Gregor Robertson: Pursuit of Happiness

Gregor Robertson, the first-term New Democratic Party MLA for Vancouver-Fairview, has probably forgotten more about running a business than most Liberal MLAs ever knew.

Gregor Robertson, the first-term New Democratic Party MLA for Vancouver-Fairview, has probably forgotten more about running a business than most Liberal MLAs ever knew.

Last summer, in a Vancouver Sun article, the co-founder of the successful and ethically minded Vancouver juicery, Happy Planet Foods, took aim at the more than $250 million in subsidies and royalty reductions that the provincial government has doled out to the oil and gas industry since 2003. In return, he was eviscerated by the mainstream media and drew a volley of mean-spirited verbal fire from the Liberals. Ralph Sultan, Liberal MLA for West Vancouver-Capilano, called Robertson “clueless” about the realities of job creation and economic development. Then in a twist of political logic, the economist and professional engineer went on to argue, somewhat disingenuously, that “Robertson’s comments are just the latest in a series of disturbing messages that show the NDP are moving further to the political left.”

Truth is, Robertson, the NDP critic for small business and investment, has earned the right to criticize government, business and the relationship between the two. “I got slapped for even questioning subsidies. Not only is it unfair to small and medium-sized businesses, it’s an outrageous use of taxpayers’ dollars,” maintains the mild-mannered fifth-generation Lower Mainlander and rookie politician. “Government subsidies to business might make sense to help emerging sectors grow, as was the case with B.C.’s oil and gas industry in the ’90s, but that’s not the case today.” After its implosion at the polls in 2001, the NDP was attempting to shed its image as a dinosaur party beholden to big unions and greenies. Though Robertson dismisses the notion, his arrival on the political scene was fortuitous for the NDP, one of the knights in shining armour the party needed badly to reinvent itself and reach out to voters. He embodied that rare combination of business savvy and socially conscious idealism.

Named twice to “top 40 under 40” lists, first by Business In Vancouver in 1998 and then by the Globe and Mail in 2003, today at the age of 42 Robertson is a successful entrepreneur, devoted community activist and father of three with the youthful good looks of a movie star and the progressive social values of a Stephen Lewis. His friendship with the likes of activist Tzeporah Berman, who battled the NDP furiously throughout the ’90s over forest policy, has raised a few eyebrows. Yet with his business background he eschews the facile political labels of left and right, making him an unusual foe for some of the old boys across the floor of the B.C. legislature. It’s a brilliantly sunny September afternoon, and Robertson is sitting down with BCBusiness at a café on Broadway, a few blocks east of his constituency office, ruminating about his first year and a half in office, the transition from business to politics, the state of the natural environment and his hopes and fears for the troubled future of a planet his children will inherit. After slipping his six-foot-plus frame into a comfortable chair, he wraps his hand around a mug of tea, unwinding after a day of sitting in on National Biotechnology Week conferences (he laughs at the thought of attending a meeting with representatives of Monsanto, which for the green movement has come to symbolize genetic engineering.)

In conversation, Robertson is courteous and self-effacing, and avoids proselytizing. He responds thoughtfully, dispensing with the classic politician’s propensity to sound authoritative or spin a message. When he feels passionately about something, such as climate change, environmental degradation or, yes, government handouts to the fossil fuel industry, he speaks with conviction. The son of a Vancouver lawyer, Robertson grew up in relatively comfortable circumstances beneath the North Shore mountains, one of four boys from a blended family. He graduated in 1982 from Carson Graham Secondary School and enrolled at UBC before transferring to Colorado College in Colorado Springs, where he majored in English and biology as a pre-med student. That’s where he also met his future wife, Amy, who shared his youthful wanderlust.

After a fellowship at Stanford University School of Medicine, Robertson did his ambulance training, cowboyed in the Cariboo for a spell, then spent a year meticulously restoring an old wooden sailboat. When the restoration was complete, the newly wedded Robertsons set sail on the Pacific, an 18-month journey with stops throughout Mexico and the South Pacific. “The connections between food, health and economy were a constant concern on our voyage, from drift nets to subsistence fisheries in Polynesia, from Mexican campesino agriculture to very diverse and innovative farming in New Zealand,” Robertson says about the experiences that profoundly shaped his personal philosophy and world view. When they landed back in Canada, the then 25-year-olds felt compelled to do something close to the land.

