chair
Evans, the chief executive officer of Granny’s Poultry Cooperative, with over 30 years of business management, human resource, and marketing experience, replaced Spiring as vice-chair on Jan. 19.
Mike Pyle, Treasurer
Pyle was selected as treasurer on Jan. 19, adding to his duties as the CEO and director of The Exchange Income Corporation, since its inception in 2002.
Scott Sissons, Corporate Secretary
Also recently appointed, as corporate secretary, Sissons is a partner at KMPG LLP, with more than 21 years of experience providing accounting, auditing and advisory services to the public, private, non-for-profit and government sectors.
Jeff Martin, Past Chair
Martin concluded his three-year term as chair of the board on Dec. 31, 2018 and will remain as past chair. He is a partner with Deloitte, LLP, where he’s been for 30 years.
Bill Baines, Board member
Now retired, Baines is the former president and CEO of AML Wireless Networks Inc., with more than 35 years of senior management experience in technologies companies.
Kenny Boyce, Board member
Boyce, the city's representative on the board, is a staple of the Manitoba film scene, and currently holds the position of manager of film and special events for the City of Winnipeg.
Barb Gamey, Board member
Gamey is the CEO of Payworks, one of Canada’s largest national providers of payroll, human resource, and time and absence management solutions, located in Winnipeg and with 10 regional offices and 300 employees across Canada.
Chris Lorenc, Board member
A former lawyer, Lorenc has spent the last 18 years as president of the Manitoba Heavy Construction Association, and served on Winnipeg’s city council from 1983 to 1992.
Kevin Neiles, Board member
A former four-year CFL player and Grey Cup winner with the Bombers in 1984, Neiles is the chief marketing officer and president of the prairie region of Arthur J. Gallagher Canada Limited.
Priti Shah, Board member
Shah, who has travelled to more than 60 countries as part of her commitment to international development and volunteer service, is the chief executive officer of PRAXIS Conflict Consulting, a Manitoba-based company specializing in governance, management and dispute resolution.
Marnie Strath, Board member
Strath, the former director of marketing for the Winnipeg Free Press, has owned her own marketing firm since 2009, and is heavily involved in the local community and charity events.