Starting with her family’s Capilano Suspension Bridge Park, Nancy Stibbard builds a tourism empire—one (measured) step at a time
Nancy Stibbard knows she’s a “detail freak,” and she’s proud of it.
The owner and CEO of the 450-employee tourism outfit Capilano Group—which includes Vancouver’s Capilano Suspension Bridge Park, the Stanley Park Pavilion and Prospect Point, among others—is talking about studying everything to a forensic degree. Her obsessive nature can be seen in practising golf by herself “after work, almost at night, with the coyotes” until she felt good enough to play with friends; it can also be seen in going all the way to Bath, England, to examine stone tiles for the home she’s building in West Vancouver. (On that last count, she says, “my husband thought I was completely nuts”—though the trip was tagged onto a vacation to watch tennis at Wimbledon.)
Perhaps the “micromanaging” is best viewed through her ownership of the company she bought from her late father, Rae Mitchell, in 1983 (who, in turn, had bought from French restaurateur Henri Aubeneau in 1953). Stibbard had served ice cream at the North Shore tourist mecca in her youth and was emotionally attached, so when her father decided to retire, she approached the bank, bought the 27-acre site and hired a manager to run it. “I don’t know what possessed me; I didn’t know anything about business,” says Stibbard, who was already working at the time as a social worker after gaining a degree in psychology and a master’s in social work at UBC (where she met her husband, John Stibbard, now a retired gift importer). “But being this obsessive, compulsively detailed person, I found myself becoming really interested and realized that the manager didn’t have the same idea of what I wanted.” Within three months, she was running the operation herself.
“It takes a lot to satisfy me,” she adds in between bites of lobster melt at Fishworks in North Vancouver. “Maybe I go to the extreme, but that’s how I think you make good decisions, by seeing all the choices.”
It’s a business sense that’s paid off for Stibbard. The number of annual visitors walking the bridge doubled to 400,000 in 1986 (shortly after Expo) from 175,000 when she took over and now stands at a million—equal parts Canadian, American and international visitors.
Stibbard, a former board member of the Tourism Industry Association of Canada and past chair of Tourism Vancouver, says the lower loonie has helped business significantly in recent months—making even currency-unaware Americans stay longer and spend more.
Over the years, Stibbard has branched out into hospitality in the Rockies, asking Arthur Erickson to design a revitalized Moraine Lake Lodge, which she bought in 1991, and then purchasing Cathedral Mountain Lodge in 2002. Her Stanley Park acquisitions, which joined the portfolio two years ago, are also part of her modus operandi of sprucing up “old and tired” properties. “There are other, easier businesses I could go into, but I’ve been accustomed now to these beautiful locations and bringing people to see something amazing. For me to get into buying, say, apartments and renting them out, I’d find it hard to invest emotionally.”
Not that retirement is knocking for Stibbard, but it’s little surprise to hear the quintessential planner has her succession line locked down—with son John, VP of operations at Capilano, the designated heir. (Her daughter, Alison, is a full-time mother living in California.) “It’s nice to have someone that you know is going to take it on when you’re not there. That you didn’t spend all these years for naught and it’s going to disappear into the abyss.”
THREE THINGS ABOUT... NANCY STIBBARD
1. In her late 30s, Stibbard had a skiing accident in Whistler where she broke her neck and leg after an unexpectedly steep drop-off. “I started skiing when I was very young and had skied so long I thought I was indestructible… The accident made me more dedicated to work by redirecting my energy.”
2. As a past scholar of Latin, she knows the basis of myriad scientific names, especially medical ailments (she minored in sciences at UBC). She enjoys learning about breakthroughs at the BC Firefighters Burn and Wound Healing Laboratory at VGH (Capilano Group supports the BC Professional Fire Fighters’ Burn Fund).
3. Stibbard once landed a hole-in-one playing golf at Wailea Emerald in Maui. Her husband, who was standing on a ridge, saw the ace at the eighth hole. “It was pretty exciting, but I really don’t tell people about that.”