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Alumni Engagement

Business Administration grad plays crucial behind-the-scenes role at The North West Company

March 17, 2014

Jennifer Wilkinson“So you’re a drug dealer!”

Jennifer Wilkinson is used to hearing this joking response when she tries to explain just what she does for a living. But the easy-going Category Manager for Over the Counter Drugs at The North West Company (NWC), headquartered in downtown Winnipeg, doesn’t mind.

“It can be confusing – my job is pretty complex. It’s not like saying you’re a teacher, where people understand,” laughs Wilkinson, who graduated from Red River College’s Business Administration program with honours in 2004 and has been with NWC’s Procurement and Marketing department for the past six years. She’s responsible for all merchandising, pricing, shelving, marketing, promotions and sales of over-the-counter (OTC) drugs for the company’s Northern Stores and Giant Tiger stores across Canada.

“Before I started here, I had no idea this job even existed. I guess I had always just assumed that the food magically made its way onto store shelves,” Wilkinson says. She quickly learned there’s actually a lot that goes on behind the scenes, after starting as an assistant category manager for the bakery product segment, then becoming associate category manager for both bakery and dairy.

Being promoted to her latest role was exciting but daunting, because she’s the first person to fill it.

“Because of significant changes within the healthcare system, OTC drugs are becoming an increasingly important business segment for all pharmacy and retail banners. My role was created specifically so The North West Company could take advantage of the fast-paced growth this industry is experiencing,” Wilkinson explains. “I’m responsible for building this category from the ground up, and watching it flourish and grow over the next couple of years.”

Wilkinson credits RRC’s Business Administration program for not only preparing her for the work she does every day, but for helping get her foot in the door in the first place. After spending a few years in entry-level marketing jobs and studying at the University of Manitoba, then moving to Edmonton and back, it was a fellow 2004 grad (working at NWC at the time) who encouraged her to apply for the assistant category manager role, left open when he moved up in the company.

“It sounded challenging, fun and extremely exciting,” Wilkinson says. “From day one I was hooked and have loved every moment of the past six years.”

Wilkinson’s typical day can include anything from determining how much each product should cost and making sure the correct pictures and prices show up in the store fliers, working with logistics to get products onto shelves and ensuring each store is following shelf layout plans, to making presentations to large groups. Her courses at RRC definitely helped her with that last task, Wilkinson says.

“I think if I’d come into this job without the public speaking experience I got in school, and been thrown into presentations in front of 300 people, I probably would have died!” she laughs.

She also credits the program for her leadership and time management skills, and says the variety of business, sales, marketing, accounting and other courses that make up the program provided an excellent base, a number of career options and a good understanding of “what I was getting into,” says Wilkinson.

“The reputation of the program also speaks for itself, and many companies within Winnipeg recognize its graduates as being top of their field.”

Besides enjoying her day-to-day job, a big perk for Wilkinson is the chance to visit northern destinations like Churchill, Manitoba and Rankin Inlet, Nunavut.

“It’s really interesting working with communities as far north as you could possibly go, and getting to see that different side of Canada,” says Wilkinson, who grew up on a farm in Melita, Manitoba.

While she credits her time at RRC – which she “absolutely loved” for its great atmosphere, small classes and engaging instructors – with paving the way to the career she also adores, Wilkinson adds that one of the most valuable things she got out of her program was friendship.

“I’m still best friends with a lot of the people that I met on my first day at the College, actually,” she says. “Despite different career paths, marriage, the addition of children and many miles between some of us, we still remain friends and stay connected as best as we can, 10 years later.”

Profile by Sherry Kaniuga (Creative Communications, 1998)