When she left her job as a teacher to join Fairway Divorce Solutions, Colette Fortin knew without a doubt she was making the right choice. She took the leap into business ownership eight years ago, after reading an article on Fairway’s founder, Karen Stewart, and her revolutionary approach to divorce.
Fortin was immediately drawn to Stewart’s innovative business model, which uses mediation and negotiation to help couples amicably separate. “My husband was a huge encouragement,” she says. “He looked at me and said, ‘You need to do this. You will be an amazing coach for people going through a separation.”
The excitement of joining a business that was changing the divorce industry, coupled with her own experience with separation, encouraged Fortin to join Fairway as the owner of the Southwestern Ontario location serving Kitchener, Waterloo, Cambridge, and Guelph.
Since its founding in 2006, Fairway has expanded to eight locations across Canada, and has helped nearly 3,000 couples achieve resolution on all of their issues as an alternative to court and the traditional system. As one of the franchise’s top negotiators and mediators, Fortin is responsible for finalizing 300 of these cases, and her location has an astounding 95 per cent client completion rate. She also recently received the 2017 Small Business of the Year Award during the Greater Kitchener Waterloo Business Excellence Awards Gala.
A typical day
Whether she’s reviewing upcoming cases or planning the week ahead, Fortin’s days as a Fairway business owner are non-stop, yet the large workload doesn’t seem to faze her. Typically, she’ll start her Monday mornings by arriving at the office bright and early in order to review the week’s schedule.
Her days are mostly divided between meetings with current clients and conducting new consultations. On average, Fortin does six new consultations a week, allowing her to speak with couples during an introduction session, where it’s determined if mediation is the right solution for their separation.
It’s during these sessions where Fortin sets the optimistic tone that makes Fairway so unique. “I always tell my clients that for mediation to work, they have to be willing to work together,” she says. “They have to put their emotions and positions aside, and look towards the future.”
When it comes to meetings with existing clients, Fortin implements Fairway’s Independently Negotiated Resolution model, whereby mediators help couples come to consensus on the issues. These meetings are where details of the separation agreement are determined, and can include anything from spousal and child support arrangements to financial divisions and co-parenting plans.
The remainder of her day is usually spent writing Resolutions Plans. These 18-page documents are a summary of the decisions achieved by her clients pertaining to their separation. Once completed, these plans are transitioned to lawyers for the legal separation and divorce process.
“When you start with Fairway, you’re one person, and you get one case. Today, I’m lucky and have two additional staff who help with reception, bookkeeping, and managing clients. One of my employees is also starting to take on her own cases, which has been huge!”
Though Fortin is grateful for the extra help around the office, she says starting on her own when she first opened has been more beneficial than not. “As a business owner, you really need to be able to do everything in your office, because that’s the only way you can evaluate what is and isn’t working.”
Head office gives its business owners the flexibility to set up and adjust their processes to better meet the needs of their clients. “That’s the beauty of Fairway,” she says. “It’s a structured, well-oiled process, yet head office allows you the freedom to tweak things for individual market requirements.”
A new perspective
In what she calls a “gem” of a business model, Fortin says Fairway is reinventing a divorce industry that has been outdated for decades. “The cultural expectation of divorce is that people hate each other, but there are so many aspects of family life that are not black and white,” she says. “It’s possible to separate from someone and still have a positive relationship with them.”
When she first started with the resolution company, Fortin says divorce mediation was an unknown concept. Today, it’s a hopeful alternative for separating couples who want to avoid an expensive and often time-consuming legal battle. Compared to traditional law, which takes anywhere between one to two years for an agreement to be reached, Fairway’s average time frame is 120 days to resolution.
The business attracts and welcomes owners from a variety of professional backgrounds, another factor that Fortin says makes the franchise so unique. “You’re wearing more than one hat,” she says. “You’re not practicing law, but you have to understand it. And in addition, you need to understand finance, parenting, and coaching. It’s very multidisciplined.”
Always eager to learn more about the industry and her many different roles, Fortin makes it a habit to enroll in a few workshops a year that explore different aspects of separation. Though these workshops are not mandatory, head office does require all business owners to become accredited mediators.
As mediators, Fairway franchisees are committed to making a positive impact on people’s lives, something Fortin says she never gets tired of. “Being a part of something different that truly helps people is the most rewarding aspect of my job!”
Making a difference
Fortin says the number one quality any prospective Fairway business owner needs is compassion and a fundamental caring about people. “You need to see things through the eyes of your clients. This might be my 300th divorce case, but it’s their first. This is the number one thing happening in their lives, and you can never lose sight of that being the focus.”
Given the nature of the profession, Fortin says her work can be emotionally draining at times, but the hugs and looks of relief on client’s faces when they complete the Fairway process makes it all worth it.
And it’s not just adult clients that Fortin is helping – it’s their children, too. “As a former teacher, I’ve seen firsthand the negative effects divorce can have on children,” she says. “Even though I don’t directly interact with my client’s children, they are always at the back of my mind.”
On her own time, Fortin has developed separation guidebooks for parents that include outlines and scripts on how to tell their children they are separating. These guidebooks are not a part of Fairway’s training or manuals, but head office is Fortin’s biggest cheerleader, encouraging her to be creative with their work.
“After eight years as a Fairway business owner, I’m not just working in the business, I’m working on the business. I am constantly thinking of how we can improve things for my clients, and I have the full support of Karen and head office to move forward on my ideas.”
Fortin credits this encouragement for allowing her location to focus on fostering quality and meaningful experiences for her clients. “We’ve been so successful because we genuinely care about our clients and their future. That’s the most important thing for us, and it’s what makes Fairway tick.”
By Kristin Di Tommaso