Entrepreneur of the Year 2017: Business to Business

The annual Ernst & Young list of B.C.'s brightest business visionaries finds a fresh crop of leaders building empires in everything from renewable energy to venture capital to social enterprise

Rob McCurdy

CEO, Pinnacle Renewable Energy Inc.
(Pacific Region winner)

The worst wildfires B.C. has seen in 59 years raged through the province this summer, but Rob McCurdy was prepared. The CEO of Richmond-based Pinnacle Renewable Energy was an executive for French cement giant Lafarge in New Orleans when he led his team through one of the deadliest natural disasters in U.S. history: 2005’s Hurricane Katrina and its chaotic aftermath. So when fires this July forced the evacuation of workers for Pinnacle’s Williams Lake wood-pellet plant, McCurdy acted on muscle memory to build communications and logistical plans and put them into motion. “A lot of things that we experienced in Katrina applied very nicely to our employees at Williams Lake,” he says.

Of course, McCurdy didn’t join Pinnacle in 2012 to lead disaster responses. He’d headed Lafarge’s Indian operations for nearly three years, but his family wanted to return to Canada. McCurdy saw potential and opportunities to make an impact with Pinnacle, a 27-year-old producer of wood pellets for fuel that employs 250 people in seven B.C. communities. “There were some great building blocks, and there were some big chunks of things that were missing,” he says.

Pinnacle is adding a massive new building block in the form of an $85-million plant outside Entwistle, Alberta, that the company announced this May. The investment puts it closer to Alberta sources of wood fibre and links its products by rail to the port terminal it owns in Prince Rupert. Pinnacle, which exports to Europe, Asia and the U.S., is positioned to expand its reach overseas even if B.C. timber harvests decline.

Inside the company, McCurdy made improving safety a top priority. “I’d get comments like ‘Fire is normal. It’s part of our business. We only have little fires,’ he recalls. “I knew that had to change. We had to make a change culturally.”

McCurdy knew he needed complete engagement from everyone at Pinnacle to make real, sustainable progress. He pushed his company toward a higher standard with a collaborative, inclusive approach. Benefits spread beyond a reduction in safety incidents. In 2015 and 2016, production and profitability rose to record levels. Pinnacle is planning for continued year-over-year growth of more than 20 per cent.

What is your definition of success?
There’s the usual one, which is you look at the performance of the company or the unit.
I have another one which is less tangible: it’s the excitement and the pride that you see and hear in people’s faces as they describe what they’re doing and what they’re going to do next

Zak El-Ramly
President and CEO ZE PowerGroup Inc.

Zak El-Ramly has spent a lifetime tackling new challenges, and at 74, he’s hungry for more. “I would start a new business now in a second,” he says. That is, if El-Ramly weren’t engaged with his first and current venture, ZE PowerGroup Inc. He started the company in 1995 as a consulting service in the energy- and commodities-trading industries after a career at BC Hydro and Power Authority and its power-trading arm, Powerex. That wasn’t his first career, either. El-Ramly had been an engineering instructor and researcher in Egypt until the Six-Day War broke out in 1967. He left to earn a PhD in mechanical engineering from Carleton University in 1974.

ZE grew quickly and expanded into enterprise data-management software development, with multinational clients like Cargill Inc., Chevron Corp. and Royal Dutch Shell plc. Today, his Richmond-based company is still family-owned and -operated and employs 200 people locally, with additional offices in Calgary, Toronto, the U.K., the U.S. and Singapore.


Jamil Murji
President and CEO, Inter-Urban Delivery Service.

Jamil Murji is a banker who owns a trucking company. As a former stock analyst with an MBA from Western University’s Richard Ivey School of Business, the number cruncher stands out among his competitors, who are mostly former truckers. Murji hadn’t been aiming to join this industry when he bought Abbotsford-based Inter-Urban Delivery Service in 2013. He’d been analyzing companies for a living but gave himself a two-year hiatus to search for one with good fundamentals to buy and run.

How did Murji plan to grow his new business? “I didn’t really know what I was going to add,” he says. “But I knew that if I just bring a professional approach to whatever company that we purchase, it’s going to work out.”

Murji quickly discovered that he needed to track costs more meticulously. After Inter-Urban acquired Burnaby-based Argus Carriers Ltd. last year, the combined businesses have 150 staff and operate more than 100 trucks.

How would you describe your leadership style?
I look at myself as a resource provider. So when people need equipment, I make sure that I purchase equipment they need. When they need people, I make sure that we budget and we hire people