A Fine Balance: Anne Giardini

Publishing and forestry. For anyone set on following a dual-career path, you couldn’t pick two more troubled industries. In a small meeting room in a downtown Vancouver office, Anne Giardini laughs. “It’s vertical integration!” she says.


Publishing and forestry. For anyone set on following a dual-career path, you couldn’t pick two more troubled industries.

In a small meeting room in a downtown Vancouver office, Anne Giardini laughs. “It’s vertical integration!” she says.

She is talking about her careers. There are at least two. Together they represent a resumé unlike any in Canada, and quite probably unique in the world. We are sitting in the headquarters of Weyerhaeuser Canada, which Giardini joined as legal counsel in 1994. Today she is president. Since October 2008, Giardini has been in charge of Canadian operations for the international forestry giant, which has $830 million in Canadian assets, more than 2,000 employees across Canada – about 550 in B.C. – and operations that stretch from harvesting softwood lumber to the manufacture of engineered wood products and pulp.

That pulp will then become paper – clean, white sheets of it. Which is where Giardini’s second career kicks in. Her new novel, Advice for Italian Boys, hit bookstores in March. It follows her successful 2005 debut, The Sad Truth About Happiness. Giardini offers a new approach to the concept of self-publishing: she starts by harvesting the timber.

Giardini has taken the helm of Weyerhaeuser Canada at a challenging time, a fact underlined by our immediate surroundings on a floor where boxes of files marked with Post-its speak of a recent move. “We used to be on three floors,” Giardini says. “Now we’ve consolidated into one.”

The downsizing partly reflects the recent history of Weyerhaeuser itself and decisions made outside this country that shaped the future of its Canadian arm. For a while, Weyerhaeuser International, headquartered on Tacoma’s Federal Way, was rapacious. It acquired local giant Macmillan Bloedel in 1999 for US$2.3 billion in stock, followed by a massive $8.1-billion outlay for Oregon’s Willamette Industries. But it soon became apparent that Weyerhaeuser had bitten off more than it could chew. “They paid way too much for [Willamette],” says one industry observer, who asked to remain anonymous. “Weyerhaeuser got themselves into a jam.”

In 2005 the MacBlo assets, including five B.C. sawmills and millions of acres of timberland, were sold to Brookfield Asset Management Inc. The fine-paper operations were peddled to Domtar Corp. in 2007. Packaging and manufacturing operations went to International Paper Co. in 2008. Sixteen Canadian building materials distribution outlets were sold off in 2007, followed by Canadian mill closings in 2008 and the sale of timber rights to West Fraser Timber Co. Ltd. “This cycle has been brutal on Canadian forest products firms,” says George Weyerhaeuser Jr., president of Weyerhaeuser Canada from 1993 to 1998 and great-great-grandson of company founder Frederick Weyerhaeuser. “Given the reality of today’s marketplace, any forest products acquisition in the previous decade looks ill-advised.”

Today the company that once employed thousands of unionized workers in this province is left with only a single sawmill in Princeton employing 220 people and an engineered-wood facility in Vancouver. “Weyerhaeuser Canada is a shell of its former self,” says Kevin Mason of Equity Research Associates.

By the time Giardini took the helm last October, U.S. housing starts had dropped 60 per cent from their 2006 peak. Lumber prices had plummeted 40 per cent. Demand for pulp and newsprint also saw significant declines. All the doom and gloom makes the writer’s life seem infinitely more appealing – and yet, Giardini remains optimistic. “We’re ready for the upturn when it comes,” she says. “The Softwood Lumber Agreement [with the U.S.] forced us to be efficient – no subsidies, no help. The Canadian industry got itself in shape. We also benefited from the environmental movement. We’ve become stronger and more resilient as a result of embracing environmental concepts – more recycling, less waste. Remember those beehive burners that used to dispose of wood byproducts? Terrible things. Now engineered wood products make better use of the tree. Chips make pulp, and waste generates heat. We’re a very green industry.”
[pagebreak]The Shields family in ParisIn conversation, Giardini demonstrates an easy and comprehensive grasp of her industry. But of her two professional identities, the writerly one was perhaps easier to predict. Giardini, born in Weston, Ontario, (now part of Toronto) in 1959, is the daughter of the late Carol Shields, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist who ranks among this country’s most acclaimed writers. Even if you dismiss the idea of bloodlines, having a writer in the house can be formative. “You get to observe,” Giardini says. “It’s like having a parent who’s a butcher. Is becoming a butcher genetic? No, but at least you know how to go about it. You know what needs to get done.”

