Finding home in family business

By Megan Walchuk
Editor/Staff Writer

Sarah Noonan never intended to take over the family business. It was never the plan. The successful athlete had followed her childhood dreams instead – she was an avid athlete, who went on to play soccer at the varsity level at University of Minnesota- Duluth. She then built a rewarding career as a high school coach and phys-ed teacher.

“I wanted to be a phys-ed teacher,” she said. “It was a natural way to share my skills and passion. Coaching and teaching were just a really good fit.”

But that changed in 2017, when her dad Paul Noonan decided to retire from the family business – La Place Rendez-Vous. She decided to leave her teaching job, to take up the reigns as General Manager of the historic hotel and restaurant.

“It was like a switch. For me, it was really out of passion. I wanted to be there and I wanted to give it a try,” she said. “I knew the business. I’d grown up in it, and I just didn’t want to see it sold to someone else.”

Although it was a departure from her previous career, she was able to draw on her leadership skills in the classroom and on the soccer pitch, to help transition into her new role.

“It really surprised me. When I first switched, I thought, ‘well, this is a totally different beast’. But so much of it is translatable. Whether you’re with a student or a guest. A parent or a staff member. Other teachers and admin. You can relate all of those skills and relationships to the business world, with strategies that you would use and the skillsets I built through teaching and coaching. I was surprised how much of it transferred over,” she said. “I still had to learn the back-end stuff, that I didn’t do growing up, like the business end of it. But that was relatively straightforward. I had my dad coaching me on that.”

Making the jump was the right choice for Noonan, who has found a deep sense of pride in her work.

“I like that it’s our family’s business. I feel a lot of pride with what my Grandfather and my Uncle George and my Dad and Mom and Auntie have contributed to build, and what it’s grown to become,” she said.

The facility entered the family in 1972, when her grandfather, Leo Noonan bought a share in the restaurant. Over the years, the surrounding waterfront was purchased, and additions made, to make it the facility it is today.

“There have been a lot of changes over the decades,” she said. Although she’s relatively new to the job, Noonan is hoping to honour that history by leaving her own mark. Renovations are ongoing, with the possibility of a new lobby in the near future. And she feels she has an important role to play in building the town’s tourism industry. She’s working with a like-minded committee of tourism stakeholders, including the Rainy River Future Development Corporation and the Municipal Accommodation Tax Committee, to create experiences and add-ons for tourists, so visitors have a reason to linger in Fort Frances.

“There are so many rich experiences that people can do and offer. It’s an exciting goal locally, and for us,” she said.

Her staff has been brainstorming ways they can bring the hotel and restaurant to the next level, perhaps by connecting guests with local fishing guides off the docks. “Or maybe you catch the fish, and then learn to cook it with our chef,” she said. “There’s so many things we can offer.”

Connecting with other business owners has been a source of strength for Noonan – including other women.

“I would encourage more women to try and take that leap, to become an entrepreneur, to run your own business. The networking can be really awesome. I’ve created a whole team of other women who I connect with and get coaching from,” she said. “I think it’s really empowering that it’s becoming easier for women to go into these kids of roles and positions.”

She feels the diversity of women in the business world adds valuable skills.

“I think that we have a special skillset sometimes with how we handle certain situations and I think that brings value to how I run the business,” she said. “It’s not better or worse than how a man would do it, but it’s different, and it gives me a different lens to look through.”