Top 50 CEO Awards

Economic news is rarely a harbinger of good fortune. From rising tax rates and fiscal deficits to outmigration and energy woes, it would be easy to climb aboard the naysaying bandwagon, and accept whatever future falls in our path. But that’s not how we roll in Atlantic Canada.

Here, on Canada’s easternmost shores, in a region that buffers the rest of the country from North Atlantic gales, you will find some of the most resilient people on the planet. From the humblest fishing enterprise to leading global businesses, history shows that this is a place of strength. Strength of mind. Strength of character. Whatever our regional woes, we have always pulled through thanks to creative problem solving and intellectual ingenuity.

The most venerable of all Atlantic Canadian entrepreneurs, K.C. Irving, once famously remarked: “I like to see wheels turn.”

So do we. Which is why we publish this, our annual salute to corporate leadership excellence. The following pages offer an intriguing glimpse into the minds of some of the most accomplished and successful businesspeople in Atlantic Canada today.

For Top 50 CEO Award Winners Statistical Review, click here

Mike Ashar
Irving Oil Limited

DOWN TURN Though 2003 to 2007 were boom years for the oil refining and marketing industry, there’s been a significant downturn since 2008 (when Mike Ashar joined Irving). It’s much harder to prosper in lean times, but Ashar is confident that a clear strategy and focused execution will turn the corporate culture around.

GOING THE DISTANCE Ashar, an ultra-marathon runner who believes healthier employees make for a healthier company, introduced the Irving Oil LiveWell program early last year. They now have daily classes for employees (yoga, belly dancing), stair challenges, swimming lessons, hockey at lunch, nutrition and health classes, Fresh Fruit Fridays and oatmeal breakfasts.

PUSHING THROUGH “In the late 1990s, I was responsible for the first mega oil sands project for Suncor. About six months into it, we had serious cost concerns due to a changed economy in Alberta. The next 18 months were like Dante’s Inferno. However, we finished well, and now some 10 years later, it is judged as one of the best projects in the oil sands. What I learned from that experience is that when things are difficult (at work, or in the last six miles of a marathon), keep giving your best, motivate others around you to give their best, don’t ever hold back —nine times out of 10, perseverance will be rewarded.”

Cathy Bennett
Bennett Group of Companies

SPECIAL ORDER What does a successful chain of nine McDonald’s restaurants have in common with residential real estate, commercial properties and a small construction company? Two words: Cathy Bennett. Through her volunteer work and board memberships, this dynamic business owner is also the point of convergence for a host of organizations: the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council, Business Coalition of N.L., Canadian Chamber of Commerce, Ronald McDonald House N.L., Festival 500, The N.L. Learning Partnership, Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro, Bull Arm Site Corporation and Nalcor Energy. (There’s more, but our fingers got tired.)

LOVIN’ IT Dissatisfied with a proposed work schedule for restaurant renovations, Cathy Bennett knew she could do better. Thanks to extensive planning, solid relationships with tradespeople and teamwork, her construction company (BGI Ltd.) completed the work in less than six weeks. The original contractor had estimated 17 to 22. Plus, she retained 87 per cent of sales during the construction period by continuing drive-thru operations.

MCCRISIS RESPONSE When Hurricane Igor hit eastern Newfoundland, thousands of people were without power. They were cold, and they were hungry. Using texting to coordinate employees and Facebook to communicate with customers, Bennett’s team ensured that some of their restaurants remained open. Over the four days after Igor, with only four stores operational, the company achieved 130 per cent of total market sales.

Ken Bennett
The Johnson Corporation

STRONG SHOULDERS Ken Bennett is responsible for approximately 1,300 employees in 65 locations. Under his direction, Johnson provides home and auto insurance along with employee benefits to people across Canada.

ON THE FRONT LINES When Hurricane Igor hit Newfoundland in September 2010, the Johnson Emergency Response Team kicked into action. Their national call centre was without power? Agents worked by flashlight. Road washouts stopped crews from driving to customers? The company hired a helicopter. Worried customers needed immediate answers? Johnson maintained a 93 per cent claim answer rate (and that was during the height of the storm). Where was Ken Bennett in the middle of all this? That’s exactly where he was, answering questions from media, issuing daily updates to staff and coordinating the company’s strategic response. “As president of Johnson Inc., it was my job to lead the company, our customers and our employees through this devastating time. Despite the adversity, I maintained a positive attitude and led from the front — motivating our employees to continue their commitment to excellent customer service.”

INSPIRATION “I am motivated by the people around me. Their energy, enthusiasm, drive and creativity spark motivation in me. As I listen to the success stories of our customers and our employees, I am driven to be a better, more effective leader.”

Rob Bennett
President & CEO
Nova Scotia Power Inc.

CLEAN & GREEN As head of Nova Scotia’s electric utility, Rob Bennett is focused on two primary goals: superior customer service and cleaner energy. Under his leadership, the company has tripled wind generation since 2008 and has a 10-year plan to make the most significant shift toward renewable energy production in North America. “We’ve made a commitment to the people of Nova Scotia that we will reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and increase generation from renewable sources, but do so responsibly and cost effectively. It’s the first thing I think about when I get up and it’s what our team focuses on every day.”

