Virginia Greene: Expo ’86’s marketer

From helping lead Expo ’86 to starting Go Direct Marketing, Virginia Greene has made a career out of big audacious wins. She’s now rolling the dice one more time. Virginia Greene, Liberal candidate in Vancouver-Fairview, is knocking on a door. It’s a task long


From helping lead Expo ’86 to starting Go Direct Marketing, Virginia Greene (1944-2010) made a career out of big audacious wins. From 2005, our profile of the woman who brought Expo to the world

Virginia Greene, Liberal candidate in Vancouver-Fairview, is knocking on a door. It’s a task long associated with snake oil salesmen and Jehovah’s Witnesses and, indeed, don’t we include politicians in that category? Don’t we look startled by that rapping sound? She holds a brochure with a black and white photo of her beaming face on the front cover. It doesn’t portray her dramatic auburn hair or the shock of blonde at her temples. But it still gives a hint of what her daughter Justine describes as Greene’s “persona,” that endless optimism and air of accomplishment that can intimidate those who don’t know her well.

“I’ll leave them with a big smile and a golden decade,” she says when she gets no answer, making a bit of a crack at the slogan printed under her face on the brochure. She sets it up neatly on the welcome mat of the townhouse’s front porch, then turns around to admire the warm scent of the bushy winter jasmine.

Virginia Greene is a “star candidate” for the May 17 provincial election, anointed by the premier. She doesn’t have the front-page name recognition of Carole Taylor, ex-CBC chair now running for the Liberals in Vancouver-Langara. But she has a grassroots cachet; if you know her, it’s because you’ve met her. She has had two significant careers, one as a senior bureaucrat in the provincial government and one as an owner of a successful company called Go Direct Marketing. She has also made an enormous contribution in the not-for-profit world, leading the B.C./Yukon chapter of the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation and sitting on so many community boards that a common joke among her colleagues is that everyone in Vancouver is somehow linked to Virginia.

Having sold her company to J. Walter Thompson Advertising of London in 2000, she had countless options, including a very comfortable retirement. So why would she choose to jump into such an uncertain forum, where she is open to constant criticism, scrutiny and questions about her integrity and motives? Where the first exercise is interrupting someone’s quiet afternoon?

The first time I meet Greene is in early January at the Gastown offices of the Pace Group, a communications firm whose managing partner, Norman Stowe, is working for her campaign. She’s wearing a black suit but she still makes a personal statement with a dash of white lace under the jacket and her trademark fishnet stockings. On the table is a recent clipping from the Vancouver Sun, a profile of Gregor Robertson, the Happy Planet juice man running for the NDP in her riding. She points out their similarities: they’re business people, they’re from well-established B.C. families and they both have roots in the riding. “Nice guy,” she muses. “Wrong party.”

Stowe, mustached and perpetually suited, worked on his first campaign at age 18 for a federal Conservative candidate. Today he is as excited as I can imagine him getting. He expounds, over and over, on the same theme. “Just look at the resumé and stack it up against anybody’s! She’s done it all. She puts the boots to the myth that if you’re in business you can’t have a heart.”

Along with her public, private and non-profit experience, Greene sat until recently on the boards of both the Vancouver International Film Festival and a government organization called the Community Achievement Foundation. She was also chief judge of the Jack Webster Journalism Awards. But Stowe also raves about Greene’s eclectic group of supporters, collected over years of indulging diverse interests. She even takes singing lessons, he marvels. “If you look at my friends, they’re all pretty much like me,” Stowe says. “If you look at Virginia’s friends, they’re like a rainbow of stuff. You’ve got all the business types. Then she’s got all these soft, left-of-centre people that I don’t know very much about from the arts community. Somebody will say, ‘Who are some of the people getting involved?’ and I’ll say, ‘Well, they’re the kind of hipsters.’”

Greene laughs and pokes fun at Stowe’s suspicion of “arts people,” adding that they’re the ones who “stay up late.” Their support encouraged her, but her decision to run for political office was really pushed along by Premier Gordon Campbell. She has known him since the early ’80s when he was a city alderman and she worked for the provincial tourism department. He originally asked her to run for Vancouver city council when he was mayor in 1990. She remembers discussing the idea with friend and former councillor Carole Taylor. At the time Greene was busy with her young business and turned him down. But Campbell asked her again about a year ago, when he knew she was nearing the end of her commitment to J. Walter Thompson.

“My counter to him was, ‘I’ll take a job if you have something that would fit my skills but I’d rather not put myself in the public process.’ He said, ‘I do have a job for you and it requires you to do just that.’ He had all the arguments and he was very difficult to resist.”

