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Issue:
January 2019 - Mary D'Alton

“The whole culture speaks to me”

Mary D’Alton is leading the Cowan Foundation

by Paul Knowles

Over the last four years or so, Mary D’Alton has worn enough hats to keep a milliner in business. Until 2015, her professional life had been pretty stable – she had been President and Managing Director of the Waterloo Inn Conference Hotel since 2000, but then came a change in ownership, which led to the entire 200-member staff being let go… including D’Alton herself.

Since then, she has filled key interim positions at two local charities – the Humane Society and Nutrition for Learning, as well as playing volunteer roles as the Chair of the Board of Directors of Smart Serve Ontario, and a member of the boards of diverse organizations including THEMUSEUM, Waterloo North Hydro, and more.

This month, she dons another chapeau, as the new Executive Director of the Cowan Foundation. And she’s really excited about it.

But while she is stepping out of the CEO post at Nutrition for Learning – succeeded by long-time NFL team member Brian Banks – she is staying involved. She becomes director of strategic initiatives at Nutrition for Learning for the next year, allowing her to follow through on some key initiatives for this organization that feeds more than 23,000 students, every day, in more than 122 schools in the region.

But D’Alton will be doing that work from her new office at the Cowan Foundation, with the full approval of Chair and CEO Maureen Cowan.

D’Alton believes she has found her perfect niche at Cowan. She told Exchange, “The whole value system at Cowan is where I feel comfortable.” She added, “I have known Maureen through business over the years, so I have a sense of the value system that matters to the organization.”

“The work the Cowan Foundation is partnering on, I think will dramatically change lives.”

D’Alton explains, “This Foundation does not accept applications. It is more organic and in many ways reflects the values of the man that started it [Frank Cowan, Maureen’s grandfather] – innovation, collaboration, commitment and integrity. All of the companies and the CEOs who are part of this are client-focused and results-driven, not a far stretch from the industry I left three years ago.”

D’Alton prepared for the job by sitting on the Foundation’s board for the past year. She says, “Besides the respect I have for the Chairman Maureen and the other senior management, I like the focus of the Foundation, having spent this past year sitting on the board.”

After D’Alton’s year on the board, “I really wanted to make the move. The whole value system at Cowan is where I feel comfortable… For me, the family and group of companies have an alignment that speaks to me of the best of business and philanthropy.”

The Cowan portfolio of companies includes the Cowan Insurance Group, based in Cambridge; the Frank Cowan Company, in Princeton, Ontario; The Guarantee Company of North America, headquartered in Toronto; Cowan Asset Management, in Cambridge; and Fountain Street Finance, in Toronto.

The CEOs of all Cowan companies advise the Foundation’s executive director concerning potential projects. In 2017, recipients of grants from the Cowan Foundation have included Habitat for Humanity, Enable Haiti, the CURE Foundation and Prostate Cancer Canada. Forty-eight organizations, ranging from the Food Bank of Waterloo Region to the New Hamburg Hockey Association, received funding through the Foundation on behalf of the company’s employees. Since it was founded in 1995, the Foundation has given out more than $24 million.

One major grant in 2018 was a $4 million gift to Conestoga College to help fund the new John Tibbits Campus in Waterloo.
D’Alton says there are some other “amazing projects” now under consideration, but she cannot reveal details. She added, “The work the Cowan Foundation is partnering on, I think will dramatically change lives.”

“This job is very much aligned with my thinking,” she told Exchange. “From a very young age, I have volunteered. This matches my personal philosophy of engagement and participation in the community. The whole culture here speaks to me.”

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