They sold the sailboat and bought some acreage in Glen Valley near Fort Langley and started farming. By 1990, they were growing certified organic berries and veggies for local markets and establishing a produce distribution network. “I was always drawn to the land, but in an active way. Farming was a great education for us and it allowed us to understand food systems and economics,” Robertson says. In 1992, their first child was born, daughter Johanna. Two years later, Robertson and high-school chum Randal Ius bought a blender, opened a small plant in Port Kells and started turning organic berries, fruit and veggies into juice. Happy Planet was launched, as much a social experiment as anything else, with a mission statement to “grow a progressive business from which happiness flows.”

“To go from farming to a purely corporate bottom-line model didn’t make sense. It made more sense to do something that was not only good for business but also for the staff and the community,” he explains. “What felt right also made good business sense. Consumers were asking for that and we wanted to respond.” While nurturing a warm and fuzzy corporate culture at Happy Planet, Robertson and Ius made efforts to take it beyond the feel-good.

The privately held company doesn’t publish its financial reports, but company policy dictates that 10 per cent of net profits be donated to local charities. This year the Atira Women’s Resource Society, Marguerite Dixon Transition Society and Leave Out Violence were among the beneficiaries of Happy Planet largesse. In 2004 it donated $50,000 worth of juice to Quest Outreach, an organization that puts meals on tables in the troubled Downtown Eastside. In 2000, Robertson cast his social vision beyond company policy when he helped found the Tides Canada Foundation, which helps individual and corporate donors direct their philanthropic dollars to various charities and non-profits. Happy Planet has grown to 50 employees and goes toe-to-toe in certain markets against PepsiCo and Coca-Cola, which dominate the juice market in North America. Robertson remains a partner in Happy Planet, but political commitments mean he has had to step away from the day-to-day management. “It feels good to have built something that continues to grow and is lasting,” he says. When asked about the transition from business, where a decision nets a tangible result, to the sometimes torturously slow-moving realm of opposition politics, Robertson laughs, as though it’s a move he questions daily.

He admits that when he was growing the Happy Planet business, he gave little thought to politics. In fact, he even lumped himself in with that portion of the public who felt mainstream politics had lost its way. For a lot of people, the ’90s was a decade remembered most for its NDP scandals, when the words “bingo-gate” and “ferry fiasco” entered the political lexicon. Still, Robertson’s doubts about the system were not enough to shake a bedrock faith in democracy and community service that ultimately led him to accept an NDP nomination for Vancouver-Fairview, a seat formerly held by Liberal Gary Farrell-Collins.

Robertson wasn’t the only one who felt democracy had suffered during the previous legislature, where political dialogue had been reduced to a pair of lonely opposition members, Joy McPhail and Jenny Kwan, cross-examining 77 increasingly complacent Liberal MLAs. The Liberals had enjoyed a four-year honeymoon in which Gordon Campbell’s D.U.I. debacle in Hawaii was the only big challenge faced by the party. Not long after winning the nomination, Robertson suffered his own minor embarrassment when news stories surfaced about a former Happy Planet employee who had accused one of her supervisors of sexual discrimination in her dismissal from the company. The case was settled privately before it went to a hearing with the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal.

Still relatively fresh on the job as an MLA, in a September 2005 interview Robertson rhapsodized naively about his vision for B.C. as a “place where people figure out how to live in balance with each other and the planet.” He’s the first to admit that the realities of politics have been sobering. His first legislative post was as the advanced education critic. Last spring, he moved to small business, where he says he has heard a familiar refrain of concerns: the shortage of skilled workers, the future of the Interior forest economy once the last of the pine beetle devastation has been harvested, the perception that the Liberals’ touted reduction of red tape for small business has been mostly window dressing, and questions over where our economy is headed in a post-oil-and-gas, post-pine-beetle world.

Renowned left-leaning pundit and communications consultant Bill Tieleman believes Robertson is exactly what the NDP needed to diversify its dusty roster of social-working, BCTF-boosting and union-organizing candidates. “Gregor came along and said, ‘Hey, I’m a businessman, I didn’t inherit wealth and I’m socially progressive.’ He’s a natural bridge between those two worlds,” says Tieleman, who helped Robertson burnish his communication skills during the campaign. “I think at first he had a tough time adjusting, but he’s really stepped up his game in the last six months.

