B.C.’s top entrepreneurs share their big ideas

These seven CEOs and founders started or now run some of B.C.'s most influential organizations. It's their job to come up with big ideas to keep their businesses fresh and moving forward. Here, they share some of theirs.

Everyone has big ideas, but few of us are in the position to actually implement them. Industry leaders can

These seven CEOs and founders started or now run some of B.C.’s most influential organizations. It’s their job to come up with big ideas to keep their businesses fresh and moving forward. Here, they share some of theirs.


1. Meredith Powell, Co-founder, The Next Big Thing

My Big Idea: “Trusting your first instinct is the key to success.”

“Launching a sales agency for the fashion business in Vancouver—where your clients are Aussies and Swedes—everyone thought it couldn’t be done, that we were crazy. The only people who would give me any money was Gulf & Fraser Credit Union on East Hastings; they gave me a $100,000 line of credit. I told them, ‘I know what’s going to be popular, I know what’s going to sell’—and enough people believed me that I was able to start. I didn’t have the schooling, and I didn’t have the hookups. I would cold-call Vogue and tell them we had some awesome brands, and I would send them samples, and they used them. Over and over, I would just reach out to people, and the thing that was different, that was going to sell, I was able to identify before they knew it themselves. It’s not teachable, and you can’t go to school to learn it. You have to trust yourself that you’re right.”

Meredith Powell, 37, has founded three brand management and PR agencies in the fashion industry, helping to get exposure for Swedish and Australian designers from the likes of Vogue magazine, Saks Fifth Avenue and Nordstrom. Her company Powell and Co. Showroom (since sold) had offices in New York, Los Angeles, Toronto and Vancouver, where one of her corporate neighbours was Ryan Holmes, then launching a little company called Hootsuite. Today the pair is working together on Powell’s next venture, The Next Big Thing, which aims to help young entrepreneurs reach the next level by providing them workspace in Hootsuite as well as grant funding and mentorships.


2. Brian Wong, Founder, Kiip

My Big Idea: “Younger generations need to value loyalty and experience.”

“Everyone wants everything instantly, and that desire was really crucial for our company. We don’t want people to have to do more to get things. Just you living your life is doing enough. The pattern of behaviour we wanted to create was something that augments, facilitates and makes more efficient the way we live our lives. It’s the whole basis of being rewarded. As a younger CEO, I don’t always get that the person I’ve hired has a wife or a husband who also deserves their time—that they have in-laws, anniversaries, vacations that can’t be cancelled. When you’re young, you think: I work seven days a week, why doesn’t everyone else do that? We have employees of all ages, and one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned, the big idea, is that there is a loyalty in prior generations that is something my generation really needs to understand. We have short attention spans nowadays. It’s difficult for people to commit. We get distracted, but when it comes down to it, if you have loyalty and a foundation, you have something to build on. It’s not just taking an idea; it’s having people who believe in it. That’s something that only comes with time and loyalty.”

Having skipped four grades in high school and earned a UBC commerce degree by the age of 18, it’s fair to assume that Brian Wong is an entrepreneur in a hurry. Wong, 24, is the founder and CEO of Kiip, a Silicon Valley-based company that rewards customers via the apps they use after they’ve reached certain milestones: log enough miles on a running app, for example, and you can redeem points for a music download. Wong has already received nearly $16 million in venture capital funding and he’s constantly pitching for more investors. Achieve. Get rewarded. Set another milestone. It’s the business model behind his company, but his big idea is something slower, less upwardly mobile.


3. Olga Ilich, Principal, Progressive Construction

My Big Idea: “Government and business have to think more like each other.”

“When you’re in the business of building, you want to get the job done. That’s it. These are the resources we need to marshal, whether it’s time or personnel or money, and here’s the path we need to take. One of the things that is very clear about running a business is if you don’t deal with things that are in the way, you don’t get paid. On the other hand, building communities—that’s what governments are very good at. Their job is to listen to the public, but even that has changed. Twenty-five years ago, there was no discussion about dealing with First Nations issues, and now that’s part of the conversation that government has to have. Businesses often fail to understand why it is that governments have to listen and get input, but good developers do that. They work with communities in order to make things happen that communities want to make happen. They don’t want to go to areas where they’re not really wanted.”

Olga Ilich was 29 and a recent MBA graduate when she was considering her options. She was offered a job as a portfolio manager in Alberta and another job in Toronto. But Ilich wanted to return to British Columbia and work in something solid—something that could be seen building up. And so she went into the construction business, where she was hired by Milan Ilich to work for his company, Progressive Construction; she ended up marrying one of Ilich’s brothers, and then founded her own company, Suncor Developments. In 2005, Ilich made the jump into politics as a BC Liberal, ultimately serving in two cabinet portfolios: Labour and Citizens’ Services, and Tourism, Sport and the Arts. Since 2011, Ilich, 62, has been co-chair of Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson’s task force on housing affordability.


4. David Labistour, CEO, MEC

My Big Idea: “Being vulnerable allows for change, and vulnerability only comes from doing something new.”