Lumber company presidencies are probably more difficult to model for your children. But Giardini had an appropriately broad spectrum of parental influences. Her father, Donald, is a 75-year-old retired engineer. And yet Giardini’s interest in law, business and politics – the decidedly non-fictional nuts and bolts of global economics – was not always evident. “I was a dreamy child,” she says. “I was always making up stories, as children do, so I lived in two places: the real world and inside the stories I scrolled out in my head.”Carol Shields with Granddaughter Sofia

A key influence on her future arrived out of nowhere, like some dramatic deus ex machina, in the guise of a registration clerk at the University of Ottawa. Giardini’s father was teaching engineering there, thus offering 17-year-old Anne the important educational subsidies of free tuition and home cooking. All she needed was a clue about what to study. “I just asked [the clerk] what I should take,” Giardini recalls with a laugh. “She recommended economics and poli-sci. I actually thought that meant ‘a lot of sciences,’ which sounded good to me. When I showed up for my first poli-sci class,” – that’s political science, as Giardini discovered – “the professor held up a book called Anatomy of a Coup and told us, ‘I’m going to teach you how to overthrow the government of a small country.’ And I thought, ‘Economics and power and how things work – this is all I ever really wanted to know.’ I suddenly snapped awake after a dreamy childhood.” Economics appealed to Giardini for another reason: it seemed poised on that borderline between her father’s engineering realm and her mother’s creative endeavours. “Economics blends science with creativity,” Giardini says. “It’s a merger between the two. They’re exactly equidistant.”

The family relocated to Vancouver in 1978 and Giardini finished her economics degree at SFU before moving on to law, first at UBC and then at England’s Cambridge University. By 1988 the former Anne Shields had acquired not only two law degrees but also a new surname, courtesy of Tony Giardini, a Vancouverite whose family originates in southern Italy’s Calabria region. “His sister was a lawyer,” Giardini says. “She introduced us.” The couple spent a few years based in Italy after Tony was transferred to Florence by his accounting firm. (Today he is CFO of Ivanhoe Mines Ltd., making the couple arguably the Elvis Costello/Diana Krall of the Canadian resource sector.)

Giardini divided her time between Italy and the University of Cambridge, and along the way she acquired conversational Italian and a deep love of the country, particularly Rome. “The first time I saw Piazza Navona,” she recalls, “the tips of my fingers got tingly.” Giardini’s new novel, Advice for Italian Boys, may have roots in Italy, but it actually flowered in a small Italian patch of Vancouver. “I was standing in line at Caffè Artigiano,” she says – the Hornby location, half a block from Weyerhaeuser’s Cathedral Place offices, is a regular haunt – “and the whole plot dropped into my head in a nanosecond. It was a gift from Caffè Artigiano.”

Initially Giardini’s writing was a sideline. “I wrote for student newspapers,” she says, “and later for magazines,” including Saturday Night and Lawyers Weekly. But her career was taking her in a very different direction. After stints in Italian and Canadian law practices and corporate counsel positions at a couple of Ontario firms, she joined Weyerhaeuser Canada as legal counsel in 1994.

The birth of her third child (daughter Sofia) in 1995 was followed by what Giardini calls “an ‘Aha!’ moment.” Thirty-five years old, with her family complete, she began thinking about her long-term goals. “I realized you don’t have to follow any rules – you can do as you see fit,” she says. “I wanted to write novels. How could I make that happen?” Giardini had been writing a weekly column for the National Post (“Some business, but mainly general interest – I aimed for somewhere between the office and the kitchen sink”) but decided to give it up in 2001 to focus her spare time on fiction. If you call it spare time. Giardini admits to snatching writing time in planes, in hotel rooms, during brief gaps in her domestic routine. If it seems remarkable that a novel can be completed in the lacuna of a very full life, well, Giardini seems a little bemused by it too. “I am always thinking of it,” she says. “I am always gathering material. Then, in many bursts of endeavour, it is started, then midway, then done. A mystery, but a delightful one, really.”
[pagebreak]Giardini and her mother Carol in VictoriaThe Sad Truth About Happiness, published by HarperCollins Publishers, was a finalist for the 2005 Amazon.ca/Books in Canada First Novel Award. But then, Giardini’s mother won a Pulitzer in 1995 for The Stone Diaries and earned a reputation as one of Canada’s foremost writers. There’s probably a good reason Stella McCartney decided to be a fashion designer instead of starting a band like daddy Paul. As long as Giardini had remained legal counsel for Weyerhaeuser Canada – and as of 2006, vice-president – the long shadow of Carol Shields would never have enveloped her. Was there never a concern that Anne Giardini the novelist would become, at best, a sort of literary Julian Lennon?

