BCBusiness marks a milestone: the 25th anniversary ?of our partnership with Ernst & Young (EY). From cleantech to mining to tourism and hospitality, the latest EY Entrepreneur Of The Year program for the Pacific Region upholds a long tradition of excellence.
When Zak El-Ramly was passed over for promotion, he started his own company. In 1995, he was executive vice-president of Powerex Corp., the BC Hydro and Power Authority subsidiary that markets the utility’s surplus electricity. Someone else was appointed president of Powerex, and “I realized that my market value is higher than my corporate value, so I decided to leave,” El-Ramly explains. He founded ZE PowerGroup to advise utilities on how to operate in a competitive environment following the deregulation of U.S. energy markets.
El-Ramly came to Canada on a student visa in 1969. Born in Port Said in northeastern Egypt and raised in Cairo, he was teaching engineering at Cairo’s Ain Shams University when the Six-Day War broke out in 1967. Following a year in Kuwait working as an instrumentation engineer at an oil refinery, he moved to Ottawa, where he completed a master’s degree in combustion engineering and a PhD in aeronautical engineering at Carleton University. He stayed on as a flight safety researcher until 1977, when he landed an engineering job with BC Hydro’s energy conservation division in Vancouver.
Several years later, by then manager of the utility’s energy conservation group, El-Ramly attended a NATO conference on energy management in Portugal. “I realized how much we knew compared to the rest of the world,” he says, “and eureka, I came up with the idea of having a massive program that covers the various aspects of conservation in one program,” now called Power Smart. In 1990 he moved to Powerex.
In 2001, El-Ramly created ZE Market Analyzer (ZEMA), which develops software that helps clients like Chevron Corp., Gazprom and Royal Dutch Shell use their resources more efficiently. ZE Power Engineering, launched in 2005, designs electrical substations, mainly in B.C.
The Richmond-based, family-owned ZE group of companies has about 250 employees in Canada, including El-Ramly’s five children, plus another 20 in the U.S., the U.K. and Singapore. “We actually graduate a lot of people from our operation, because we are willing to train and take newcomers and new graduates,” El-Ramly says. “Of course when you do that, you don’t have fences, and the wild horses roam around. As a result, we feed the whole neighbourhood with horses.”
What did your summer jobs teach you about business? Thinking you are great or know it all is one’s own major shortcoming and impediment to success.
What did your summer jobs teach you about business?Thinking you are great or know it all is one’s own major shortcoming and impediment to success.
Is an entrepreneur born or made? Made in his early years, which makes it look like born.
What is your definition of success?Success is feeling successful or achieving what you set your mind to do—seeing success from within. What you set your mind to do defines your greatness or the external–world valuation of your success.
What other career might you have had?Lawyer or legal counsel.
What’s one thing that people would be surprised to learn about you?How compassionate I am. I am intellectually compassionate, not emotionally compassionate.
Finish this sentence for us: “Entrepreneurs need a lot more
What businessperson do you most admire?Changes with my age or circumstances; now it is Elon Musk.
What do you do to unwind/relax? Do nothing, like drive or listen to music—or do something that is not too calculating.
How would you describe your leadership style?Consensus-building through intellectual discussion/lead by example.
Name an item you typically forget to pack on business trips and regret not bringing.Casual wear: shorts and sandals!
EOY finalists in 2011, Thomas Ligocki and Clevest reapplied in 2017 because sales had grown 44 percent year-over-year and the firm attracted a major new investor, Energy Impact Partners (EIP). Based in New York, EIP is a coalition of global energy companies. “We focus on utilities, so having [Energy Impact Partners] take interest in us was a great boost of confidence, given their criteria for innovation,” Ligocki says. Clevest’s mobile workforce management software for utilities is used by more than 220 energy companies worldwide.
When Ligocki’s family immigrated to B.C. from Czechoslovakia as political refugees in 1985, he was 13 and spoke no English. Nine years later, he graduated from UBC with a BSc in computer science and began working on SkyTrain software for train manufacturer Alcatel Alsthom (now Alstom). He also studied part-time for a master’s degree through a university consortium that comprised UBC, SFU and the University of Alberta, graduating with an MSc in software technology from UofA. In 2006, after founding and then selling online food delivery service YummyWeb, Ligocki launched Clevest.
What did your summer jobs teach you about business?Lawn-mowing—hard work; attention to safety. Blueberry-picking—tedious work; appreciation of others. Vancouver City Hall—introduction of the PC brought about major “change management” that was extremely disruptive and often without transition support.
