BCBusiness rounded up 10 British Columbians with cool jobs. From travel writer to fashion photographer to stuntwoman, there are plenty of people in our province making an exciting living.
If you view your corporate gig strictly as a lifelong straitjacket that pays the mortgage and feeds the kids, you’re not alone. Most of us fantasize about the elusive dream job, the one we hoped for in our childhood: owning a vineyard, becoming an astronaut, being a rock star or playing on the Canucks’ top line. To kick-start your creative juices, BCBusiness rounded up 10 British Columbians with cool jobs. Yes, they love their work, but it ain’t all bliss. There are boring bits, they feel stress just like the rest of us and they’re more likely to put in long hours in less than ideal conditions. Still, no one glazes over at dinner parties when they talk about a typical day at the office.
“People think I swan around taking free vacations,” jokes Vancouver-based John Lee, who admits he is frequently cornered at parties by envious nine-to-fivers. “In fact, travel writing is tougher than it looks. When I arrive in a country, I always have at least three pre-assigned stories to write, sometimes six. I hit the ground running.” In the U.K. doing legwork for Lonely Planet’s Western Europe Guide earlier this year, Lee visited 22 cities in 26 days; not exactly an itinerary that screams rest and relaxation. “This business involves a lot of meticulous research,” he insists. “I’m not lounging around a swimming pool.”
Lee, 35, a U.K.-born teacher-turned-journalist, was born with boundless curiosity and a yen for adventure. Completing his master’s degree in political science at UVic in 1993, he switched into journalism, something his hometown high school career counsellor had firmly discouraged. He toiled briefly as a feature writer at Business in Vancouver before shedding the corporate yoke for a suitcase. Since 1999, he has circled the globe, with writing gigs that include riding the Trans-Siberia Railway, igloo camping in the Rockies and trekking in New Zealand’s Whirinaki rainforest.
Whether he’s in Paris or Bangkok, Lee takes the road less travelled, avoiding obvious tourist attractions in favour of little-known local hangouts. His cynical, irreverent style has endeared him to more than 80 picky editors of publications ranging from the Guardian in London to the Sydney Morning Herald. An Everyman with an eye for the absurd, Lee is no doubt responsible for inspiring a few incorrigible couch potatoes to venture beyond the confines of home.
Despite the endless hours in airports and almost constant jet lag, Lee says the job hasn’t lost its appeal. Still, while most of us would thrill to spend a couple of weeks on a different continent, he admits his idea of a holiday is to stay at home and catch up on his reading. For a non-working trip, though, he’d head back to New Zealand or Malaysia.
While he’s been to some pretty exotic spots, Lee says his most surreal travel experience came during a Disney World press junket. “I remember riding around It’s a Small World with a beer in each hand and thinking it just wasn’t enough.” So does travel writing have longevity? “It’s hard to say: I see a lot of leathery old writers on the road. They’re crabby and hard to please – I don’t want to end up like that.”
You don’t have to be in high school to be part of the cool crowd. Just ask Leanne Bitner – a.k.a. DJ Leanne – Vancouver’s undisputed queen of the turntables. For the last 12 years, she has rocked discriminating crowds in Canada, the U.S. and Europe with her particular brand of electronic dance music, and exudes the kind of self-confident attitude you’d expect from someone who’s used to being the life of the party.
In 1994, fresh out of broadcasting school, Bitner left Saskatoon for Vancouver and a career in the entertainment industry. Working first for Nettwerk Records then house music label Nordic Trax, she went on to do PR for Sonar, the city’s longest-running nightclub. In 1999, Bitner formed her own production company, Girlonwax, and began spinning full time on the local club circuit. As her star ascended, Bitner spotted a nifty entrepreneurial opportunity and opened Vancouver’s first DJ school in the back of a downtown music store. Today, in much larger premises, her Rhythm Institute offers beginner spinners intensive instruction on the finer points of audio mixing, cueing, phrasing, cutting, needle drops, scratching and beat-matching. While her classes mostly attract teens with $350 in their jeans, they also appeal to 30-somethings who plan to keep their day job but want a taste of life in the club lane.
