B.C. Business Leaders with Staying Power

In an age ?of extreme ?turbulence, what makes B.C.’s top leaders able to hang on through thick and thin? What makes them want to? Thirteen stories of inspiration and perseverance.

Tony Parsons
Tony Parsons: Anchor, CHEK News; co-anchor, CBC News Vancouver

In an age 
of extreme 
turbulence, what makes B.C.’s top leaders able to hang on through thick and thin? What makes them want to? Thirteen stories of inspiration and perseverance.

My high-school guidance counsellor told us to expect seven different careers in our lives. In the early ’90s, there were no more long-term jobs; if we generation-Xers were fortunate enough to progress beyond flipping burgers, we must demonstrate lots of “transferable skills” and “willingness to learn” because we would certainly be repeatedly dusted by whatever job or industry we chose. We were at the mercy of the marketplace, and it was not a welcoming world. 

So what about those people who survived not only my grad class’s economic recession but several others before and since? Those who not only survive but thrive in one business or one field? Does such monogamy end in Willy Loman-like despair and bitterness, the poor sop wondering what else could have been? 

We talked to 13 high-achieving British Columbians who have constructed two, three or four-decade careers in the same profession. What continues to motivate them? One thing’s for certain: it’s not stability. Rather, it’s change, variety, learning and growth. According to their youthful enthusiasm, there’s a world of opportunities out there.

John MacDonald

Chairman and CEO, Day4 Energy Inc.; co-founder, MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates Ltd.

What we did at MDA was we worked on processing civilian satellite data for Earth imaging. You use Google Earth? Well, MDA does about 70 per cent of the processing of that data. We learned how to do that in the late ’70s and early ’80s. 

Having seen a lot of these pictures of the Earth during those 30 years, I saw the world change. You see the ice disappear, particularly in the Arctic and the glaciers. You see desertification, cities growing almost without limit, forests being exploited and not replaced. All the things going on in the Amazon. You can also monitor things like plankton in the ocean, which is the beginning of the food chain. I’ve always had a concern about the way the planet is changing and the central issue is how we make energy. So working on renewable-energy technology is the answer to the problem. 

After I left MDA, I met Leonid (Rubin) through our two sons in Moscow; he was a retired physics professor. He had an interconnection technology he had worked on that makes a better solar panel, and I recognized that this technology could change the solar energy business, given enough time and enough money. We decided to form a company and that was Day4 Energy. So I classify myself as a failed retiree.

We’ve been at it for eight years now and in that process I’ve become a student of renewable energy because that’s the future. I find it exciting to, you know, do something useful.

Susan Croome

B.C. film commissioner

The reason I love the motion picture industry is the diversity and the people involved. People tend to be creative in different ways: in business, artistically, at promotion. There’s all different types. It’s very diverse in a small pool of people. And the work is project based, so you have a bunch of TV shows and movies and they wrap and there’s something new. So there’s lots of change. 

It’s got so many elements. People think it’s just about cameras and actors; it’s not. It’s about carpenters and painters, truck drivers and caterers, stores that rent furniture for sets, stores that provide clothing, parking lots, municipalities, building owners. Within the unions there’s welders, directors, actors – it’s such a neat thing. It’s like a microcosm of our society. All these people have got jobs and built businesses from this industry that really started out by taking advantage of our natural beauty here. That’s why people came here in the beginning; it’s a great-looking place and they can make movies here that they can’t do in California. Now we have a million square feet of studio space – in 30 years!

Janet Austin

CEO, YWCA Vancouver

The mission of the YWCA is something I completely believe in and that I’m proud to be associated with and be the major spokesperson for. So I guess you could say that sense of being engaged in meaningful work that makes a difference in people’s lives, that’s intellectually satisfying to me. Also, being in a position where we can build an internal workplace culture that respects people as whole people. 

At our Crabtree Corner facility, for example, we serve marginal women and children. We offer housing, short-term quality child care for children with a very high percentage of special needs and fetal alcohol effects, and we’re also helping those women gain skills and learn about nutrition. A lot of our employees there are women who’ve had the experience of overcoming huge challenges, perhaps living on the street. They’ve walked that journey successfully themselves. So to be part of an organization that is able to facilitate that kind of personal growth in people’s lives is just so satisfying and really exciting. 