On December 14, Finance Minister Gary Collins announced his retirement, leaving open his riding of Vancouver-Fairview, just across False Creek from Greene’s Yaletown home. The opportunity to run in an urban riding, Greene jokes, destroyed her last argument. Campbell promised a “star” candidate to fill Collins’ gap – and on December 17 he endorsed Greene. No one challenged her for the Liberal nomination.

Greene still had her doubts. In business, she explains, you are always trying to manage and minimize risk. That’s not always possible in politics. “I’m nervous about it,” she says, not sounding nervous at all. “Even the best people with the very best intentions, the tide goes out and they’re sitting there and they don’t know what happened.”

A few weeks later Greene suggests we go for lunch, if I’d like to get to know her “as a person.” I certainly do, since I had a sense that our first meeting was a marketing exercise designed to introduce a fine product of the Liberal brand. She chooses the Bacchus Lounge at Vancouver’s Wedgewood Hotel, a place she likes to go after work because of the live music and because she often runs into people she knows. You can sit at the bar by yourself, she says, and feel comfortable.

We talk about the difficulty of going from private to public life. She has never belonged to a political party, but she is able to make the personal seem political. When asked if she ever considered herself a Liberal, she says she certainly always knew she was not a New Democrat. “I think it’s just that I have more private-sector blood in my bones,” she says. “I have always felt that the answer to my well-being lay with me. Ultimately and especially as a woman, knowing how to make a living, being able to be independent, staying in good health – I’ve always known that [these are] my responsibility and I can’t look to anyone else to provide it. Not a man, not family, not the government.”

Born in Prince Rupert, Greene moved to North Vancouver with her parents, Margaret and Norman Carter, and attended Delbrook high school. Her mother died of cancer when Greene was 20 and a student at UBC. That was the end of her feeling that someone would always be there for her and the first of two life-shaping events that contributed to her firm sense of independence. 

After graduating with a degree in anthropology, she married Michael Dunn, a guitar-maker. They travelled Europe and lived in Spain from 1969 to 1971 before separating. The second of her life-shaping experiences happened after that marriage ended. She started dating again, got pregnant and gave birth to Justine in 1971, becoming a single mother at 27. Returning to Vancouver, Greene moved in with a friend who also had a child, and they shared household duties. She found work as an anthropological researcher doing mental health surveys.

A year later she married Justice Greene who worked in the film industry and also had a young daughter. With their new family, they moved to Victoria in 1978 to take jobs with the provincial government. Virginia began working in the employment programs branch of the ministry of labour, which funded job opportunities in the non-profit and business sectors. In a few years she became director of the branch, managing job creation. As a member of the apprenticeship board, Greene worked on improving opportunities for women in non-traditional occupations and achieving equality in hourly rates. “It was five years of very interesting work,” she reflects. “And when I look back on it now it was formative for me because it fit with where I was at privately, which was, ‘Give me the tools and I can take care of myself.’”

Greene was hired in 1983 as assistant deputy minister of tourism, assigned the considerable task of marketing the province for Expo ’86. Along with deputy minister Mike Horsey (who died in 2001), she was responsible for preparing the tourism industry and making Expo a catalyst for future growth. She oversaw the successful Super Natural B.C. ad campaign and encouraged towns all over the province to create and promote events that visitors to Expo could attend. 

George Madden was VP of corporate communications for Expo ’86 and worked closely with Greene. He describes how she brought in a number of Canadian and American corporate partners to share advertising costs and help promote events. “Back in those days,” says Madden, “it was still pretty new for government to partner with outside organizations. It was a very comprehensive marketing plan, and I’d say almost leading-edge.”

Many of her colleagues were surprised in 1987 when Greene decided to leave her secure government job. She explains it succinctly: she had learned how to spend money and now she wanted to make it. She and Greene had divorced in the early ’80s and then she moved to Vancouver to start Go Direct Marketing with partner Roger Chilton, with whom she also shared a 12-year personal relationship (she’s currently single).

Greene has a talent for quick summaries; she defines direct marketing as one-to-one communication between a company and its customer, most often through the mail, telephone or email. First, you need to find out as much information as possible about the company’s customers. “Who are they, why do they purchase from you, what do they purchase?” she explains. “And where are the
opportunities for you as a company to upsell them?”

