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Young Entrepreneur of the Year: Stephanie Ash

Learning from her early experiences, Ash says that the key to success is to properly manage progress and maintain relationships with existing clients.

As the president of Firedog Communications Inc., Stephanie Ash encourages her clients to do as she says and not as she does. This year's recipient of the Northern Ontario Business Awards, Young Entrepreneur of the Year, has never used traditional marketing or public relations tools, such advertising campaigns or brochures, to promote her company.

"I'm like the cobbler's kid who has the worst shoes," she says. "People have come to us by word of mouth, and the quality of those clients is just getting better and better every month."

Firedog Communications has eight employees, a 2,000-square-foot office and an extensive client list that includes various First Nations communities, Family Services Thunder Bay, Confederation College, the City of Thunder Bay Tourism and Economic Development and Habitat for Humanity Restore. The company also manages a $4.5 million capital fundraising campaign for the George Jeffrey Children's Treatment Centre.

The path to Ash’s current position was not without various twists and turns, however.

Born and raised in Birstall, England, Ash began her career with a degree in French and German in order to work as a teacher and translator. These plans soon became derailed when her translation skills earned her a job at FIFA's Marseilles office during the 1998 World Cup, where she was asked to piece together some press releases and maintain media contacts.

It was an unexpected and life-changing introduction to the world of public relations, and one that she hasn't turned back from since.

"I loved it," says Ash, 29. "I really, really enjoyed myself and decided that PR was the thing that I wanted to do."

Following a post-graduate education in Marketing and Business through the Paris Business School as well as a Journalism diploma at the London School of Journalism, she took to working for various public relations firms in London, France, Germany and Australia where she handled such clients as the British Olympic Team and Post Optics.

Despite her international connections, her vacation time and acquaintances eventually led her to the Thunder Bay area, where she fell in love with the locale and never left.

Having worked in many high-profile public relations management positions within overseas firms, she didn't feel as though starting over at the bottom of a local firm would provide her with sufficient job satisfaction. As a result, she and a friend decided to start Firedog Public Relations out of a basement in 2003.

After working a separate job to fund the company's efforts, Ash began to meet with some success following six months of networking with the local business community and attempting to find a niche for Firedog.

"I really enjoyed those early days," she says. "It was that exciting time of 'I wonder how this is going to work out and what's going to happen,' even though it was very hard."

Those early victories allowed Firedog the opportunity and time to support various local public relations cases on a volunteer basis. These include their involvement with the "Kidney for Kyia" campaign, which raised over $50,000 to cover medical expenses for a 19-month-old baby in need of a new kidney, as well as a separate campaign to provide financial assistance to a First Nations girl in dire need of heart surgery.

After the company relocated to an office, Ash bought out her business partner's portion of the company in January 2005 and rebranded it Firedog Communications, with a new focus on offering a full range of communications solutions such as event planning and graphic design.

Learning from her early experiences, Ash says that the key to success is to properly manage its progress and maintain relationships with existing clients.

"It's about taking it one step at a time," she says. "I really try not to get too big, too fast. My focus is on making sure that we grow in a sustainable fashion. It's working for us, and we're doing quite well."

This isn't to say that Ash hasn't held back on her ambitions. In 2005, she was commissioned to secure funding for a local outdoors-focused television program called "Officially Rugged With Rd", which sparked her imagination and interest.

"I really saw something in what he was doing, but he needed money," she says. "It's interesting because I'm just about the most un-rugged person you could meet, so we had a little chuckle about how he was asking this city-born PR girl to help him fish and hunt."

After landing more than $750,000 for the show, she decided to take an active involvement in its operation by incorporating it as "Officially Rugged Entertainment Inc.," after which she became a shareholder and general manager.

She has since established its offices next door to her own, and has hired sales and production teams to flesh out the company's ranks. The show is now seen in 50 million households across North America every week, and is carried by many regional cable networks as well as specialty channels such as the Men's Channel and Sportsman's Channel in the U.S.

Having understood the brand's inherent potential, she carried the idea into the creation of an Officially Rugged magazine in the spring of 2006. Ash is now the Editor-in-Chief of the quarterly publication, which recently published its first edition with a production run of 50,000 copies, and she couldn't be happier.

"We've had great feedback on the first issue," she says. "We're now working with distributors to get it on news stands across the U.S. It's lots of fun."

The experience has been so positive that she's hoping to eventually produce a magazine specifically tailored to young people, though she speaks to local youth through other venues in the meantime. Not only does she volunteer for numerous youth-centre causes across the region, she's also a part-time teacher of post-graduate Corporate Communications at Confederation College, and an occasional speaker at leadership conferences, which prepare young people for the challenges and benefits of staying in Northern Ontario.

These speaking engagements offer her the opportunity to educate and inform people that success can be found in the North, despite the obstacles posed by a young age and an occasionally difficult economy.

"A lot of my students think I've pulled off some kind of miracle by doing what I do here," she says. "I try to explain that if you want to do it and you're willing to work hard, it's not as impossible as you might think. There are lots of opportunities here and I hope people start to see that."