Bitner’s schedule sounds gruelling: on weekends she DJs at lounges such as Ginger 62 until the wee hours, then routinely puts in 12-hour days at the school she operates with partner David St. Helene, an early graduate who loved the business so much he bought into the company. DJs are currently in big demand, says Bitner, 32, not only in clubs but for special events such as store openings and fashion shows.
“To survive in this business you have to be diverse, keep on top of your music and know how to work a crowd,” she says. “When I’m out there I’m not just spinning: I’m dancing, lip synching and entertaining. People respond to my energy and to the music I love to play. It’s an amazing feeling.”
Even George on Seinfeld admitted to aspirations of being a marine biologist, going so far as to attempt to impress a date by helping out a beached whale. Lance Barrett-Lennard, however, is the real deal. Each May, he heads out to an isolated pass in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. There, hungry transient orcas wait to ambush grey whale calves as their mothers usher them from Baja California to the Beaufort Sea.
Barrett-Lennard, 50, a UBC professor and marine mammal geneticist with the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre, admits spending five weeks in heavy seas among killer whales in a feeding frenzy is a bit of a challenge, compounded by the starving grizzlies that comb the nearby shores for leftovers. But things went from rough to almost deadly last year when his equipment went missing and his team had no sleeping bags, warm clothing or rain gear for two days. “It was freezing cold and three of us were out in a poorly insulated aluminum fishing boat huddled under one sleeping bag until our luggage arrived,” he recalls. “Sure it was tough, but if you don’t have adventures, what do you think of when you’re in your rocking chair?”
A crucial part of his fieldwork is collecting killer-whale DNA, and that’s no easy task. As a whale arcs out of the water, a researcher fires a pneumatic dart into its body below the dorsal fin. As the dart bounces off the leathery skin (the whale barely registers that it’s happening), it snags a tiny skin sample. Back in the lab, Barrett-Lennard uses a combination of genetic tests (he has collected almost 500 samples), photographs (equivalent to a whale mug shot) and sound recordings to study the estimated 700 B.C. and Alaska killer whales.
For all the hours spent shivering on the open seas, Barrett-Lennard says he wouldn’t trade places with anyone. “I remember one spectacular day when we were out on the water near a 7,000-foot smoking volcano with gulls wheeling overhead. In front of us was a large group of excited killer whales; we could hear all sorts of screaming on the hydrophone. It was completely wild; there was no trace of civilization. I could have been the first or the last person on earth.”
You won’t hear Vern Lambourne argue when someone, usually a homebrew enthusiast, tells him he has the world’s greatest job. After all, he has successfully parlayed a passion for beer and degrees in microbiology and biochemistry into an enviable spot as brewmaster of Vancouver’s Granville Island Brewing.
In a typical day Lambourne, 39, develops and tweaks recipes, searches out raw materials such as malt, yeast, hops and grain, cleans tanks (“a dirty, sweaty business”), monitors the brewing process, conducts tours, works with sales staff, acts as ambassador for the company and, of course, samples his product. Commercial beer-making is a painstaking exercise in microbiology, fraught with quality-control issues that took Lambourne 10 years to master. Getting the process just right requires expertise and concentration (i.e., there’s no room to overindulge during working hours). “We do our tasting mid-morning, when the palate is at its peak, and we taste throughout the process, which is pretty much every day,” he says with a laugh. “A lot of people are surprised that I’m not 20 years older and 100 pounds heavier.”
While brewmasters have to be moderate on the job, at big events such as an international craft brewers’ conference, Lambourne and his counterparts from around the globe let their hair down (over quite a few beers, naturally) and are known to get into fierce debates about ingredients, flavour, aroma and quality. “Microbrewing is a really vibrant industry in Canada,” he notes. “Yes, there’s friendly rivalry, but we appreciate each other’s products and we always enjoy it when we can get together to compare notes.”