Is an entrepreneur born or made?Made. My family lost everything—the communists confiscated our house, car, all belongings. Hard work, diligent saving and personal risks resulted in multiple successes.
What is your definition of success?Success is finding a happy place in the continuum of your working life where you are feeling that your hard work is making a material difference and is balanced with rewards and new learnings—meaning you can balance hard work with taking time off to read a book to gain new knowledge, or be rewarded financially where you feel you can afford the toys and comforts that make life and work fun.
What other career might you have had?When I was a boy, I wanted to be a forest ranger. When I moved to Canada, I wanted to be a prime minister. When I went to university, I wanted to be a software project manager.
Name one thing that people would be surprised to learn about you.Perhaps the “great escape” story; or maybe that I am as comfortable in cowboy boots (I own three pairs) as I am in dress shoes, flip-flops or hiking shoes.
Finish this sentence for us: “Entrepreneurs need a lot more
” Self-moto: dogged determination and innovation can solve anything. Opportunity for others to improve: listen to the market/adapt to the market.
What businessperson do you most admire?Nobody is perfect, so it is an oversimplification to choose just one person, but there is a lot to like about Jeff Bezos. Generally: leadership style that is creative and innovative and attracts people to a vision; self-made; constantly learning.
What do you do to unwind/relax?Hiking, skiing, swimming, jogging, ATVs, snowmobiling, camping, wakeboarding
and beer. How would you describe your leadership style? Open, honest, collaborative, driven, high expectations of myself, creative and innovative.
Name an item you typically forget to pack on business trips and regret not bringing.My copy of the current week’s Economist magazine for the airplane ride. And sometimes, noise-cancelling headphones.
Burnaby-based Keystone Environmental advises organizations on how to deal with contaminated sites, yet it was started by a company that processes coal tar. Koppers, a global enterprise with headquarters in Pittsburgh, launched Keystone there to deal with environmental liability related to its coal tar refineries. The Canadian office, opened by Bill Donald in 1988 to conduct a risk assessment of the former Expo 86 lands, became independent five years later and now operates from B.C. to Ontario.
Raminder Grewal, president since 2013, grew up in Vancouver and Surrey, graduating from UBC with a BASc in environmental and geotechnical engineering. He joined Keystone in 2000, became the youngest partner and department head in the company’s history seven years later and began shifting its focus to federal government clients. Public Services and Procurement Canada is now one of Keystone’s top three accounts.
The 95-employee firm also works with sectors from forestry and mining to transportation and property development. Before purchasing a site, developers want to understand their environmental liability. Once they own the property, Keystone advises them on how to remediate it cost-effectively, Grewal explains. “Then we’ll help our client tender and get contractors involved.”
What did your summer jobs teach you about business?During my senior years of high school and while in university, I spent my summers working at a sawmill. I worked on fire watch, on cleanup and on the green chain. This not only taught me about hard work and that it takes all sorts of people and jobs to complete a job, but it reinforced to me that I needed to finish university to have the opportunity to move further up the corporate ladder.
Is an entrepreneur born or made?I believe an entrepreneur is a combination. You have to be born with the drive, work ethic and personality to be successful. Unfortunately you cannot teach drive. However, that alone is not enough; we still need to learn and grow from mentors and school to fill in any gaps that we may be lacking.
What is your definition of success?I believe success is a moving target and you can always do and achieve more. In my mind, success is juggling many balls: family time, clients, work family and your health. These dynamics are constantly changing just like everything, which means that what success looks like is also changing.
What other career might you have had?I always wanted to be a police officer! Until Grade 12, when my physics teacher suggested that I consider engineering as my career path because of my skills in math and physics.
What’s one thing that people would be surprised to learn about you?I failed kindergarten—I didn’t think it was possible.
Finish this sentence for us: “Entrepreneurs need a lot more…”Smart people around them. An entrepreneur cannot be the expert in everything. We surround ourselves with people smarter than us to continue to not only learn and grow ourselves but also our companies.
What businessperson do you most admire?A lot of business people have had an impact on me: Bill Donald at Keystone Environmental, many of our clients and other leaders in my TEC [The Executive Committee] Canada group. I admire and have learnt from the leadership styles and their experiences and have adapted it to fit Keystone.
What do you do to unwind/relax?Spend time with my family, watch movies and play sports. How would you describe your leadership style? Not every leadership style is going to work for every environment/situation. My leadership style is adaptive and flexible. I would rather focus on people and facilitation than lead from the front, which I believe keeps the channels of communication clear on all levels.
Name an item you typically forget to pack on business trips and regret not bringing.Enough business cards.
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