Giardini insists matching her mother’s towering reputation was not an issue. “Early on I realized I could only fail,” she says. “And once I had realized that, I had my eyes wide open. And I was fine with it. There’s no point in fussing over those things.”

While Giardini was working on her first novel, her mother was working on her last, Unless, published in 2002. Her mother’s book would seem far from autobiographical: it tells the tale of Reta and her troubled daughter Norah, who ends up begging on the street. But still, Giardini points out, “Norah and I share a birthday: Oct. 12. This is a hint that Norah and I have something in common. What we share is not the state of being troubled but a concern that women not be left out of matters of importance in the world. It was a subject my mother and I discussed often.”

Shields died of complications from breast cancer in 2003. “She was herself up until she died,” Giardini says. “We’re grateful for that.”

For most observers, novel writing and lumber-company helming must seem to be two completely unrelated fields of human endeavour. A resumé like Giardini’s would be the ultimate brain exercise routine, scientifically devised to keep right and left hemispheres fully active; the right hand spreadsheets while the left hand writes romantic dialogue, surely.

Not so, according to one of the few people likely to know. “There is a real crossover,” Giardini insists. “Both jobs involve creating a narrative. Creativity is a big part of it, and the use of language. It’s how you present your story.” She cites Nortel as an example of a company desperately in need of a coherent tale to tell. “Jumping from story to story is not satisfying to the investor,” she says. “People look for a narrative. It’s about understanding how people see your product. You’re telling your story to anyone who’ll listen. Investors are looking for coherence and purpose, and you need that in a novel as well.”

As for the tale Giardini wants to tell about Weyerhaeuser Canada, “It’s a three-part story,” she says. “Producing solid, reliable products we all need in our daily lives; producing them safely and sustainably; and being trusted custodians of the land.”

One legacy Giardini inherited from her mother is an interest in Jane Austen, to whom Shields devoted an acclaimed biography. I suggest that, given the current economic climate, someone should come out with an Austen guide for corporate executives and call it Sense and Business Sensibility. “I think it’s a brilliant idea,” Giardini says. And what could the master of the drawing room teach the denizens of the boardroom? “Ethical behaviour,” she says. “Forthrightness. Straight dealing. Humour. How to quietly implode pretentiousness. How to look at everything with a gimlet eye. Some bargains aren’t worth having. Don’t overextend. Live within your means.”

Austen lived in a world where men ran the affairs of business. (Austen’s own writing career was a bold step undertaken, initially, in secret.) Until recently, the boardrooms of large lumber firms had been doing an admirable job of preserving that bygone age. Giardini is the first female president of a major North American lumber concern; in effect, she has broken a sort of timber ceiling. It’s a great accomplishment, but it could also be, according to another industry insider who asked not to be identified, a case of industry colleagues leaving her to hold the bag. “This business has always been a ridiculously old-fashioned male bastion,” he points out. “There are not many women in leadership positions. Right now the presidency of Weyerhaeuser Canada involves a smaller role; the Canadian company has been downsized much more than the U.S. operations. It has a much smaller footprint. There are fewer expectations; the high Canadian dollar really hurts producers.”[pagebreak]The Shields family on vacation, St. PierreStill, the observer also sees potential for Giardini’s tenure. “What’s the downside?” he asks. “It won’t get worse than this. Some of the decisions made by [American] management were not great. They turned 180 degrees from expansion to contraction. It’s like they went A to B to C, then back to B and back to A, all under the same leadership. Usually you don’t see that kind of thing without a management change.”

Giardini dismisses the idea of an industry full of inflexible old cigar chompers. “The old boys can and do change,” Giardini insists. “Rather manfully, in fact.”

