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Geek of the Week – Emily Anderson

Emily Anderson

“A Good Girl Gone Better”

In just five years with Environics Analytics, Emily Anderson has racked up some impressive firsts: In 2009, the staff voted her the company’s first Employee of the Year. Last year, the finance, insurance, telecommunications and travel (FITT) practice named her its first Director of Client Advocates. And just last month, she became the first EA blogger to have a post picked up by the Globe and Mail for a splashy, two-page spread based on her witty analysis of the geography behind the winter blues.

But if you think those achievements have gone to her head, you probably don’t know Emily. When EA president Jan Kestle announced her the year’s top employee at the 2009 User Conference, Emily immediately thanked her team for their great work. “I was just blown away by the award because I have such incredible respect for everyone here,” says Emily. “To learn that enough of the company thinks that highly of me is truly humbling.”

To hear her colleagues, that modesty is part of Emily’s appeal. Since joining EA, she has gained a reputation for long hours, thoughtful analysis, sharp writing and dogged research. She’s been known to spend time on weekends visiting her clients’ retail locations better understand their operations. Once when EA’s data suggested one location should have experienced higher sales than were reported, she camped out at the site to figure out what was behind the numbers. “Emily concluded that the sales staff was distracted by phone calls and the storefront unattractive, but our model didn’t take these things into account,” says Catherine Pearson, vice president and FITT practice leader. “But that’s typical of Emily, who’s so passionate about her clients. When researching a project, she will not leave any stones unturned.”

A fan of the Nancy Drew children’s mystery novels, Emily compares her role to a detective, seeking the truth behind the spreadsheets. “Our job is to find patterns in data,” she explains, “to determine what types of customers are buying a company’s products and services. We want to see how these customers act when they’re buying and what they look like the rest of their time—what kind of sports they pursue, what magazines titles they’re reading. We want to help our clients learn who their customers are and what they can do to better connect to them.”

“My husband jokes that we’re really ‘Rooms with a View of Urbane Villagers .’”

Emily’s curiosity undoubtedly stems from her upbringing, which found her hopscotching the U.S.-Canada border. Born near Chicago, Emily was raised in a middle-class suburb in Connecticut, her father moving up the executive ranks of General Reinsurance, her mother becoming an Anglican priest. “I had to be a model of morality,” she says of her youth. “There’s a phenomenon called ‘PK’, which stands for ‘Preacher’s Kid’, where the children of clergy are held to high expectations in childhood before rebelling later in life.” Emily attended a public school until the third grade, a Christian fundamentalist school until the eighth grade and an all-girls Catholic high school. “I spent so much of my formative years around people from different walks of life that it gave me a real curiosity about what makes them tick,” she says. “I’m still trying to understand the world better.”

Emily and John hiking through a cypress dome in the Florida Everglades. “We spend a lot of time in nature to reconnect,” she says. “It makes my soul feel good."

Emily and John hiking through a cypress dome in the Florida Everglades. “We spend a lot of time in nature to reconnect,” she says. “It makes my soul feel good.”

Eventually, Emily did rebel when she entered the University of Toronto—though her idea of rebellion was to study sociology. “My parents were pretty disappointed,” she laughs. She ultimately earned an honours bachelor’s degree in economic geography from the UofT and a master’s degree in Spatial Analysis from Ryerson University. Her master’s thesis focused on how to attract consumers to Toronto’s Downtown Yonge Business Improvement Area. “I actually developed a market segmentation system for them using geodemographics and some of their existing market research,” she recalls. “It wasn’t very sophisticated but it still provided some good guidance.”

Between her undergraduate and graduate studies, Emily worked for a year as a marketing research intern at Nissan Canada, gaining extensive experience in geodemographic segmentation, trade area analysis, GIS and retail sales performance. “It was a pretty cool job. I got to drive all the cars,” she says. “But I also learned that I wanted to get better at applying geography to marketing. I saw a real need for that and it got me back into school.”

In 2007, Emily took the advice of a Ryerson professor and applied for work at EA as an analyst, a position that evolved into client advocate and, eventually, her promotion to director of FITT’s client advocates. She’s proud of being the 17th employee of the company—the company has since tripled in size—but is even prouder of her appointment as a director. “It meant that the practice teams were growing and we needed to add that next level of management,” she says. “It meant that the company was thriving.”

These days, Emily leads a trio of client advocates who help customers realize the most value from their relationship with EA—whether that involves strategic guidance, ENVISION training or project work. “I see myself as a facilitator,” she explains. “I do a lot of quality control and a lot of coaching on how to do the job in a way that keeps our clients satisfied and the team feeling good about their work.” She describes her management style as client-centric, urging her team members to always place their clients’ needs first. “I often ask, ‘How will our clients use this information?’” she says. “Our deliverables must always be developed with the users and applications in mind.”

While Emily describes herself as a workaholic, she says she’s fortunate that her husband shares that quality. Two years ago, she married John Taranu—also an immigrant, although from Romania—whom she met in a UofT class on GIS project management. “We hit it off while working on a project schedule Gantt chart,” she remembers.

Today the couple lives in an apartment in Deer Park, a mid-town Toronto neighbourhood that PRIZMC2 classifies as Rooms with a View (young, ethnic singles in urban high rises). The segment is often described as transient and downscale—rung 44 on the 66-segment PRIZM lifestyle ladder—but Emily thinks her neighbourhood may itself be in transition. “The way things are with the real estate market in the city, we’re seeing more people with higher incomes putting down roots in our area,” she says. “But on a WealthScapes map, my area is still a sliver of non-money red in a sea of wealthy green households. My husband jokes that we’re really ‘Rooms with a View of Urbane Villagers .’”

Emily and John maintain a vacation savings account to see sites like Zion National Park in Utah. As she recalls, “Hiking Angel's Landing will leave you breathless.”

Emily and John maintain a vacation savings account to see sites like Zion National Park in Utah. As she recalls, “Hiking Angel’s Landing will leave you breathless.”

Despite their long days, she and John still make time to enjoy the city. They have seats at the opera, go to art galleries and recently started taking salsa dance lessons. “I’m always trying to lead,” she says apologetically. One way they’re different from their segment peers is their love of nature and the outdoors, hiking city trails and frequenting the Brickworks farmer’s market every Saturday. And she and John like to travel, not just to the usual European hotspots but to off-the-path towns and parks in North America—their dusty road bikes strapped to the back of their used Ford Fusion.

“We like to meet new people from all walks of life,” Emily says. “My work feeds this curiosity.”

But when her personal life and work collide, Emily tries hard to hold the line. When news broke that her blog on the winter blues was going to be picked up by the Globe and Mail, she and John were just about to depart for their own winter getaway hiking the dense mangrove forests and swamp of the Florida Everglades. “I refused to do any interviews while we were on vacation,” she says. But sixteen hours before catching a plane, Emily conducted one interview with CBC Radio. And on the day she returned, she was back at her desk answering questions from a CTV reporter in Calgary over Skype.

“I’m no saint,” says the Preacher’s Kid. “My workdays are so full that I consider vacation time sacred. Otherwise, I’d go insane, which wouldn’t be good for business.” Which just means that even when she’s vacationing, she’s still thinking about what’s best for the company—precisely what you’d expect from EA’s first Employee of the Year.

–Michael J. Weiss

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Written by Environics Analytics

March 18, 2013 at 11:10 am

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