I get asked all the time, What’s next? And I do hear about interesting jobs, but right now there’s nothing that would excite me as much on a day-to-day basis. It’s pretty much ideal. 

Tony Parsons

Anchor, CHEK News; co-anchor, CBC News Vancouver

When you’re 40, 45, 
you look forward to 
retiring, and I’m sure I was that way. But when you come face to face with it, I thought, I can’t do that. I really need to find a way to keep doing what I’m doing. So when I saw the CHEK situation, I thought, that’s something I can do; I can make an investment and continue working on the air. And when I did that, the CBC came along and said, How about doing our 5 o’clock show?

I love what I do. Every day is different; every story is different. Every day you go into the newsroom is a whole different set of circumstances that keeps you excited about what you’re doing. 

Bill Millerd

Artistic managing director, Arts Club Theatre Co.

I think really what’s kept me here – apart from the fact that it’s a terrific job and you meet a lot of different people and it has some boring bits but not many because you’re dealing with different shows and always a changing landscape and no two days are the same – is that, over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to grow the company. There was a period in the first part of the ’90s when I wondered about perhaps doing something else, but then the Stanley Theatre came up in 1993. That kept me going. It was very challenging and very exciting. Once we opened the Stanley, we changed the company overnight. We doubled in size and had this wonderful theatre and the opportunity to do things we had never contemplated before. 

Then there’s the people on both sides of the curtain: The people that come, the subscribers that tell me they’ve been coming since I first got involved, close to 40 years ago – Jacques Brel or whatever show they remember and they come up and talk to me about that. On the other side, the theatre artists, the extraordinary creative people who in a sense support us by allowing us to tap into their creative gifts. They could be doing any number of other things. Going into theatre really is a commitment in many, many ways. A few people, of course, get to Broadway or get to be stars or do film. The recent Glengarry Glen Ross production is a perfect example of actors who make their livelihood in film or television but love theatre because that’s how they started; they love that energy a live audience can give you, which you don’t get from being on film. They really fed off that, and it was very exciting to see how the audiences responded to them and how they as a group of actors reacted. That was one of those things that makes you go, That’s why I do this. 

Karen Flavelle

President, Purdy’s Chocolates

I think the biggest thing is that you need to feel like your work is meaningful, that you’re making a difference in the world somehow. 

We get so many heartfelt emails from people about things like Christmases with Purdy’s. One of those that I remember was from one woman who, during the war, was actually looking for lumber with her husband. And they saw a lineup so they hopped in it and it turned out to be for Purdy’s. Each person could only buy two boxes, so they bought two boxes. What struck me was that they shared them. In a tough time like that it’s a little bit of happiness. So you feel like what you’re doing means a lot to people and shapes their celebrations and their memories.

Frank Palmer

Chairman and CEO, DDB Canada

Part of my job is to create an atmosphere where people want to come to work every day because they like it. I created this thing called Fun Shui. It means that you’ve got to have fun in order to be good at what you do. I love practical jokes. Like you take black shoe polish and you put it on someone’s phone, and you know how people switch the phone to their other ear? Then you watch them come out of their office and they’ve got two black circles on their face! It’s so funny. We take what we do seriously, but we don’t take ourselves too seriously. 

I can’t think of any days in the years I’ve been in this business that I haven’t wanted to go to work. My father never wanted to go to work. He was a baker. He worked on a machine where the loaves of bread kept coming out and he put them on shelves. For me, the art of invention stimulates my mind. I welcome new opportunities and theories and concepts. That’s what really gets me going. I see somebody coming up with a good idea, their enthusiasm gets me going even more. 

Today I don’t think there’s a better time to get into the ad business, as much as it’s scaring the hell out of people. The Internet is opening up so many different opportunities that people can do and create more than ever before. When someone asks me, Do you worry about the likes of Google and all that stuff? I say, Listen, 99 per cent of the stuff on YouTube is garbage. Quite frankly, if you don’t have good writing skills, it’s junk. So we’re not going to go out of business.