Lambourne, who developed a passion for microbrewed beer when he first hit drinking age in Nanaimo, left for the U.K. after university, learning his craft and refining his palate at two small brew-pub operations. He’s proud of all of his recipes (he can always pick them out in a taste test), but especially likes his version of the delicate wheat-based Hefeweizen, known in Bavaria as breakfast beer because it supposedly aids digestion. Despite his success at Granville Island, he has no plans to move on to a bigger operation, which he likens to working in a beer factory. “Right now I have just the right mix of physical labour and creativity. Every day I get to go into work and play around: it’s really hard to imagine having a better job.”
In a sport where some major-league players use steroids to shore up hefty contracts, Benny Winslow is a breath of fresh air. This season he joined the Oakland A’s minor league coaching staff as hitting coach for the Vancouver Canadians, and Nat Bailey diehards are thrilled. Known from Vancouver to Arizona as Benny the Jet, Winslow is loved as much for his genuine enthusiasm for the game as for his skill on the field. He may never have hit the big leagues, but as far as he’s concerned, he’s living the dream.
At age 23, after years playing Little League and college ball, Winslow finally got a tryout with the A’s. “I was pretty old for a player. I had a diploma in journalism, and I thought my dream of a pro baseball career was over,” he says. “I couldn’t believe it when said they were hiring me because they liked my attitude.” He spent the next three seasons in the A’s minor league system, including a memorable 2004 in Vancouver, where he wowed the crowd each time he hit the field (which he admits wasn’t all that often) with his infectious personality.
In single A – the lowest rung of minor league baseball – the pay is low, so players need to take on second jobs in the off season. (Winslow taught children with special needs.) Boarded in the community, the team spends up to 14 hours on buses travelling from town to town, and hotels are far from luxurious. “I didn’t mind any of it,” he recalls with a laugh. “There’s a special camaraderie off the field and I love being part of that.”
Dropped as a player last year, effectively killing his own major-league ambitions, Winslow shrugged it off and jumped at the chance to coach in the minors (and receive an annual salary). There was another major perk to the move north: this summer he married Leanne Cass, PR rep for the Canadians. “People always tell me how cool my life is, and they’re right. As a coach, I know it will be tough to cut someone loose, but on the flip side I recently got to tell a kid he was moving up a level. He was one step closer to living his dream. It was a very exciting moment.”
There is something almost seductive about the idea of opening your very own restaurant. But we’ve all heard the stats: 80 per cent of eateries bomb in the first two years. Still, that didn’t stop David Hannay and Patrick Mercer from giving it a go. So how did two ex-Joe Fortes waiters with limited capital succeed where more experienced players have failed? They hunted down a flailing operation, offered the retreating owner dimes on the dollar, did minimal yet sophisticated renovations, and let a hip urban vibe and exhaustive attention to food and service speak for itself. It was a three-year project that in 1999 gave birth to Brix, a tapas-style eatery in Vancouver’s trendy Yaletown.
The neighbourhood was just taking off with the in crowd when Brix opened to rave reviews and Vancouver’s elite began lining up for reservations. On the heels of this success, last year Hannay and Mercer teamed up with serial entrepreneur Jay Garnett and opened George, an über-cool watering hole that also calls Yaletown home. Located in a building directly behind Brix, George is a high-end cocktail lounge attracting the beautiful people, where bartenders are mixology artists transplanted from some of Europe’s most celebrated hot spots. Here, Hannay, the quintessential frontman, takes good care of locals and celebrities alike – even offering seclusion from prying eyes in what they have dubbed “the G spot,” a private room for six.
