B.C. Business Leaders From 1998: Where Are They Now?

We check in with the titans of B.C. business from our 1998 list of the Best CEOs What a difference a decade makes. Compare this year’s list of top CEOs with those from 1998 and you can’t help but notice a sea change in the top echelon of B.C. business leaders.  

We check in with the titans of B.C. business from our 1998 list of the Best CEOs

What a difference a decade makes. Compare this year’s list of top CEOs with those from 1998 and you can’t help but notice a sea change in the top echelon of B.C. business leaders.

Back then a fellow named Tom Stephens headed the province’s biggest forestry company – which also happened to be the No. 2 company overall. Today MacMillan Bloedel is history, and Stephens has long since returned to his home in Colorado. A lone forestry company cracks the top 10 this year – at No. 10.

And remember BC Tel? It’s testament to a tornado-force rebranding campaign that the name once synonymous with “telephone” in this province now conjures images of lunch-box cellphones, polyester pants and other relics of a bygone era. Former BC Tel CEO Don Calder is gone from our list, but not forgotten; in the past 10 years he has led the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Bid committee and served on multiple telecom boards, and he continues to be active in education and philanthropy.

Some leaders of yesteryear, such as Ray Loewen of the now-defunct Loewen Group (No. 16 in 1998), have seemingly disappeared off the face of the earth. Others – such as Michael Phelps, who headed Westcoast Energy, and Michael Costello, who was at the helm of BC Hydro in 1998 – don’t appear on this year’s list but are as influential as ever, serving on the boards of several companies. Others, such as ex-Canfor (CFP-T) CEO David Emerson, have left for, if not greener, then more politically charged pastures. And then there’s the one constant in our topsy-turvy world: Jimmy Pattison, who offers reassurance that a smile and a handshake, and an uncanny nose for a deal, remain the bedrock of B.C. business.

What follows is a sampling of bold-faced names from 1998’s list and their company’s rank on the Top 100 – as well as an update on their present-day activities:

Michael Phelps

Then: CEO, Westcoast Energy Inc.; No. 1 Now: A professional director and private investor since 2002, Phelps serves on the boards of Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd. and Spectra Energy Corp. (SE-N) (formerly Duke Energy Corp.) as well as directing junior resource companies including Kodiak Exploration Ltd. and Fairborne Energy Ltd. (FEL-T). He is senior advisor at Tonbridge Power Inc., an electricity transmission company about to start construction, and acts as special advisor to Deutsche Bank (DB-N). “I used to have one job and now I have 10,” jokes Phelps. “I’m busier than I ever was.” Phelps has seen the energy industry change as a result of consolidation and the skyrocketing cost of oil. “The natural gas side continues to be a very solid opportunity, though the costs are still high in Western Canada,” he says. “It’s all serendipity, but this has been a very good time to be an investor in natural resources. It’s been a few bonanza years that only ever happen now and again.”

Tom Stephens

Then: CEO, MacMillan Bloedel; No. 2 Now: Stephens lives in Denver, and commutes to Boise, Idaho, as CEO of Boise Cascade LLP. Stephens had only been on the job briefly as CEO of B.C.’s biggest forestry company when U.S. giant Weyerhaeuser Co. began making inquiries about buying MacMillan Bloedel. The acquisition was consummated in late 1999, and Stephens returned to Denver that year. “The last 10 years have witnessed enormous, painful and fundamental change in the industry that would have been impossible to predict a decade ago,” he says from his home in Denver, adding that consolidation and the U.S. housing crisis have forced a restructuring of the industry. “That’s had a ripple effect throughout Canada, essentially putting the industry on its knees,” he says. Stephens maintains an involvement in the Canadian industry through his directorship of Calgary-based TransCanada PipeLines Ltd. (TRP-T) and through Boise Cascade’s purchase of Canadian forestry products. The industry will face more changes, he warns. “There’s more consolidation and closures ahead of us and more unemployment as fewer companies survive this downturn. The strongest will survive, and the weakest will shut down and disappear.”

Don Calder

Then: CEO, B.C. Telecom; No. 4 Now: Today the former CEO of “the company formerly known as BC Tel” keeps a hand in the local telecommunications industry by serving on the board of Radiant Communications Corp. (RCN-T). In the past decade, he has kept busy, having served as CEO of the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Bid committee, SFU executive in residence and chair of the United Way of the Lower Mainland.

Michael Costello

Then: CEO, B.C. Hydro & Power Authority; No. 5 Now: When the provincial government created the B.C. Transmission Corp. in 2003, Costello left BC Hydro to become its first president and CEO. Today, under the guise of retirement, Costello serves on a variety of boards including the Vancouver Island Health Authority, the Ontario Power Authority, InTransit B.C., the Centre for Non Profit Management and Axia Software Corp. in Vancouver. As a sessional lecturer at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Administration, he also teaches graduate students in the Master of Public Administration program. “This is a different phase of my career,” says Costello, who lives in Victoria and maintains a residence on Mayne Island. “I certainly enjoyed my years as president of two great companies with a critically important mandate. But I’m pretty busy now, involved with a diverse, interesting group of companies and agencies.”

David Emerson

Then: CEO, Canfor Corp.; No. 9 Now: Emerson parted ways with Canfor in 2004 when he was first elected to the House of Commons as a Liberal MP. He was named Minister of Industry in July 2004 and was re-elected in 2006, also as a Liberal, before turning coat and joining the Conservative government. Today he holds three portfolios as minister for international trade, the Pacific Gateway and the Vancouver-Whistler Olympics. “The industry has gone through a very difficult time with the historically deep downturn in lumber,” he reflects. “But I feel that, while I was with the company, my team and I helped to get Canfor ready for the emerging global economy, helping to make it one of the leading lumber supply chain managers in the DIY market. We were leaders in developing lumber-related supply chain management, and I believe that’s been very good for the company.” With a crazy travel schedule and involvement in four different cabinet committees – two of which he chairs – Emerson has a punishing workload but says he finds it gratifying. “I really believe in what I’m doing in the trade policy arena, and my Pacific Gateway responsibilities give me a trade-related transportation logistics perspective which is critical,” he says. “My management role in the Vancouver-Whistler Olympics is also inspiring and exciting.”

Ray Loewen

Then: Founder, Loewen Group; No. 16 Now: Ray Loewen’s directorship of Burnaby-based Loewen Group, the second-largest funeral home operator in North America, was on the cusp of collapse in 1998. The man who was once listed as the 17th wealthiest person in Canada had found himself in a Mississippi courtroom in 1995 owing $500 million, and by October 1998, in the face of rising company debts, he resigned as CEO. A year later, Loewen Group and Ray Loewen filed claims under NAFTA’s Chapter 11. In so doing, as a foreign investor he was able to sue for “fair and equitable treatment.” After filing, Loewen Group went bankrupt and reorganized under American law. Needless to say, Loewen isn’t exactly advertising in the Yellow Pages these days, and all efforts to track him down drew a blank.