Lois Jackson

Mayor, Corporation of Delta

I’ve always been very independent, and that’s one of the things I really like about local council. You can look at an issue and you aren’t beholden to anybody but yourself and the community you represent. 

Here’s a typical example: A while ago we decided to put up new welcoming signs to Ladner, North Delta and Tsawwassen. We put one in Ladner replacing this wooden one with a heron on it. It was really folksy and village-like, but it was rotting and full of bugs. So we put up a new sign. Well, I had 50 calls to my office saying, What have you done with our sign? This one looks like it belongs in an industrial area. I thought, you know, they’re right; this is a terrible sign to go in our little village. So I said, We’re going to review this. Democracy to me is very elementary, and I want to try as best as possible to represent the majority of people. 

I never planned to be in politics this long. But the thing that always gets me is when people say, We really need you to help us do this. And I say, Well, OK. So here I am, still doing that. But I do love the job. I love the people. The only thing I don’t love is elections. 

Avtar Bains

Executive vice-president, 
Colliers International

What a lot of people don’t understand is our role in commercial real estate revolves around the relationships that you have in the marketplace. That’s the trick in the business. It’s not understanding every square inch of the building; it’s understanding the goals and objectives of the client. So what’s kept me in the business this long is the greater majority of the relationships I’ve had. It’s been quite fulfilling actually. It means becoming an appendage to the company and looking at what they’re trying to achieve, what you should be buying and selling to achieve those goals. Where you have that level of trust, that’s the exciting part of the business. 

On the other hand, when you’re in one spot for a generation, 25 or 30 years, you’re not human if you don’t think, What else could I have done? What if I took that job opportunity in Toronto or New York City? What if this, what if that. I’ve got other interests I didn’t delve into, I didn’t discover. It’s never perfect being in one space for this long. But as Winston Churchill said, it beats the alternative. It’s what I know. And in some circumstances, when I thought I was ready to make a change, my family life or something else in my life didn’t allow me to. It just wasn’t the right thing to do at the time. 

Dal Richards

Band leader

I’m in music but I recently developed a new area. Last year I wrote a book called One More Time: The Dal Richards Story, and it rose to number four on bestseller lists in B.C. So that was a successful departure for me; I was leading a new life. 

But the performing, it’s all about audience response. The enjoyment of working with good musicians and audience response. If you’re in the business long enough, you get to be a ham, and you really appreciate that applause. And I appreciate people stopping me in the streets and saying, I’ve enjoyed your music over the years. It’s very important. It gets to be a habit, but it’s very important.

Queenie Chu

Partner (with husband Kin Wah Leung and brother-in-law 
Kin Hun Leung), Kin’s Farm Market

Being in the business, there’s always something new. If there’s something we don’t know, we want to learn. Luckily, we were able to talk to Jim Pattison. He’s a great guy. He was willing to teach us, give us good advice. Also Roger Gillespie at Cobs Bread. He came to Canada from Australia and wanted to expand his business, and we were fortunate because we were able to know him personally, so he taught us lots of stuff: how to start the franchise program and then how to run good retail. 

This is why we love our business: because we want to see it keep growing. Kin Wah says he wants to see Kin’s open everywhere across Canada. We love to see customers happy, working together with our staff as a family, overcoming challenges. 

For us, because there are the three of us working together every day, sometimes we argue, but we have the same goals. We want to build a good name for the business that lasts forever, and we want to give back. When we came to Canada, we had nothing; we were young, we had a dream, we had lots of opportunities. We were able to come up to today because of all the support we received. So we feel that we have to give back.

John Bishop

Owner, Bishop’s restaurant

Working in the restaurant business, it’s a business that has a lot to do with passion. You do it because you want to do it, not because you’re making lots and lots of money. You’re not compensated sufficiently, really. 

When you’re cooking professionally, very often you’re so loaded down with responsibility and deadlines and schedules that you don’t really fully appreciate it. Not that it’s drudgery, but now that I’m not cooking full-on professionally here – I mean, I’m in the kitchen, but I’m hosting the front as well – the cooking that I do is mostly for my family at home. That’s where I’ve developed the passion. Since I’ve sort of got off the stove, now I can see food from a different perspective – not to say Zen-like feeling, but something close to that. 