In 2000, advertising agency J. Walter Thompson was looking to expand its direct marketing capabilities in North America. By then, Go Direct had opened offices in Calgary and Toronto. According to Canadian CEO Tony Pigot, Go Direct’s reputation made it the first choice. The sale was finalized in March of 2000, after which Greene’s Vancouver office took on the direct marketing accounts of J. Walter Thompson’s North American clients. Until the end of 2004, Greene headed the company’s direct marketing and digital division, splitting her time between Vancouver and New York City. Now the company is known as RMG Connect.

“The relationship has been a tremendous success and that’s not often the case in acquisitions,” says Pigot. “They were very entrepreneurial, quite capable of seeing opportunity. They were able to go into New York and understand what needs exist among some of the clients there, and were able to shape a really compelling strategy and win assignments.”

If direct marketing is about targeting a certain person, gathering information and making your pitch, those skills will serve Greene’s campaign very well. Every time we meet she is at least as interested in me as I am in her: How are you enjoying this story? Where did you go to university? Are you married? The day we meet for lunch, Greene is preparing for a trip to Mexico the following week with the five women of her book club. We end up in a discussion about female friendships. She has met some of her closest friends only in the past few years and is constantly seeking out new experiences.

“It’s interesting how your life twists around, isn’t it?” she muses. “And when you look back on it, you think, what an interesting journey. Sometimes I meet people whose lives are so straightforward, they graduated from law and they’re still a lawyer; and they married someone and they’re still married. Somehow that wasn’t me.” 

Greene describes her campaign work as very “straightforward,” saying she’s pleasantly surprised by how familiar the tasks are. “It’s very much marketing and communications,” she says. “It’s very much understanding what’s on people’s minds, what they care about and trying to close that gap with communications.”

At one point during our door-knocking there are five of us all wearing long dark coats standing on various levels of a stairway in a condo complex, listening for the sound of shuffling feet inside the apartment. I feel like we’re casing out the joint – and in a way we are. Canvassing is as much about gathering information as it is about making a pitch. Her campaigners prompt Greene to ask whether she can count on the person’s support and whether anyone else in the house will vote Liberal. All responses, including “maybe”, are recorded for follow-up. The sleek-looking brochure she carries doesn’t convey her quick wit, which at its best gets a little bit rude. After a quick chat with someone in a tall townhouse with a driveway overlooking False Creek, she turns to her assistant with the clipboard. “Get that down,” she says. “Single man. Lexus.”

In the early months of this year Greene spent much of her time learning about the complex issues she will have to debate. She organized meetings with people from various sectors, including health, arts, tourism, medicine and education, to discuss their concerns. Now, as the campaign picks up speed, she spends more and more time knocking on doors and handing out brochures on street corners. At every function she reminds her supporters that the campaign needs funds, but only two events are dedicated solely to bringing in the cheques. Both are held in March, one at Labatt’s Brewery, the other at the Opus Hotel. Both draw 50 to 60  people and raise about $12,000. During the writ period, the month leading up to the election, her campaign is allowed to spend $68,000. 

Vancouver-Fairview, roughly bordered by Main and Arbutus streets, False Creek and 33rd Avenue, is a swing riding, meaning that it usually isn’t won by more than 10 per cent. Before Gary Collins won in 1996 it was held by Tom Perry of the NDP. In 2001 the left vote was split by a strong Green Party, which ran second with 22 per cent. The Liberals don’t expect that to happen this year.

The controversial RAV line construction is one issue sure to generate heat for Greene from Cambie Street merchants and residents who see the cut-and-cover process as very disruptive. The medical community at Children’s and Women’s Health Centre of B.C. at Vancouver General Hospital and in various clinics and agencies near Oak Street will contribute both blessings and curses. Greene’s work with breast cancer gives her a good grasp of health care issues and many supporters in the medical professions, but she’ll have to answer to many angry Hospital Employees Union workers who lost their jobs when Premier Campbell ended their contracts.

“I don’t expect that discussion to be as comfortable as some of the others have been,” she says carefully, anticipating the mood of labour groups at all-candidates meetings. But she has prepared her defence. “There was a lot of discontent over that because they lost what were very high-paying jobs and strong benefit packages, and they became part of the private sector so that’s been a tough pill to swallow. But the premier was very clear that his interest was in ensuring that health care dollars went to serve patients first and not employees.”

Very few people who answer their doors when she knocks want to engage in complex discussions. If they do, Greene gives them all the time they need, nodding and saying she appreciates their comments. But often they’re just pleasantly surprised to see the candidate herself. Like the woman in the townhouse in the midst of a construction zone who can’t open her door because it’s taped shut to keep the dust out. “You’re brave for venturing down here!” she shouts through the window, and I think she’s right.

