Off Script: Iain Black

Having occupied the rarefied reaches of B.C. government, Iain Black turned heads by making the quick decision to leap back to the private sector. Now comes his latest challenge – giving voice to B.C.’s business community as the head of the Vancouver Board of Trade.

Iain Black, Vancouver Board of Trade | BCBusiness

Having occupied the rarefied reaches of B.C. government, Iain Black turned heads by making the quick decision to leap back to the private sector. Now comes his latest challenge – giving voice to B.C.’s business community as the head of the Vancouver Board of Trade.

Last summer Iain Black left a position of considerable power and influence as the B.C. Liberals’ labour minister (one of three cabinet posts he’s held) to head the Vancouver Board of Trade as president and CEO. He’d only been in government since 2005, after spending most of his career in the tech industry. Once thought to be among the leading voices of business in government, he’ll now be leading an organization that serves primarily to voice the priorities of business to government. So why did he choose to give up his vote?

Why did you quit your job as MLA?

To be honest, I wasn’t looking to leave politics. I had not prepared a resumé; I wasn’t exercising my Rolodex. I mean I wasn’t shopping myself out there at all because I was in the middle of a four-year term. When I received a call from the executive search firm, my first reaction was, “No, this isn’t the right time.” But once I’d had a couple of meetings with the executive search guy and I met with the selection committee, I got very, very excited. It’s a good problem to have: I turned to my wife and I said, “You know, I’ve got a problem – I really want this job.”

What could you do in this role that you weren’t able to do as an MLA?

I don’t think it’s a case of one being restricted and the other enabling. I think that they are both climbing the same mountain, just from different sides. Government doesn’t create jobs. It’s the private sector that creates jobs; government can only lay the foundation for economic growth and investment. I’ve always believed that. It’s not just part of my economic training and business training; it’s also part of my political beliefs. The Board of Trade, similarly, on its own cannot create jobs, but it deals directly every day with the men and women in this province who are the job creators. And to take a cumulative view of the job creators and present that as a cohesive statement or position to the various levels of government, be they civic or provincial, is something that is very exciting to me. It’s something I have some experience in, but now I get to do it from a slightly different perspective.

What’s it going to be like being on the other side of that table?

I think the benefit I bring to the table is that I understand not just the language that is spoken in the hallowed halls of government, but I understand the process, the roles of the various different individuals around a minister and around the premier’s office. I understand the budgeting process and I understand the economic development paths that get pursued in government and the various touch points where one can influence those. That’s a key benefit that I bring to the table. I know the challenges that ministers face and how to be respectful of their time, not just in terms of the calendar, but in terms of, if you will, picking your fights. 

But you no longer get to vote on these things you think might make a difference. Do you expect that to be frustrating?

Even when you’re an MLA and you’ve got ideas that you want to see pursued by the executive council and the various cabinet ministers, there’s never any guarantee that they’re going to be able to accommodate that. I’m not so much worried about the scenario that you describe as much as, being a shameless optimist (which I am, unapologetically so), I anticipate situations where we’ll be bringing ideas that will be helpful. If you look at the last 10 years of the provincial government, taxes have dropped considerably and yet government revenues have gone up. And they’ve gone up because there are these higher levels of economic activity. That’s the formula that works. Taking ideas that reflect that to government is typically welcomed irrespective of political stripe because there is a common desire and that is to create employment and for families to do well.

Do you have any apprehensions about potentially taking the business community’s message to a government that might not share your philosophy? 

No, none at all. There would be an appetite in a government of a different political stripe than my own to listen to what we have to say, knowing that one of the individuals presenting that point of view understands the front-line political game and the challenges that they would be up against.

With your private-sector background in the tech sector, do you expect to be focusing on the tech world? 

I don’t see a future of the Vancouver Board of Trade that does not present very real tangible value propositions to members of those communities. We need their input to define where we are going as a province. We have a tremendous amount to contribute to them and we need a tremendous contribution from them going forward. 

But, fundamentally, we’re still hewers of wood and drawers of water – true 
or false?

I cut it a slightly different way. Traditionally we’ve had a very proud history in forestry and mining and I hope that those industries remain strong and get stronger. I have no desire to see them suffer just so that technology and other sectors can grow. But I do believe that for our newer tech-type industries, including but not limited to digital media sectors and some of the new technology sectors like green energy and wireless, if we do not have a supportive environment, in part embodied by the Board of Trade, then those industries will sub-perform. And that is one of the challenges that I plan to address. 

If you could bring anyone into your office for a meeting on your first day at the Board of Trade, who would it be?

I would call our most longstanding member and ask why they have stuck with us and I would call the president of a small company who was with us for one year and did not renew their membership and ask why not.