Most Victorians remember Elizabeth Cull from her days in politics with the NDP.
Cull was MLA for Oak Bay-Gordon Head during the reign of four different premiers, then ended up working for a fifth (Ujjal Dosanjh) as his chief of staff. Hers was a wildly successful run. Cull was B.C.’s first woman finance minister and held the heady portfolios of health minister and deputy premier.
The 55-year-old still lives in Oak Bay, but has given politics a wide berth since the 2001 election. Her latest of five careers (Cull has previously worked as a community planner, politician, consultant, and educator) is as business owner. She purchased the Oak Bay Avenue Dig This store in 2002 and three years later decided to buy not just the Market Square location, but the entire franchise of all four high-end gardening stores.
Although rumours are swirling about her being courted by the federal Liberals to run for a seat in Ottawa, Cull says the closest she wants to be to the political arena is as part of a political chat panel for CBC Radio in Victoria.
With a son finishing up studies at McGill and a husband ready for retirement, Cull is as vivacious as she was on the floor of the legislature, though the spadework that goes with the job today is less about debate, defence (or even denial), and more about… spadework.
“Gardening is a religion in Victoria,” she says. Amen.
“I keep joking with my friends that I’m going to write a book that retail is just like politics. Selling a gardening trowel is not much different from selling ideas and policies. It’s all about communication and community relations, whether it’s the big picture about the province’s well being or the well being of a gardening store.”
Did being a cabinet minister teach you anything about running a business?
“All my life I’ve been a big-picture thinker. I’m a planner by education. I like to be able to sit down and build a detailed plan about where I’m going and how I’m going to get there. It made me an effective cabinet minister. I did not want to run the ministry, as so many ministers out there do, but I wanted instead to get above it. I don’t have quite as many staff now as I did when I was finance minister, though.”
Is it easier working with a budget where the numbers had many more zeros after them?
“It’s the same thing, the same attention to details that is needed. I’m as obsessed with my business finances as I was with the province’s finances.”
Do you subscribe to any particular ethic or philosophy governing the way you do business now or when you were in elected office?
“I think it is the same work ethic. The ethic is that you want to make a difference in your community. I believe Dig This creates beauty in gardens in Victoria and in people’s lives. It’s also important to me that I have fun in my business, and my employees have fun. If I weren’t having fun, as a cabinet minister or as a small business owner, I’d ask the question, ‘What am I doing here?’”
You’re a member of the Oak Bay Business Improvement Association. How important is it for small business owners to belong to such organizations?
“It’s incredibly valuable. It gives you the ability to all work together for a common cause without struggling as an individual. Look what Oak Bay has done with their Christmas celebrations.”
When you were growing up, did you ever think, “Yeah, I’m going to run a high-end gardening store?”
“I’ve always gardened, but everyone else in my family is a salesperson. Then I got into politics and realized politics is sales and realized, yes, I am the child of my parents after all.”
Can you offer us any cool gardening tips?
“Rules are made to be broken. My gardening style is ‘zonal denial.’ I plant things that shouldn’t be grown in this climate. I put plants in the wrong place. I do things that aren’t supposed to be possible.”
Do you have gardening mentors? Business mentors? Political mentors?
“I tend to think of circles of support. When I was in politics, I had a group of friends who were amazing in supporting me and I don’t think I could have been successful without them. I’m not afraid to say, ‘I don’t know how to do that; show me, teach me.’ Every day I’m continuing to learn.”
Changing careers at middle age… how difficult is that?
“The first big career change I made was running for politics. It’s like leaping off the edge of a cliff and trusting I would learn to fly before I hit bottom. I’ve done that many times. I’ve had five careers.”
Do you have any advice for small business owners in Victoria?
“Do your homework, but don’t be afraid to take a risk.”