Years ago we were taught as chefs about cooking the food, tasting the food and presenting it in an artful way, with very little thought as to where the ingredients came from. Now
I know the people who grow the food, 
I know where the food is coming from, 
and that gives it another dimension.

Thomas Fung

Founder and chairman, Fairchild Group

I love doing something with a creative element, something unique that doesn’t really have any precedent to follow. When I started in the media business, I had no previous experience at all. The shopping mall, I never did that before. And lately, the flight training centres, building airplanes – even though I’ve had a pilot’s licence for 30 years, I had never run a business with that before. Restaurants, a lot of retail business – I learned by doing. 

There are so many opportunities, but the ones I pick over the years are the ones where I can utilize some of my creative abilities, from starting up, designing the logo, copywriting, selection of merchandise, writing manuals for restaurants, even the overall design and layout on buildings. It’s like going to school every day. I love that. 

I work days and nights, odd hours, weekends. I travel so much. Sometimes my wife will ask me, Why don’t you stop? My colleagues, my friends, my classmates – most of them retire at my age, but I keep going and even speed up because it keeps me energetic and looking younger than my friends!

9 Lives: Stories of survival from across the world (and the underworld)

Moammar Gadhafi

Job: Ruler of Libya
Since: 1969
Trials: The death of daughter Hannah in 1986 U.S. bombing raids and an attempted assassination by Libyan army dissidents in 1993
Triumph: A September 2009 speech to the UN General Assembly in New York, his first speech to the UN and first trip to the U.S.

Warren Buffett

Job: Controlling shareholder, Berkshire Hathaway Inc.
Since: 1965
Trials: The 1993 US$433-million purchase of Dexter Shoe Co. The unit was folded within a decade
Triumph: The 1988 US$1-billion purchase of six per cent of Coca Cola stock. The investment, by 1999, was worth US$12 billion

Susan Lucci

Job: Erica Kane on ABC’s All My Children
Since: 1970
Trials: A record 18 unsuccessful nominations for the Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series between 1978 and 1998
Triumph: Finally winning the award – her only win – in 1999

Tony La Russa

Job: Baseball manager (St. Louis, Oakland, Chicago)
Since: 1979
Trials: A 2007 DUI conviction and a 2009 lawsuit against Twitter concerning a fake page under his name
Triumph: First manager to win multiple pennants in both leagues and one of only two to win the World Series in both leagues

Tenzin Gyatso

Job: Dalai Lama, Gelug sect of Tibetan Buddhism
Since: 1950
Trials: The 1959 Tibetan Rebellion against the Communist government, which forced the Dalai Lama to flee Tibet and establish a government in exile in India
Triumph: Winning the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize

Stephen Hawking

Job: Theoretical physicist and author
Since: 1962
Trials: Being diagnosed with ALS in the mid-’60s, a degenerative disease that has claimed his mobility and ability to speak
Triumph: Popularized black holes and the big-bang theory in his 1988 bestseller, A Brief History of Time

Elizabeth Windsor

Job: Queen of England and the Commonwealth
Since: 1953
Trials: Enduring a series of embarrassing in-laws and a foot-in-mouth husband
Triumph: Remaining personally popular both in England and in republican-friendly countries under her dominion, such as Canada and Australia

Silvio Berlusconi

Job: Prime minister of Italy
Since: 1994 (on and off)
Trials: Countless allegations of corruption, fraud and bribery during his time in office as well as a weakness for young women, leading to his recent divorce
Triumph: The third-richest man in Italy is also its second-longest-serving prime minister

Freddy Krueger

Job: Undead school caretaker and disfigured dreamstalker
Since: 1984 (on and off)
Trials: Routinely pulled out of the dream world and offed by uppity teenagers. “Killed for good” in the sixth Nightmare on Elm Street
Triumph: Continues to find lucrative work post-death, including in 2003’s Freddy vs. Jason