Catherine Graham on protecting her people

Why group benefits matter at every stage

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Catherine Graham is the President of RIGHTSLEEVE and CEO of commonsku, two successful Toronto-based companies shaping the promotional products industry. Prior to her entrepreneurial undertakings, Catherine earned her MBA and worked as a management consultant for Fortune 100 companies.

She has been published in The Globe and Mail and National Post and has spoken for the W100 Idea Exchange for Canada’s top female entrepreneurs, among other great initiatives. We interviewed her about the decision to offer group benefits to her employees.


Yes, employee benefits play an important role in attracting and retaining top talent—in some cases, even more so than salaries. We also know that benefits can maintain productivity and reduce costs associated with absenteeism, presenteeism, and probably a few other ‘isms’.

These advantages are, unsurprisingly, told from the employer point of view. What business owner wouldn’t want to save money and hire better people?

For Catherine Graham, however, the decision to offer group benefits at her two businesses was far more personal than cost savings. It was about protecting her people.

“The bottom line for me is that you just never know what kind of turn life can take,” she told us. “If something awful or catastrophic were to happen to someone you work with everyday, whose livelihood depends on you—how can you decide not to support them just because you don’t have the right benefits plan?”

“If something awful or catastrophic were to happen…how can you decide not to support them just because you don’t have the right benefits plan?”

We interviewed Catherine Graham the day after she spoke at TechTO (watch her five-minute talk from the event). She told us about the decision to offer group benefits and how Collage has made it easier for her and her employees.

Could you start by telling us about RIGHTSLEEVE and commonsku, as well as your role at both companies?

RIGHTSLEEVE is a promotional products agency founded by my husband, Mark Graham, in the late 1990s. I was off with our first child, and he’d invited me to ‘lend a hand’ at his five-person company before starting my next corporate gig. That quickly evolved from going in one or two days a week, to joining full-time, running the business, tripling it in size, and then co-founding our spin-off software company, commonsku in 2005.

Currently, we have 22 employees at RIGHTSLEEVE and 14 at commonsku. commonsku in particular has been growing at an incredibly fast pace, and my role is to manage both of the businesses and maintain that growth.

Can you share with us what led you to the decision to offer group benefits?

Benefits are incredibly important to our culture and our philosophy around our people. Coming from personal experience, what we learned is that you just never know what’s going to happen.

“Benefits are incredibly important to our culture and our philosophy around our people. If you believe in your people, you need to make sure you’re taking care of them from day one.”

Early on at commonsku, one of our key employees was diagnosed with breast cancer. We didn’t have LTD [long term disability], but we made the decision to continue to pay them while they received treatment and recovered. In hindsight, had we been better insured, we could have avoided any stress around this. But it was a moral decision—how could we not support someone who’s just received this awful diagnosis?

Would you say you have a philosophy around taking care of your people?

It goes back to not knowing what is going to happen. And we’ve learned that this can happen no matter how young your team is, or whether you’re a company that’s six months old or 16 years old.

If you are someone who believes in your people, and that your people are a foundation to your success as a company, you need to make sure you’re taking care of them and that you’re putting in mechanisms to support them from day one. So that if something catastrophic does happen, you’re not losing sleep at night because you’re not doing right by them.

“You never know what’s going to happen, whether you’re a company that’s six months old or 16 years old.”

You’ve described RIGHTSLEEVE as an established, organically-grown company, and commonsku as much more of a startup. What have been the differences in offering benefits to both?

By the time we spun-out commonsku, we’d already decided that benefits were something we would offer from day one.

Too many startups view benefits as being a perk as opposed to something they need to offer as a result of their philosophy around people. We’ve seen a lot of startups going the route of the HSA [health savings account] to help reduce costs and offer their employees more trendy, flexible health options. But that doesn’t necessarily cover anything catastrophic. So regardless of what kind of business we’re running, we want our people to be equally covered.

You’re still a busy entrepreneur! Did you find it difficult to justify the cost or time it took to find a good benefits plan?

It was! Insurance is a very complicated industry because there are so many different players and options available. It even has its own lingo. It takes a lot of understanding to build a plan that is going to be protective of your employees’ total health, but not punitive in terms of being totally unaffordable for a small business.

We were very fortunate to have a great relationship with our benefits broker. He held our hand through the process of choosing a plan, especially when our premiums started to go up.

You synced your benefits plan to Collage seven months ago. Could you share the experience of switching to our brokerage?

Having someone who understands your business and your values while also looking for ways to contain costs is critical to putting the right plan in place.

Again, we were very fortunate. Before switching, we met with Peter [Demangos, Collage co-founder]. He was knowledgeable and showed us that he understood our history and had looked into different plans for each company. He was also familiar with our insurance provider, so that helped make for a seamless transition. The trust was there from the beginning.

“[Before switching to Collage,] we met with Peter. The trust was there from the beginning.”

Finally, we recently read that roughly 50% of employees don’t understand their group benefits materials. How do you make sure that you’re communicating the importance of benefits, as well as the benefits plan itself?

This is, in fact, something that has been very helpful with Collage. Employees can see their coverage very easily, or download the benefits booklet right within the app. It even links directly to their claims portal. Because most employees don’t use that very often, they can forget how to find or access it.

And for me, it’s much easier to make sure I’m giving them the right information. Before, I had to store everything in a shared folder and add employees one by one. I’d always be wondering if I’d forgotten to add someone or if the information had gotten scattered somewhere else.

Moving forward, though, we will be prioritizing benefits communication even more. Giving employees more information and access so they can feel comfortable using their benefits is just as important as offering them.

“Making employees feel comfortable using their benefits is just as important as offering them.”


Thank you, Catherine, RIGHTSLEEVE and commonsku for your time! To read more from Catherine, view her articles about entrepreneurship and building great teams in the Financial Post and The Globe and Mail. To learn about how Collage helps manage employee information, read our case study with RIGHTSLEEVE.

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