What happens when an international CEO gets hired by a B.C. company?

International CEOs have been recruited to lead some of Vancouver’s best-known brands. We take a few steps in their shoes

Vancouver was already a multicultural place before J.P. Durrios showed up. But his arrival in January 2020 may have moved the needle all on its own.

Born in a village near Biarritz, in the southeast corner of France, the CEO of Bench Accounting Services grew up in Africa, where his father worked for a French bank. “Mostly in Western Africa,” Durrios says. “Congo, Cameroon, Guinea.”

That Durrios is also conversational in Japanese is a clue that his academic and professional journey has been peripatetic. Posts in Tokyo, Seoul, San Diego and Pasadena preceded his current position at Bench’s corporate headquarters near Robson and Seymour.

Durrios is among those for whom Vancouver is the latest stop in a nomadic career. Bringing international experience and vision to a local operation, he believes, is both useful and necessary. “I think it’s about different perspectives,” he says. “People who are coming from a different cultural background or heritage have had different experiences. And it allows us to take into consideration the needs of our diverse customers, because we’re serving entrepreneurs coming from all different cultural heritages and locations. That is a strength, in my opinion.”

But while Vancouver has a wealth of people from all different backgrounds, it doesn’t currently host a large cohort of international CEOs. Civic strengths aside, Vancouver is not renowned as a major corporate centre, a fact of which potential international job candidates will surely be aware. Might ambitious CEOs be reluctant to relocate to a city that, for all its charms, is sometimes viewed as an outpost? And what are the particular challenges a freshly appointed international CEO might face in British Columbia?

Durrios first came to Bench as its chief financial officer before taking over the top job in 2022. Bench, a startup that began life as 10sheet in New York before moving to Vancouver in 2013, provides bookkeeping and tax preparation tools, software and human support, mostly aimed at small independent businesses. “Our mission is to help every business owner thrive by providing financial insight and peace of mind in one seamless platform,” Durrios says.

Durrios’s first startup job was at Overture Services, a pioneer in the field of paid search. That job took him first to South Korea and later to Tokyo. In 2003, Overture was acquired by Yahoo and Durrios joined the company’s media division, later leaving to join the startup Market Share. Durrios also worked for Virginia-based Neustar, Service Titan, and DISQO before joining Bench. He wasn’t sure what to expect from Vancouver, but he did have his West Coast experience in San Diego to draw upon. “Vancouver is far more developed,” he says. “It’s different.”

Relocating to a different country can be disorienting, even for someone who is moving in on the top floor. Jeff Zabudsky has experience that cuts both ways. In 2016, he left a position as president and vice-chancellor of Sheridan College to become CEO of Bahrain Polytechnic and, later, provost for the American University of Bahrain. Since July he has been president of the British Columbia Institute of Technology. Vancouver was terra incognita for him, but relocating to Bahrain represented a greater challenge. “Bahrain is probably the softest landing you’ll find in the Middle East, because there’s a lot of expatriates that come together and build friendships and forge relationships,” Zabudsky says. “But nonetheless, you’re part of a group that’s really from outside the locals, outside the norm. And I think the thing that it taught me is what it must feel like for a lot of new Canadians, or new international students who come to Canada. What was most profound for me was understanding what it’s like to be the other, to be someone who is not from there. You don’t understand all the ins and outs of how people speak—not just the language but idioms and intricacies of culture that you simply can’t grasp within the first few years. In many respects, you do feel like an outsider.”

Zabudsky concedes that arriving as a professional helped ease the transition. “I was treated well and respectfully,” he says. “But you do go into a context that is entirely new culturally with some trepidation. You don’t want to put your foot in it. You don’t want to make mistakes. And so there’s always a sense of nervousness in your interactions with people, both personally as well as professionally.”

Durrios feels that Vancouver has the advantage of offering a global perspective. “People in Canada have a very well-balanced view of the world,” he says. “Therefore, they learn to appreciate different perspectives. I can share with my team, for example, cases of very large U.S. companies that come to Canada and basically assume Canadian consumers are going to be the same as they are in the U.S. market, and that’s not the case.” (Durrios declined to target any particular U.S. retailer as  an example.)

Jodi Evans, vice chair of Deloitte Vancouver, thinks Vancouver ought to be a natural fit for international CEOs. “It’s a great city,” she says. “We have some great talent. It’s strategically located on the West Coast, a gateway to Asia.”

Still, Evans notes that the city has often failed to keep its talent at home. “We are pretty good at starting companies— environmental, health tech, biotech, ag tech, clean tech. They get to a certain size, and then those companies end up going to the U.S. or to Europe, where a lot of their customer base is. We don’t have the same high-level investments coming from the venture community.”

Durrios says that becoming a Vancouver-based CEO does involve particular challenges, one of them being a talent pool that pales in comparison to the U.S. or even Toronto. “It obviously isn’t a fair comparison, because Canada is about 30 or 40 million people now and the U.S. is, like, 400 million. You also have a much larger number of startups [in the U.S.]. I think a challenge for Vancouver is finding talent that has that startup experience. A lot of people we have today at Bench are super bright, super smart and genuinely care about our mission and our customers, but for many of them it’s their first startup. A lot of what I do with my management team is help educate them on what it is to be the startup, to maximize the potential.”