On his path toward an acting career, Hannay, 38, like so many before him, detoured into hospitality. While he has no regrets, he notes being a restaurateur is not for the faint of heart, which he says most of us know from watching reality TV shows such as Opening Soon, which graphically captures the crises that surface even before a new eatery opens its doors.
“Today people much prefer to invest in a restaurant,” adds Hannay. “That way they can share the excitement and come in and act like a big shot without having all the stress.”
Tom Hawkins is the envy of teenage boys everywhere. At 27, he has already established himself among Western Canada’s premier glamour photographers, and spends his days surrounded by pouty, leggy models supplied by hot homegrown talent spotters such as Lizbell, Talentco and Richard’s Model Management.
He admits making a decent living in Vancouver is a far cry from hitting the big time in such high-end fashion hubs as London or New York, but it’s the first step. With a little more experience under his belt, he plans to move on and his sights are firmly set on the big prize: an international reputation like today’s premier global glamour shooter, Mario Testino, most famous for his Vanity Fair pictures of Princess Di, and whose exotic, bold style inspires Hawkins’ own work.
Fashion photography is one of the most competitive sectors of the industry, says Edmonton-born Hawkins, who has been into photography from his early teens but got sidetracked into taking a digital arts and media diploma program after high school. He spent three years as a senior designer before the manager of a local modelling agency talked him into doing his portfolio shots. It was just the jolt Hawkins needed to follow his bliss. Word got around and before long Hawkins switched from design to full-time photography, which he expanded to include fashion shoots, actor headshots and portraiture.
After achieving success on the Prairies, heading out west was the logical next step. “While there’s plenty of competition in Vancouver, there’s also more than enough work for motivated photographers prepared to network with local modelling agencies and small independent fashion designers. If you have the talent and are willing to put in the time and effort, it will eventually pay off.”
His male friends can’t get over the fact Hawkins makes a living taking pictures of beautiful women. On the flip side, though, Hawkins says his job can be a turnoff for the opposite sex. “Because I do glamour, women think I’m a big player, which couldn’t be further from the truth,” he says with a laugh. “It’s important to maintain complete professionalism and make your models feel really comfortable while you’re working together, otherwise you won’t get very far.”
Women have no idea how much time is spent touching up photos of models and celebrities, whether it’s removing pimples, ingrown hairs or eliminating other imperfections, says Hawkins.
“Because of our ethnic mix, Vancouver has plenty of beautiful women, but I’m much more interested in capturing beauty through a genuine depiction of the human spirit.”
Surreptitiously gazing at tabloid cover stories is about as near as most of us get to the faces that grace our living room screens. Hayley Miller, on the other hand, sees them up close and personal. With her arsenal of lotions, creams, pencils, brushes and powders, the makeup artist has laid her hands on famous mugs including Kelsey Grammer and David Caruso.
Miller, 37, has a degree in political science and got her start with MAC in Winnipeg, and later worked for Bobbi Brown at Holt Renfrew in Vancouver. After forming her own company, she worked gratis on student and independent productions and eventually joined IATSE (the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees). She advises anyone interested in her world to start in retail, explaining that it helps to learn makeup lines and customer service skills. A good dose of patience also comes in handy.
“When I’m doing movies, TV shows or commercials, it’s all about maintaining the look – working with lighting to make sure the actors look good and constantly making corrections before filming starts,” says Miller. “There’s a lot of waiting involved.” A typical working day can be 14 hours; much of it spent standing around, makeup kit at the ready. It also means dealing with some pretty big egos – not so much the A-listers, who are generally professional and respectful, but some of the second-tier talent.
While she enjoys the film work, she finds bridal makeup more rewarding. “You need to strike a perfect balance between helping a woman look great in photographs, yet not looking overly made up.”
While Miller herself has little formal training, in today’s competitive market she advises newcomers to consider taking a makeup course. For Miller, the rewards are more than skin deep. “When I tell a woman she has beautiful skin or gorgeous features, it is great for her self esteem. It gives me a lot of personal satisfaction.”
