In case Brandt Louie, president and CEO of H.Y. Louie and London Drugs, wasn’t busy enough, he recently acquired a new title: chancellor of Simon Fraser University. He talks to BCB about his career juggling act, the problem with MBAs and the secrets to making it big in business.
How will the new job affect your other activities? My role shouldn’t take up too much time. It’s somewhat of an ambassadorial position – lots of pomp and circumstance, but no power! One of my main duties will be to run convocation in June and October. By comparison, as the chair of the SFU board of governors I attend up to 10 meetings annually and liaise regularly with our president. I support the rule that a chair can only serve two three-year terms because the vibrancy of a learning institution depends on new blood and new ideas, and after time your ideas are not as fresh as they were when you first came in. You’re not fresh anymore? I personally think my ideas are still sharp. But it’s what the board thinks that counts. What does becoming chancellor mean to you? My dad sat on the board at UBC, so there’s a precedence. But to tell you the truth, I had little knowledge of SFU when I first became involved with the board in 1999. When I graduated from UBC in ’66, SFU was only getting started. It’s not hindered by the baggage of a long history. It’s flexible, and its administrators and faculty are not afraid to try new things. What is your vision for SFU, particularly its business programs? Our new school of contemporary arts in the Woodward’s building will revitalize the neighbourhood much the way Harbour Centre did. Maybe in 20 years we’ll look back at East Hastings near Main as a thing of the past, and we’re part of the key to that change. As for business, when I was a student we specialized in a single field (I chose accounting), but today the degrees are a lot more broad and this is much more appropriate for our business climate. Our graduates know much more thoroughly how businesses operate than did students of my generation. Many people today want to pursue not one but several different careers, and our education programs facilitate this goal. You see good start-ups in B.C. today because entrepreneurs have much more general tools. The outgoing dean at McGill recently remarked that business schools are losing revenue by focusing just on MBAs. How do you see SFU being more relevant to business? That’s right, lots of universities have focused on MBAs, and those three letters don’t have any real magic unless they’re backed by solid programs. Some programs are pretty close to fluff, but not ours. We’re flexible; we’re willing to try new things. In retrospect, all the chances we have taken have paid off extremely well. The downtown Vancouver campus was a daring project, many years ahead of UBC, and the new Segal School of Business taps straight into the heart of Vancouver’s business community. How did your involvement with Sonora Lodge came about? Do you really like fishing enough to spend $20 million on the resort? Golf and fishing are my passions. My family spent summers up at Sonora Lodge in the 1980s and my father took his grandchildren up there. In my opinion, it’s the finest pristine area that is relatively near Vancouver – less than 45 minutes away by seaplane. Four years ago, the resort became available for purchase. My dad had happy memories of the place, so did I, and I didn’t want the lodge to disappear or not be successful. So I bought it. Sonora is an ideal place to spend quality time with the family, and family is important to me. When I feel the need for some rejuvenation I can be seen there on weekends, fly fishing or salmon fishing. I’m hoping there will be enough people out there to make Sonora viable. When I started the airline business five years ago I hoped the same thing, and we’ve done quite well since 2000. So I have confidence in Sonora’s future. I like trying new things, which probably explains why I’m attracted to SFU’s penchant for taking new directions. What do you see for yourself over the next 10 years? I don’t believe I’m coming to an end of my working life or my ability to contribute. I’ve got a fairly long time to go and I want at least another 10 years before I even contemplate slowing down. I have stepped back somewhat in day-to-day operations and this helps free up my time for enjoyable activities such as serving on not-for-profit boards and advising universities – not just SFU. I have two corporate directorships that I enjoy serving on, too. What has been the biggest challenge of your career? Living under the shadow of my dad’s success – and struggling to move beyond that. He was such a giant, and all the honours bestowed upon him over the years were well-deserved, so when I finally came into my own after years of hard work I was gratified to be in my own light. It’s difficult for someone from the younger generation to distinguish himself in a family firm. What’s the secret to doing business in Vancouver that nobody talks about? Hard work is the key. You need to be willing to roll up your sleeves and work long hours, evenings, weekends – whatever it takes. You also have to deal fairly with everyone and, equally important, be a part of the community you serve. You have to take an interest in the community in which you conduct business or you’ll never achieve the good relationships that are vital to your success. None of this is rocket science. What advice do you give young entrepreneurs? My advice is more for the fathers: if they want their young saplings to grow into giant oaks, give them some space, some light and by all means let them make mistakes.