He’s a smart guy and I’m sure we’ll see him in a future cabinet.” American expat Joel Solomon, heir to a multimillion-dollar Tennessee development fortune and now president of Vancouver-based Renewal Partners Co., considers Robertson an astute entrepreneur and kindred social activist. Renewal Partners first invested in Happy Planet in 1996, and now has an undisclosed minority interest. “Gregor is the new breed of businessman we need in politics,” he says. “He knows that social equity and economic prosperity go hand in hand.” Not surprisingly, oil and gas is a particularly sensitive topic for Robertson. First, because he has been pilloried by the media for his views, and second, because he sees it as evidence of the current government’s short-term, Ralph Klein-esque cash-grab mentality.

According to the dedicated bicycle commuter, B.C.’s fossil-fuel resource is being squandered through the aforementioned royalty breaks and subsidies, especially in the absence of a long-term rainy-day fund like the one being generated by the Norwegian government with its petroleum fund, now accrued to an estimated US$250 billion. “We know there will be an environmental crisis, but this can be an opportunity for us if we’re prepared,” Robertson says. “We need to be leveraging our oil and gas resource and investing in renewable energy. It’s hard to believe that in 2006, we still don’t have a wind turbine in B.C.”

Unfortunately, getting the social change message out as an opposition member can be like playing the violin unplugged in a heavy metal band. Liberal Ralph Sultan calls Robertson a nice guy with whom he disagrees on resource management policy. “The fact is, oil and gas accounts for nine to 10 per cent of provincial revenues and when Richard Neufeld [minister of energy and mines] brought in royalty incentives in 2003, that resulted in an immediate burst of exploration activity. And we simply have to offer rates that are competitive with Alberta,” Sultan says, reflecting on his dust-up with Robertson last summer. “If the NDP believes we should lock our resources up in the ground, then I say, tell that to people who have kids to raise [and] education and health-care needs.”

And contrary to what Robertson suggests, Sultan believes the government is promoting green alternatives to conventional energy, like run-of-river hydroelectric proposals and co-generation power plants. Closer to home, there are more pressing problems that illuminate the difficulties of creating Robertson’s happy planet of the future. Outside the sanctuary of Steeps cafe, it’s the typical bumper-to-bumper afternoon gridlock out on Broadway, with most of the cars transporting lone occupants. The BC Sustainable Energy Association has been tossing around the idea of campaigning for a fossil-fuel-free GVRD by the year 2025. “It’s a tough question,” Robertson acknowledges, commenting on what he can do locally to help move society toward this post-fossil-fuel utopia. The sooner we have better transit between UBC and East Vancouver, the better.”

The diverse demographic mix that Robertson values in a community is also under threat in Vancouver-Fairview. The stylish, aging, squat apartment blocks that line the leafy streets and traffic calming circles characteristic of these West Side neighbourhoods are being devoured by developers keen to cash in on Vancouver’s soaring real-estate market. Affordable housing for people wanting to live close to the urban core is vanishing in a frenzy of speculation and gentrification. “Unless there’s some sort of control on affordable rental housing we will lose that part of our community,” Robertson says.

He glances at his watch, and tips back the last of his matcha tea. Tonight it’s the weekly meet-and-greet at Stamps Landing, a chance for constituents to bend the ear of their MLA over a pint of beer. He’ll miss one of his favourite bands, Medeski Martin and Wood, at the Commodore Ballroom this evening, but it’s a small sacrifice in the uphill struggle of transforming B.C. into that beacon of environmental stewardship and socially responsible economic development he dreamed of early in his tenure.

Robertson is candid about his worries for B.C., Canada and the planet: the rapid depletion of natural resources, our continued dependence on fossil fuels, the growing gap between rich and poor, and now the bellicose language emanating from Stephen Harper’s Conservative government. The list is long. Yet success in any business requires a heavy dose of idealism. After all, anyone who starts a company from which “happiness” promises to flow can’t help but be a perpetual optimist. “I never imagined going into politics as a career move. I don’t have a particularly partisan position, but I started to think that I had to get more involved to effect change. It was definitely a leap of faith to try and work on bigger issues and larger-scale problems. I’ve had to use my entrepreneurial skills in a different way,” Robertson says, before heading into a sunny afternoon on Broadway and strolling back to the constituency office.