When Braden Haggerty signed up for a scuba diving course in her early 20s she had no idea it was the first step to an unusual business that would one day combine her passion for filmmaking with her love of the undersea world. It’s been a long road for someone who has always preferred being in water to being on dry land, but today she’s living her dream.
Haggerty studied film production at Concordia. Once she settled on cinematography she paid her dues in the B.C. film industry with underwater and surface support jobs on dozens of local productions, while at the same time working her way into the camera department. Stunt work came along by accident in 1996. Told that actor Robbie Chong (Rae Dawn Chong’s sister) needed a double and that stunts paid well, Haggerty dove right in. She signed up for a specialty diving course and has since used stunt work to supplement her more unpredictable underwater income. “This winter I had quite a challenge,” she says: “a 30-foot fall, backwards, from the top of the Chan Centre at UBC. It was all carefully planned, but even so, it was pretty intense. I really enjoy the stunts but today it’s only a small part of what I do.”
Today Haggerty’s production company, Turtle Films, specializes in underwater cinematography for Hollywood movies and TV shows, commercials and corporate videos and independent films and documentaries. (She has worked on movies such as Elektra and Man About Town, and a host of miniseries and short films including Smallville, Earthsea and The Five People You Meet in Heaven.) Going forward, Haggerty hopes to expand the documentary side of her business, such as The Last Wild Salmon, into warmer international waters. “While documentaries don’t necessarily pay all that well, they do offer the most memorable experiences,” she says.
You might be interested to know that most local underwater scenes are filmed in the controlled environment of the UBC wave tank, with exteriors shot at locations like Howe Sound and Buntsen Lake. It’s hard physical labour hauling around tons of lighting and camera equipment in all weathers, but 40-year-old Haggerty says it keeps her fit. This summer she took a freedive course to improve her breath holds: that’s important when bubbles from a regulator might otherwise show in an underwater shot. To date, she’s held her breath for a respectable 2 minutes 47 seconds. “But that was static: it’s much more difficult when you’re filming and expending energy at the same time.”
Tom Stulberg likes to joke that he once spent $1.5 million of a client’s money in seven and a half minutes. Of course, that was in headier times, before the special-events industry was eviscerated by the high-tech meltdown, 9/11 and SARS. Back then, money was no object for big companies planning major product launches and large-scale incentive programs.
Stulberg’s company, Fireworks Marketing, with offices in Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto and Tokyo, is still one of Canada’s biggest players but he notes budgets have tightened along with corporate belts. “These days it’s very rare that someone will say, ‘It doesn’t matter how much it costs, just get it done.’ Timelines are also insanely short, which has a huge impact on the creative process,” he adds. “We used to get six or eight months’ notice for an annual sales meeting; now it might be six to eight weeks. Sometimes we’re told, ‘We have 500 people in town in a month and we have to do something for them.’ It’s a different world.”
Toronto-born Stulberg trained as an architect but quickly became disillusioned. After practising for only two years, in 1984 he ditched his career and went travelling. When he hit Tokyo, he developed an A/V products training division for a major Japanese consulting firm and later founded Fireworks to specialize in cross-cultural A/V production and event management. Hoping to retire early, in 1993 Stulberg brought the business into Canada, settling in Vancouver.
Don’t call his team if you’re planning a small event. Fireworks specializes in higher- end challenges such as designing a street party for 50,000 or planning and producing a major product rollout, trade show or conference for local, national and international clients. “Every event is different and no two days are the same. But you have to be a bit of a stress junkie to enjoy what I do,” he says, laughing.
And that $1.5 million? Stulberg spent it during the international launch of the 1996 Jaguar XK8, at B.C.’s Furry Creek Golf Course, attended by more than 1,500 international dealers and journalists. “Our client wanted something really momentous,” he recalls. “We built islands on barges and floated the vehicles in to shore. It was really quite something.”