When Virginia Greene stepped into the role of CEO at the Business Council of B.C. in December last year, it was the second time in her career she had made the leap from the provincial government to the private sector.
And it was also the second time she had stepped into a high-profile position with the explicit responsibility of helping prepare Vancouver for an event that would put it in the international spotlight.
In 1983 Greene had been toiling away as a mid-level bureaucrat in the ministry of labour when she was named assistant deputy minister for tourism. Her primary responsibility: oversee the marketing side of Expo 86.
Four years later, following the successful conclusion of the world exposition, she stepped out of public service to dive into the high-risk world of private enterprise. She co-founded Go Direct Marketing, specializing in the emerging field of database-driven direct marketing. In three years the company had grown to about 30 employees and $5 million in revenue before it was bought by advertising giant J. Walter Thompson.
Greene would stay on as CEO of Go Direct until 2004, when she returned to public service. Narrowly failing in her bid for a seat in the legislature for the BC Liberal Party in the riding of Vancouver-Fairview, she was appointed deputy minister of tourism, sport and the arts, and was subsequently shuffled to the premier’s office as deputy minister for intergovernmental affairs. She resigned from that post in June 2007.
As she moves into her role representing the province’s business sector, Greene has the advantage of reflecting on two decades of growth in B.C., a tumultuous period she has witnessed first-hand from both sides of the public/private divide.
Your career has caromed between private and public sectors. Was your original intention a career in government?
My schooling was in anthropology at UBC. At the time, I didn’t see the connection between anthropology and marketing, but the thing about anthropology is that you look at people’s behaviour in a cultural context, and that’s really what marketing is: looking at how people respond to various priorities, messages, values, etcetera in a cultural context. So as many people do early in their careers, I just found my way through a series of happy circumstances. I found a growth area in the work force where marketing was the skill set.
When you made the jump out of government in 1987 to found Go Direct Marketing, what lured you to the private sector?
I had really been the accidental bureaucrat – I had not really imagined a career as a public servant – and I felt that I was at a point in my career where if I was going to experience the private sector, which was something I wanted to do, and if I was going to start a company, which was also something I wanted to do, that would be a good time to do it. So I privatized myself in 1987 and with a partner founded Go Direct Marketing.
Then what drew you back into public service in 2004?
I’m a British Columbian by birth – in fact, we go back almost four full generations on both sides of my parents – and I’ve just always been very passionate about this province. In my work in the public sector – and in fact in my work in the advertising world – I found myself always at the service either of the general public or of the business community. My objective was always the same, and that was to try and improve outcomes for people. The public sector was the next logical step in my career at that point. I was able to do it; my family obligations were such that the kids were grown and I was in a financial position to do what I wanted to do.
What would you say is the biggest change in the province’s business environment since 1987, when you co-founded your own business?
Our biggest challenge is the one that we saw on the horizon then, and we see it closer to us now: that the economy is really changing. We are still heavily dependent on the resource sector, but more and more B.C. is becoming a place known for its knowledge-based industries. They may not be the same kind of household words that the major forestry and mining companies are, but increasingly that’s the direction of the future of B.C. That has several implications. One of them is being able to provide the right kind of nurturing environment for young companies in their start-up phases, and that means financing, mentorship, things of that nature.
It also means encouraging young people to think broadly about their skills, training and education in perhaps a broader spectrum than they may have traditionally.
Are there any key, defining issues in the B.C. business environment that have remained constant in the past couple of decades?
I see similarities in the circumstances we find ourselves in. I like to refer to the 2011 factor. Around Expo 86, which was our first big coming-out party, there were many people who were focused on 1986 and what was going to happen from the second of May to the 13th of October. And there are many people today focused on our upcoming winter Olympics in 2010. I think the challenge then and the challenge now is to think about 2011 and beyond. Where does it leave us, having had an Olympics? Where do we want to go, and how do we prepare for that in a way that we can really leverage that opportunity to the maximum?
And what are the key things we should be doing to prepare for post-2010?
What I’m looking forward to understanding is how much work we are doing on what the future looks like beyond 2010, and how we ensure that some of the growth we’re experiencing right now – some of which is fuelled by the 2010 experience – will carry us forward beyond that. I think the answer now, as then, lies in collaboration, in discussion with groups of people talking about where we want to be and what we need to do to get there.