Armstrong
Credit: Courtesy of Armstrong Group

Rocky Mountaineer founder Peter Armstrong stayed true to himself as he built North America’s biggest private rail service

From using a photo of Winston Churchill on his own LinkedIn profile to often referring to him during lunch, Peter Armstrong has a passion for the formidable British leader.

But Armstrong’s admiration is less focused on Churchill’s Second World War prowess than on his failings. The founder and CEO of Armstrong Hospitality Group Ltd., Vancouver-based owner and operator of the Rocky Mountaineer luxury train tourism company (along with interests in a real estate development firm and a private equity house), cites the politician’s attempt at a school Latin exam. Of writing only “the date, his name and a few smudges”—a fact gleaned from attending myriad conferences on Churchill—Armstrong says, “I thought, ‘If you can do that and become the prime minister of the U.K., then anything is possible.’ I was never a great student, so that has always inspired me.”

Indeed, we’re sitting in Hawksworth Restaurant, kitty-corner to the downtown Hotel Vancouver, where the 65-year-old began his career on the hospitality front line as a doorman and bellhop. Over Pacific cod curry, the new inductee to the Business Laureates of British Columbia Hall of Fame explains why he chose BCIT’s hotel management program over the legal or accountancy training favoured by his peers.

“I just knew I couldn’t compete—all those professions are fabulous, but it comes back to knowing who you are,” Armstrong says. “I was always going to be in the scrum because I’m a big, lumbering guy,” adds the six-foot-four New Brunswick native, who moved to Vancouver in his teens. “There’s still a lot of glory even if you don’t get as many tries; you are part of a team.”

Such nods are as constant as his Churchillian ones. Armstrong combines his earlier love of sports such as rugby and rowing with the management philosophy he’s created during his transport-heavy career.

After leaving Hotel Vancouver, he bought two buses to form Spotlight Tours Ltd. in 1974 (filling a gap where there were more tourists than available seats), then acquired airport coach group Trailways of BC two years later before becoming a minority partner in Gray Line’s regional bus fleet in 1979. When part of a VIA Rail Canada service to the Rockies was privatized nearly 30 years ago, he launched the Rocky Mountaineer, now the largest privately owned passenger rail service in North America, with 280 full-time employees.

“For me, it’s always been about having the confidence in passing the ball to the right person at the right time and not worrying,” Armstrong proclaims, noting that to date, the company has ferried more than two million passengers—mostly American, British and Australian, though he says it’s now targeting the Chinese market—in its 30-plus domed trains. “Thousands of people have their fingerprints all over the Rocky Mountaineer and its success.” (It hasn’t always been a smooth journey: in a union dispute, the company locked out its staff for more than a year before a settlement in 2012.)

Today Armstrong is “passing the ball” in part to his three adult children (Ashley, Chelsea and Tristan), who nearly 18 months ago joined long-time chair John Furlong, former CEO of Vancouver’s 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games, with him on the Rocky Mountaineer board. Not that he wants them to simply fall in line with his way of thinking, says the resident of the West End, where he lives with his partner, Suvina Mah.

“I’m never afraid of a good argument,” asserts Armstrong, who is also former president of the Non-Partisan Association, Vancouver’s centre-right municipal political party. “It’s always a growth possibility. I’m amazed at how many stupid questions I get to ask in my life, and I never get stupid answers.”

THREE THINGS ABOUT… PETER ARMSTRONG

1. Big BenArmstrong collects 200-year-old walking maps of London, England—his “favourite city in the world.” He fell for the British-designed, Holland-printed cartography after a school rugby tour. “They’re made of linen, folded together so you can put it in your pocket, and are so beautiful,” he explains. “They only had a shelf life of six months before they needed to be changed as the city grew.”

2. Adhering to his motto, “Good things happen when you show up,” he believes people should get involved by going to events and other activities. “So often you get a great experience out of it, even if it’s not immediate.”
 
3. Armstrong has long harboured a fascination with Iceland, though he’s never visited. “When I wrote about things at school, it would always be about the place—the puffins and Vikings. It’s on my bucket list.”