Geoff Dickson's long career in the transportation industry has led him to his latest position as the President and CEO of Victoria Airport Authority.
After 12 years at BC Ferries, Geoff Dickson is back to his roots in aviation, becoming the Victoria Airport Authority’s new president and CEO in January. Dickson has spent 25 years in the transportation business, roughly half that time at the old Canadian Airlines before moving to BC Ferries, most recently serving as vice-president of catering and retail. Victoria Airport expanded steadily under the 11-year leadership of Richard Paquette, who retired late last year, with passenger traffic growing to 1.5 million travellers per year, a 50 per cent increase since 2002. With plenty of expansion still to come, including a plan to lengthen the runway to allow direct flights to Europe, there should be plenty for an aviation vet like Dickson to sink his teeth into.
You’ve had quite a long career in the transportation industry. Was that on purpose or did it just work out that way?
When I studied in business school, my major was in transportation. I actually went around door-to-door to the transportation professors at UBC looking for summer work as a research associate, and that’s ultimately what got me energized in the aviation industry.
So it all derives from a student job?
Yeah, I jumped into the airline industry in 1985, starting with Pacific Western Airlines, and they ultimately bought Canadian Pacific, forming Canadian Airlines. The world of opportunity then skyrocketed. I was just a kid thrust into the international marketing division. I was 27 when I took a position as marketing manager for Europe. And next thing I know, I’m flying into European markets, doing co-chair agreements with Lufthansa, building service into Heathrow – a pretty exciting time. It led into taking over responsibility for the entire international marketing team, so I travelled all over Asia and the South Pacific and Latin America.
So why move to BC Ferries? Get tired of the jet lag?
No, it was really looking at the future of the airline industry, and it really pointed to either a merger with Air Canada or a takeover by American Airlines. Neither of those looked particularly compelling to me, and an opportunity came up with the ferries. I grew up in Victoria and it was a chance to come back home, raise the kids here and tackle a really exciting challenge.
Travel industries have moved into a lot of retail and service work in the last decade. Has that played a big role in your career?
It has. Whether you’re giving people new products, a new physical environment or new concepts, it’s always been, first and foremost, How do you improve the customer’s travel experience?
But surely there’s a revenue side to that too. There’s no end to the opportunities to spend your money on a ferry or at an airport these days.
Well, that’s exactly it. At BC Ferries, we made our retail stores bigger and better and we added things like our Seawest business lounges. We also developed a whole marketplace concept at Tsawwassen and Nanaimo’s Departure Bay. It’s modelled on what the airports have done over the last 10 or 15 years.
So what sparked this recent move back into the air travel industry?
I have admired what Victoria Airport has accomplished in the past 10 years, and last June I read with some interest that Richard Paquette was announcing his pending retirement. So I kind of thought, Geez, that might be an interesting opportunity. But you know, when I actually got offered the position, I realized how much the aviation industry is in my blood. It’s been fabulous at the ferries, but the chance to lead this organization and to be connected back into this industry was thrilling.
Victoria Airport has seen a lot of growth in the last decade under your predecessor. Does it feel like a tough act to follow?
Well, he’s certainly done a tremendous job, and when the board recruited me, they said, The last thing we want you to do is turn the place upside down. At the airport, it’s all about positioning yourself for growth and making sure you’ve got the right capacity to handle the amount of people you hope to move through the terminal. You have to take a very long-term perspective. You have to start thinking five, 10, 15 years out because it’s a capital-intensive business and it takes time to execute the expansion.
The Victoria Airport Authority is a reasonably small team, especially compared to something like BC Ferries. Will that be a big change for you?
I had something like a thousand employees that indirectly reported to me at BC Ferries, and I think the total complement at Victoria Airport is 38. To me the business issues are no more or less complex. At BC Ferries, I tried to get out in the system every Friday, just to go and travel around and talk to people, a little about them and what’s on their mind and what we can do to do better as a company. I found that very rewarding, but, at the same time, it’s always a challenge remembering everyone’s name.
When you commute between the Island and the Lower Mainland, do you travel by air or by water?
Oh, that’s an interesting question. Gosh, I hadn’t even thought about that. I think I’m going to have to split my loyalty somehow.