POSITIVE ENERGY Bennett believes in motivation through recognition and respect, and leading by example. “Our people are incredibly dedicated and passionate — and they need to see that their leaders are just as engaged and committed.”

ON BOUNCING BACK Long before he started with Nova Scotia Power, Rob Bennett was denied entrance to a community college program because of a low math score. His reaction? To enroll in the toughest mathematics program he could find, thereby proving to himself and others that he could succeed. From there, he went on to enroll in electrical engineering — a program that led to the career he enjoys today.

Dr. Robert Campbell
President & Vice-Chancellor
Mount Allison University

REASON TO GLOAT For the 14th year in a row, Sackville’s Mount Allison is Maclean’s magazine’s pick as the top undergraduate university in Canada. It has no debt, balanced budgets and one of the strongest scholarship and bursary programs, per capita, in the country. Much of the credit for the Mount’s glowing record is due to the strategic leadership of Dr. Robert Campbell (now in his second term as president and vice-chancellor).

ANSWERING THE BIG QUESTION How does he do it? “The demographics of Atlantic Canada are challenging, as is the fiscal situation of New Brunswick, so our two main revenue sources are uncertain. Every year, we work to strengthen our financial and physical sustainability model, so that we can be nimble in adjusting to changing cost and revenue situations, so that we remain in balanced budget and debt free — without sacrificing quality. This requires us to be diligent and tough minded, not just in controlling costs and expectations but also in seeking to maximize revenues. This does not always generate happiness … but we work hard to explain what we are trying to do and to present it in the context of the long-run health and viability of the organization.”

MOST GRATEFUL FOR His wife, Dr. Christl Verduyn.

Kevin Casey
Chief Idea Officer
The IDEA Factory

A STAR IS BORN Two creative minds, a Mac and a coffee table. From those humble beginnings was born The IDEA Factory, an ambitious marketing and communications agency predicated on a “small is big” philosophy.

GROWTH SPURT Ten years later, The IDEA Factory has grown considerably but is still a relatively diminutive creative group (compared to some of the larger agencies). More importantly, it is winning both awards and clients. Says co-founder Kevin Casey: “We work with brave clients who want to break through the sea of sameness. We are proud to say that 30 per cent of our revenue comes from clients outside Newfoundland and Labrador.”

WHAT DRIVES HIM? Casey says it’s not about the money, it’s about trust. He wants clients to know they can count on him to deliver results, consistently over time. “If you do great work, the money will always follow.”

CARROT STICKS Small operations come with a comparatively sized piggybank, automatically putting The IDEA Factory at a disadvantage for staff recruitment and retention. What’s a boutique agency to do? It does what it does best: get creative. Teams, not “suits,” present ideas to clients. You show you care with little perks and time off. You subsidize self-education, you trust your team and, most important, you celebrate every win – big and small.”

Doug Clarke
Doctors Nova Scotia

MR. IMPOSSIBLE For more than 25 years, creative solutions to long standing-problems have been Doug Clarke’s stock in trade. Faced with a hospital crisis? He gets recognized for outstanding crisis management. His province is struggling with a severe physician shortage? He helps turn it around to the highest physician/patient ratio in the country. Traditional physician funding falls short? He negotiates arrangements that allow for more patient time, mentoring opportunities for new doctors and the adoption of new medical technologies. His latest challenge, however, is also his biggest: to convince the doctors he represents (he’s their chief negotiator) to proactively and voluntarily accept a smaller than negotiated wage increase. Why? Because he anticipates the province’s current financial situation will lead to deeper health care cuts if he doesn’t. “I thought we would be more successful if we tried to be part of the solution … and that we would have more control over the outcome if we introduced the idea.” Will he achieve the impossible yet again? Only time (and a membership vote) will tell.

BIGGEST ACCOMPLISHMENT “My meter for success is based on fostering a culture where my employees are empowered, respected and happy. (In) the past 14 years here at Doctors Nova Scotia, not one employee left of their own will to find employment elsewhere.”

Frank Coleman
President & CEO
Coleman Group of Companies; Humber Valley Paving Ltd.

THE ORDER OF THINGS Frank Coleman is delighted to have acquired Humber Valley Paving. He’s similarly pleased with his involvement in the Rocky Mountain Liquor retail chain in Alberta (growing from 16 to 33 stores in four years). And he positively beams when you ask about the Coleman Group of Companies — the retail/real estate/wholesale conglomerate he’s headed since 1989. But what really has him puffing with pride are his wife and their seven children. “They are absolutely the best thing to ever happen to me.”

WHEN MARKETS CHANGE 2010 was supposed to have been a year of double digit growth for Colemans. The company had planned to use aggressive pricing to bring in new customers who would, in turn, become loyal Colemans shoppers. Then, along came the economic slowdown and the need for an immediate realignment of goals and priorities. Out with the loss leader specials; in with closer attention to bottom line results. Though 2010 didn’t achieve the sales growth originally envisioned, it did turn out to be a highly profitable year for the company.