The most stunning feature of the 16th-floor Georgia Street offices of RMG Connect is the Coal Harbour and downtown view, which you can see from north, south, east and west if you walk in a complete circle around the floor. But it takes the creative mind of ad writer Amy Joseph to explain why that view is significant. Each office has interior and exterior glass walls, so when you walk by you can see both the person in the office and the view beyond to Denman Street, Stanley Park and the North Shore mountains. She says the open atmosphere symbolizes the unique office culture.

“Virginia takes a view beyond the problem,” says Joseph. “There was a time when there was a change coming with one of our large clients. And I became very worried, thinking ‘Oh my goodness, we’re going to lose that account.’ And she just doesn’t go there. Virginia will do a lot of nodding, she’ll listen to your concerns, but she’s seeing beyond. She sees it like a bump in the road, but not the end of the road. The road for her goes on into the horizon.” 

Marcel Labbé, head of RMG’s client services, originally met Greene in the late ’80s when he worked for the Workers’ Compensation Board, a client of Go Direct. He found himself deliberately scheduling their meetings at her office because it was fun. “You got to know everyone in the office. That was Virginia’s style. You touch the work, you get to know the client.” He describes her leadership as “motherly” because she always considered the individual beyond the workplace. When she was an owner, she would use company money to fly an employee across the country for a family funeral. “She’s always talked about the role that a for-profit company has as a corporate citizen and how that pays dividends even though on the bottom line it’s hard to establish,” he says. “But we have incredible retention rates. People just don’t leave.”

Production manager and close friend Wendy Mitchell says this is what happens when a hippie is successful in the corporate world (I do the math and realize it was the ’60s when Greene was tripping around Europe.) Her staff talks about outdoor meetings on sunny days, Greene’s personal messages on Christmas cards, company seminars given by a corporate astrologer. One employee brings in his two-year-old to work one afternoon a week because that works for everyone. Justine Greene, now the office director, tells me about a friend who worked for the company and at 22 became pregnant and planned to give up the baby for adoption. After the birth she went into Greene’s office to talk about it. “She went to her boss for advice!” says Justine. “Now she has a 10-year-old child.”

Greene left a similarly significant mark on the B.C. Chapter of the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation, whose board she chaired until recently. She first became involved in 1995 after she lost a close friend and colleague, Cass Gwilliam, to the disease. Her friend Barbara Jayco recalls how Greene organized a group of friends to support Gwilliam while she was ill, making sure meals and chores were taken care of so she could spend time with her teenage children. Jayco, who also serves on the board, says they sat down with Gwilliam and asked her about her biggest fears and concerns.

Those same questions guided An Inquiry of Breast Cancer in British Columbia, a report commissioned by the B.C. chapter and spearheaded by Greene. Through hundreds of interviews with those who work in the field or who have experienced the disease, the report explores what gaps exist in the health-care system and in women’s knowledge and behaviour, and what could be done to meet those needs. The work was significant because it expanded the role of the B.C. chapter from primarily a fundraising organization to one also concerned with advocacy. Greene is credited for passionately promoting this philosophy with other provincial chapters. As a result, the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation is now pursuing similar research using the same methodology.

Justine Greene is a little anxious about her mother leaving these comfortable workplaces where she is so respected. “She’s not very politician-like. She has no interest in dragging people through the mud. And she doesn’t have a thick skin,” she says. “I hope that her skin doesn’t get too thick because of it. I don’t want [politics] to change her.”  

Virginia Greene could fool most people into thinking she is politician-like. In her speeches she easily adopts the language of the Liberals, using phrases like “B.C. is back,” “miraculous recovery” and “as we move forward.” But she is also able to articulate the issues in a way that is consistent with her personal beliefs, making her arguments very persuasive. If she is elected she hopes to continue working on those areas she knows best: making sure the 2010 Olympics are as successful for the province as Expo ’86, and advocating for women’s health and employment concerns.

When you’re in the business of asking questions of politicians, you get weary of the predictable answers, the uniform perspective and the impossibly positive way they describe everything they do. So I also find myself hoping that Greene doesn’t lose those qualities we consider un-politician-like: the almost inappropriate comments, the girlfriend-like chatter and a leadership style that raises up rather than puts down those around her.

When I ask what she’ll do if she doesn’t win, she laughs. “I feel very confident that if it doesn’t happen it wasn’t meant to be, and that this will be a stepping stone to something else,” she says. “For me it’s not, ‘Oh my god if I don’t get this job what will I do?’ It’s, ‘If I don’t get this job, I know there’s plenty of other work to be done.’”