“When you’re very good at something, and you have to learn something new, you’re vulnerable again. I was always OK with stepping into that vulnerable place and being surrounded by people who knew more than I did. It doesn’t mean you should always be vulnerable, but if you want to grow, you have to be willing to get to that stage. You are more susceptible to change if you move into a new space rather than stay in a place of comfort. I grew up in an environment where there were military conscriptions, and this was at the time of the Angolan War. I was conscripted, and because I had a certain level of education, I was a second lieutenant put into a combat situation and some of the people reporting to me were mature permanent military people. All I had was training and no real experience—and I had to lead. So you have to be willing to learn, and that’s where curiosity comes in. How do you foster curiosity? People see change, and they’re more open to it. The more they become curious about the future, the more they want to be part of making that change happen.”

As the CEO of MEC, it’s not surprising that David Labistour lists backcountry skiing, snowboarding, mountain biking and even kite boarding as some of his outdoor activities. What you won’t see listed is windsurfing—a sport Labistour was so good at it in his early 20s that he won international competitions for his native South Africa. Labistour, now 55, won’t ever windsurf again, he pledges. His reasoning? If he ever steps on a windsurfing board again, it will take time away from him learning something new. It’s a big idea that has driven him personally, and the idea driving his 44-year-old company now.


5. Debra Hewson, CEO, Odlum Brown Ltd.

My Big Idea: “In the investment business, personal client relationships trump all else.”

“We need to have a relationship with our client that doesn’t solely rely on communicating via technology. Technology has changed dramatically over the last 20 years. And yes, we have made changes to leverage these developments, but that doesn’t replace sitting down with a client and having a frank and honest conversation about what their goals are and what they want to achieve. For us, it’s simply about building trust in a very basic way. As a society, we have become so reliant on technology that we forget there is a person with a life and unique goals behind that email. To me, finding the right balance between personal contact and leveraging technology is the real magic.”

Debra Hewson started in the investment industry at the age of 22 and became the president and CEO of Odlum Brown Ltd. in 2007. When she started her career, it was all about building relationships with clients through personal interactions. Then, in the late 1990s, the rise of online transactions and cable business news networks opened up the field of investment knowledge to everyone. But Hewson, 55, still believes that despite these changes, some things have remained constant over 30 years of doing business.


6. Craig Richmond, CEO, Vancouver Airport Authority

My Big Idea: YVR should be a transit hub between China and South America

“Sao Paulo to Vancouver to Shanghai—it’s almost a perfectly straight line. We are in a very fortunate geographic place. There’s mining in Santiago. Who needs to get there? Everyone, especially the Chinese. Break it down this way: 200 people arrive from China, 75 get off here, 125 continue down to Chile, and 40 people from Vancouver get on board. Transit without visas has been around for a long time, but it used to be a horrible experience. Also, there were concerns that people would claim refugee status when they landed—but do you know how many we’ve had? Zero. They’re not here to jump ship; they’re here to get to a place where it’s convenient to have a stop in Canada. Middle Eastern hubs have taken 15 per cent of the traffic, and you learn that the transportation business is like water: people go wherever it’s easy to go, and we’ve been losing out.”

Craig Richmond was taking flying lessons before he was old enough to drive and became an Air Force pilot by age 20. He spent 11 years in operations at YVR before taking over the running of airports in Liverpool, Cyprus and the Bahamas, returning to YVR last summer. Every airport is a gateway from here to there, and Richmond has been pushing the idea that YVR needs to capitalize on its geographic location in a different way. There’s money to be made in being a so-called “holding pen” for transit passengers. A Chinese airline has already committed to keeping two jumbo jets in Vancouver as a base—which means hundreds of jobs for maintenance, support and flight crew, if his idea comes to pass.


7. Karm Sumal, Founder, Vancity Buzz

My Big Idea: “Create journalism that engages you literally at every opportunity.”

“People want engagement, and we have to feed it. The truth is we’re all so connected these days but at the same time disconnected, and that’s why Vancity Buzz is about connections. What’s going to save journalism? From the outside looking in, what’s going to save it is immediacy. Traditional journalism has trouble connecting with a younger audience. They’ve probably never picked up a newspaper before. I used to read one all the time, every day before school. We have these young readers, people in their 20s, and we don’t need to chase them–that’s what the other media is doing. They’re trying to figure out how to get young readers; we already have them. What we want now is to get the 35-to-50-year-olds. They used to read newspapers and they don’t anymore. We need to give them something they are looking for—such as what they can do around town this weekend—and then something else they weren’t expecting.”

Six years ago, accountant Karm Sumal, 34, and his buddy Manny Bahia, 29, were playing video games in the basement when they decided they should try to figure out how to make money off the Internet. Vancity Buzz, which focused on hyper-local news, was born, and began churning out articles that tell people where to get waffles on International Waffle Day or during exam time, and where’s the best coffee shop that stays open 24 hours. Serious journalism is in the plans—if they can get more advertising and fund it. Sumal thinks he knows what’s going to keep journalism alive at a time when the traditional media is losing its audience.