RALLYING THE TROOPS Competitive wages, performance incentives and motivational activities are just some of the ways Frank Coleman motivates his team. “Having a highly motivated staff is key as our employees frame our customers’ experience and subsequently directly impact profitability.”

Bernard Collins
PF Collins International Trade Solutions

THIRD IN LINE When his grandfather founded the customs brokerage in 1921, it was a one-man operation. His father grew it into a small customs firm. Since Bernard came on board (‘Tanny’ to those who know him), PF Collins has become Atlantic Canada’s premier trade solutions provider, employing over 85 professionals in St. John’s, Halifax and Calgary.

SAFETY FIRST From his expertise in international trade legislation to his integration of services to his role as a respected industry mentor, Tanny Collins has long been a pioneer. Last year was no exception. In 2010, he focused on certifying PF Collins under the Newfoundland and Labrador Construction Safety Association’s Certificate of Recognition program. Doing so required him to realign staff into dedicated Health, Safety and Environmental (HSE) positions, update internal safety policies and procedures and allocate resources to staff training as well as a comprehensive review of HSE policies. Collins credits the certification process with the company’s perfect record for no lost-time incidents last year.

ON GIVING BACK “The sense of accomplishment I get from contributing to the various organizations where I volunteer my time and energy is worth every late hour, every extra meeting. Being a volunteer connects me with my community and that is the most satisfying and motivating feeling imaginable.”

Peter Conlon
President & CEO
Nautel Limited

DARKEST HOUR For 24 months, you, your staff and corporate owners accept short-term pain to prepare for long-term gain. You remain patient and positive even during the worst recession since the 1930s, completely focused on transforming your radio frequency product manufacturing firm into a market leader. Then, on the very cusp of prosperity, a depreciating U.S. dollar deflates your bottom line and commercial broadcasters back away from capital purchases (i.e. your product). Your turnaround year opens with a loss.

KEEPING THE FAITH With uncertainty swamping Nautel’s board, management and staff, Peter Conlon had to restore confidence. He initiated zero-based expense budgeting, spending no money unless it absolutely had to be spent immediately. And he became a one-man internal marketing machine. “I knew where we had to go,” he says. “I helped them see how they could help get us there. I celebrated their successes and I never, ever, let them see doubt in my eyes.” As a result, 2011 looks to be “a great year.”

LIVING ON THE EDGE “To be able to look back after having successfully resolved a really difficult situation and think ‘They said it couldn’t be done’ is very satisfying for me. Mix that with the opportunity to have fun and work with a great team … it couldn’t get any better.”

Rayburn Doucett
President & CEO
Belledune Port Authority

MADE TO ORDER From banker to cabinet minister to economic consultant to retailer to federal export and business development advisor, Rayburn Doucett’s career seems tailor-made for his latest position as head of northeastern New Brunswick’s primary port. Yes, it’s hard to imagine another individual with the same depth of contacts, negotiating skills, business acumen and civic passion — all of which have proven invaluable in the port’s transformation into a significant regional economic development tool.

AGAINST THE ODDS Though Port of Belledune was a growing concern in 2008, Rayburn Doucett knew its lack of roll-on/roll-off facilities and barge terminals meant it was about to max out its potential. In an era when 95 per cent of Canadian ports were losing traffic, he had to convince the federal and provincial governments and a private bank that his port deserved a $25 million loan for facility upgrades. (Both levels of government would contribute another $20 million apiece.) Thanks to an airtight business plan and Doucett’s not insigificant negotiating skills, the loan came through.

OLD SCHOOL “I still believe in a handshake and the deal that can be worked out on the back of an envelope. I realize that documentation is important but, in my opinion, documentation is only as good as the people you are doing business with.”

Nora Duke
President & CEO
Fortis Properties Corporation

POWERFUL, PROMINENT, PERSONABLE She’s a dedicated community volunteer and respected industry leader. In the past seven years, she’s participated in $240 million worth of acquisitions and overseen $35 million in hotel expansions. And, as head of Fortis Properties, her daily responsibilities include three operating divisions (commercial real estate, hotels and non-regulated hydroelectric generation) with $600 million in assets and more than 2,300 employees spread over eight provinces. Small wonder that Nora Duke was named one of Canada’s Top 100 Most Powerful Women by the Women’s Executive Network in 2010. What is surprising given her heavy work load, is her continued ability to reach out to staff on a personal level. As she travels around the country, she strives to establish connections with employees and her leadership team, recognizing their efforts and challenging them to improve at every opportunity.

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2 Comments to “Top 50 CEO Awards”

  1. Avatar Margaret Bruce // May 24, 2011 at 11:44 am // Reply

    congratulations to all the CEO;s and their accomplishments,,,,,especially Nora Duke, Earl Ludlow and Kevin Casey,,,,,

  2. Avatar Martin Lloyd // July 7, 2011 at 9:51 pm // Reply

    I enjoy your magazine

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