One old boy, former president Weyerhaeuser, believes Giardini is in the vanguard of a new generation of lumber industry executives: leaders who must deal with the loss of faith that is a legacy of environmental controversies and business setbacks. “I watched northwest forest towns in the U.S. struggle with confidence in their leaders during the spotted-owl debates,” he recalls. “I spent a lot of time with people in the coastal B.C. industry as they lost their freedom to operate. In both cases, I heard expectations that leaders should have been able to navigate their firms through the difficult periods. From the workforce, there were always rumblings that the corporate leaders were just taking care of themselves. Warranted or not, I think today’s typical Weyerhaeuser employee probably has the same feelings.

“Retrenchment has been very difficult for Weyerhaeuser and its people,” he continues. “Weyerhaeuser leaders face a daunting challenge. Their mills are strong. Their balance sheet is in great shape. The tough decisions have prepared them physically to once again become pre-eminent in their industry. But the mental preparation is another matter. The leaders have to again earn the respect and trust from their people. There is no doubt in my mind that Anne Giardini was elected for just that challenge.”

Paul Quinn, forestry analyst at RBC Capital Markets and a former co-worker of Giardini’s at Weyerhaeuser Canada, believes her presidency has plenty of upside. “This is a great opportunity,” Quinn says. “[Macmillan Bloedel CEO] Tom Stephens took over MacBlo at a very low point, and he turned it around and made it very attractive. Giardini is capable and intelligent; she listens, builds consensus and picks up things quickly. This could work out well for Weyerhaeuser Canada.”

Giardini sounds ready for it. “We are, as we need to be, persistent, cost conscious and quick to recognize and seize the right opportunities both now and when the economy recovers,” she says. “Our products are fundamental to human existence. What could be more basic than housing?” Whatever the task entails, Giardini intends to tackle it with both hemispheres of her brain. “You ought to be able to bring your whole self to a role,” she says. “I never wanted to be like Cinderella’s sisters, cutting off toes or a piece of your heel so the shoe would fit.”

As Giardini prepares to write the story of Weyerhaeuser Canada’s path to better times, she must know that the future will depend to some extent upon factors beyond her control. Perhaps this understanding has helped shape the next writing project. “My next book is about death,” Giardini says with a laugh. “So I’m planning ahead.”[pagebreak]

An excerpt from Advice for Italian Boys

Advice for Italian boyAfter dinner one December evening, Nicolo sat down in a chair at the kitchen table to work his way through the course outlines that had arrived in a large brown envelope from the university. He hooked his feet behind the chair’s metal legs and leaned forward into the task. He had been thinking along the lines of accounting or investment management, something to do with finance that would help him make good decisions about the money that was building up in his bank account. His mother had more than once suggested that he buy a house and start planning for the day when he would have a wife and family. His father, he knew, would like him to quit the gym and go back to school for a degree. Nicolo didn’t know whose advice he should follow. He felt that his work, his savings, all the many different things he was learning, the advice and views of his parents and brothers, even Nonna’s proverbi, all of these were or could be important, and that he was reaching the point in his life, close to a quarter century, when he should be putting them together somehow toward an end. But so far, no picture had emerged, no image or map or solution or key to his life or to its purpose. Occasionally he imagined that he had been granted the shortest possible flash of insight, but these revelations were clear for only an instant. They flickered into his mind and then out before he could take in more than a fleeting impression, like the striking of a distant match. There was so much to consider and the context was vast. The world was chaotic; that was clear. And it was unfair: some people were lazy and grew fat, while others worked hard and still starved. He could see that. Everywhere there were people who made mistakes, or acted wrongly, deliberately or in error. He wanted to become a purposeful adult. And although so far his purpose, the reason for his existence – the son of Massimo and Paola, the brother of Lorenzo and Vincenzo – remained without form, it had begun to occur to him that the answer might have something to do with providing clarity and order and with helping people get what they wanted most. He had also a concept of service. At least, that was the impression he had from time to time. Beyond that, he had no certainty. But he liked to believe that the rest, the details and timing, the who, where, when, why and what, would be revealed to him in time. If he was patient. If he was ready.

Excerpted from Advice for Italian Boys, published in Canada by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd.
Copyright 2009 by Anne Giardini. All rights reserved.