Evans also cites the tax issue—for U.S.-based CEO candidates in particular—as a barrier to attracting talent to Vancouver. “People who are building companies can go elsewhere and can get much better tax situations,” she says.

Hootsuite is a Vancouver-based company that has brought in consecutive international CEOs, evidently to deal with turbulent situations. In 2020, Tom Keiser took over from founder Ryan Holmes. Keiser, the former COO at San Francisco firm Zendesk, then oversaw substantial staff cuts before being replaced in January 2023 in favour of Ukraine-born Irina Novoselsky, formerly of Career Builder.

According to Evans, Novoselsky is an example of a new post-pandemic phenomenon in the corporate world—the remote executive. “She’s not actually living most of her time in Vancouver, as far as I’m aware,” Evans says. (Hootsuite representatives declined to comment for this story.)

Remote work has taken off in the last few years, Evans says. “You’re seeing U.S. leaders coming to Canada but not actually relocating, flying in and out a couple days a week.”

She cites Lululemon as a Vancouver-based company that has relaxed its rules regarding the location of top executives. “They had a mantra about, ‘You have to live in Vancouver,’” Evans says. “Their CEO [Calvin McDonald] came here, most of their executive team is here. But they have had a hard time getting some really specific top retail talent, so they’ve opened up a little bit for some key roles. It’s created a talent pool for them. You can’t always attract people willing to move.”

Nate Kelly is a Vancouver CEO who does not live in Vancouver. As the boss of Miraterra, a company that sells state-of-the-art soil analysis technology to agricultural operations, Kelly is usually based in his hometown of Santa Barbara, California. While he had been travelling north a couple of days per week, he did recently establish a local base. “I am temporarily renting a place in Birch Bay,” Kelly says of the census-designated place in Washington State, about 50 kilometres from Vancouver, “so I can be closer to the team during this critical year.”

Even so, Kelly doesn’t think remote work is a major issue. “I find the remote, hybrid or in-office debate to be a bit silly,” he says. “The reality is that just about any organization, regardless of policy, will have employees that will not be in the office at some point. For smaller, single-HQ businesses, employees might be absent due to sickness or vacation or due to other life events. In companies with multiple offices, or in multiple time zones, there are obviously people who are not in one particular office. I think an organization needs to make sure all employees are feeling connected, included, seen and heard, regardless of their physical location. The bigger issue isn’t the work location policy, it’s making sure that we have the tools, environment and mindset to help our employees be successful, whether they are physically in the office or not.”

Kelly doesn’t feel that his regular Vancouver presence is essential. “Our company’s mission is global in nature,” he says, “so I want to make sure I keep a broad perspective on issues. I think it could be really easy to get absorbed in the Vancouver community and get tunnel vision about what’s happening right in our backyard, at the expense of losing sight of what’s happening elsewhere in the world.”

Kelly does note that he sees a lot of value in coming together in person. “I find tremendous benefits from being close to our team,” he says. “Those quick catch-ups in the office can easily address a challenge before it becomes a serious issue. I think companies will need to assume that someone will always be remote and figure out ways to make work inclusive of those who are not in the office.”

While acknowledging that remote leadership opens up new possibilities for local firms, Deloitte’s Evans feels that the approach can only go so far. “They’re not actually in the market, part of the community,” she says. “You can grow it still, but I think it’s really important to be here. We need leaders on the ground, building relationships and community, connecting with our clients, connecting with the nonprofits, their kids in schools—that’s what creates true connection and drives sustainable growth. We need more leaders here. When we need core expertise, we can fly that in, but for really driving impact and growth in an area, you need people on the ground.”

In October the B.C. government introduced legislation to ease international credential recognition for doctors, engineers and other professionals. “We welcome people from around the world to come to B.C.,” Premier Eby said in promoting the legislation. “But we have to leverage the advantages we have by letting people work and bring their expertise, bring their skills, to help build our province. It lifts the boats of everybody when we do this properly.”

BCIT’s Zabudsky agrees that the benefits offered by international recruits do not stop at the C-suite. “I think they bring global perspectives, they bring networks that will benefit us professionally, through the role of CEOs, but also our communities and the people they encounter on a more informal basis,” Zabudsky says.

Even if Zabudsky had not moved to Vancouver from Bahrain, his Ontario roots would have made the city new territory for him. It has made an impression. “I was enthralled with the place,” he says.  “Vancouver is amazing. I understand why it’s regularly ranked among the best places in the world to live.”

Durrios, too, can point to a lot of positives. “The food scene was surprisingly amazing,” he says. “And I think it speaks to the cultural diversity in Vancouver.”

It all gives rise to a question: at some point, does lifestyle become more important than career? If a transplanted CEO falls deeply and hopelessly in love with  Vancouver, could staying in the city become a bigger priority than climbing the corporate ladder?

Durrios, at least, will not go that far. “I think, in my life, I’ve never really been married to one place,” the Bench CEO says. “There are so many interesting places around the world—Vancouver being one of them, for sure. But at this point I don’t think I can say if something happens, I will stay in Vancouver. It is too early to say.  I’ve been to many places. I don’t think I have found the place yet.”