Transforming the face of Canada’s police force
Based in: Ottawa, ON
Angela Workman-Stark started out as a police constable with the RCMP and worked her way up to the rank of chief superintendent. Here, she reveals how Athabasca University’s (AU) MBA program helped her get where she is—and why she decided to return as a professor.Learn more about Angela
Angela Workman-Stark, MBA '01
Bringing industry and Indigenous communities together
Based in: Maskwacis, AB
“I’ve always been a go-getter,” says Yellowbird, a 2012 grad of Athabasca University’s (AU) MBA and a consultant who advises industry and Indigenous communities on development opportunities. “I needed to do something with myself—I needed to take chances.”Learn more about Carter
Carter Yellowbird, MBA '12
When Carter Yellowbird was a teenager living in Maskwacis, Alta., he took a leap of faith. As a member of the Samson Cree Nation, in the community formerly known as Hobbema, he saw too many of his friends fall victim to alcohol and drugs. Some even lost their lives. Yellowbird knew he needed to forge his own path and that leaving home was the only way to go. “I’ve always been a go-getter,” says Yellowbird, a 2012 grad of Athabasca University’s (AU) MBA and a consultant who advises industry and Indigenous communities on development opportunities. “I needed to do something with myself—I needed to take chances.”
He quit school and with his father, Norman, a farmer and former chief who’d personally lobbied prime minister Pierre Trudeau for changes to the Indian Act, Yellowbird hit the road for L.A., with visions in his mind of sun and palm trees like he’d seen on TV. Instead the pair travelled as far as Riverside, Cali., just outside L.A. “I went with no money in my pocket,” he says. “No credit card, no health insurance. But I had a dream to get away and make something of myself, right?”
Though he had grown up riding, it was only in California that he began to take rodeo seriously, specializing in the roping tricks his father had taught him. Two years later he returned to Maskwacis, and used his “18 money”—the portion of oil and gas royalties distributed to reserve members at the age of majority—to buy the truck and horses he knew he would need to compete in rodeo at the highest level. Soon he was working his way up the ranks, from amateur rodeoing meets to the Indian National Finals Rodeo in Albuquerque, N.M. In 1991, he became the first Cree to compete in calf roping at the Calgary Stampede, something he’d dreamed of all his life.
While traveling through Edmonton with one of his brothers, Yellowbird learned that Euro Disney, just outside of Paris, was auditioning Indigenous rodeo stunt men for its Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. “They asked me if I could ride,” he remembers. “I jumped on a horse bareback and rode around easy and they loved it.”
He spent three years in Paris, and even performed the dangerous riding stunts at a special show mounted at the foot of the Eiffel Tower. But after an accident left him with a broken hip, he returned to Canada, where a second misadventure put him in hospital with a concussion. Things needed to change. “I always tell kids,” he says, “when your vehicle breaks down, when you get in an accident, the best thing to have is insurance—that will take care of you. In this case, the insurance I needed was my education.”
Yellowbird quit rodeoing, sold his truck and put his horse out to pasture. He earned a high-school equivalency diploma, then enrolled in the University of Alberta, securing a Native Studies bachelor and a minor in business. From there he became the business manager at Samson Oil and Gas and then began managing the $30-million Samson Education Trust Fund, which provides support for Samson Cree Nation community members studying at the post-secondary level.
His pivot from rodeo to community and business development leveraged Yellowbird’s longtime willingness to go outside his comfort zone and invest in himself—first through athleticism, then education.
He knew he wanted more, and turned to AU’s Online MBA.
“I wanted to get my MBA because I wanted to focus on business—First Nations are lacking in science, law, and business,” he says. “Essentially with my MBA I could get out there and see more, spread my wings more, and most importantly, be able to help First Nations in any capacity.”
After graduating in 2012 Yellowbird worked for a time with the provincially funded Alberta Innovates Technology Futures, as an aboriginal relations business partner, and helped implement programs that connected Indigenous land stewards with industry and government in support of environmental monitoring regimes.
He now has his own consultancy, and is currently undertaking a feasibility study for on-reserve, for-profit seniors homes that would cater to Indigenous elders, with traditional singing and foods, but would still be connected to the off-reserve geriatric care industry.
The bulk of Yellowbird’s work is looking at different strategies that bring industry and First Nation people together and get them ready for the world at large. He sees education as fundamental to that goal, and each year, his Carter Yellowbird Indigenous Bursary awards an Indigenous student at AU with $1,500.
“You know, going to Paris as a kid was a big culture shock,” Yellowbird says. “Just think about a First Nations person at that time going off the reserve to work.” That experience has defined his work today: helping others jump into the unexpected.
Rethinking the way food gets from farm to plate
Based in: North Vancouver, BC
Grant says his work at Athabasca University also shaped his management style in overseeing a team of 150, in a company consistently recognized for good management and a healthy corporate culture. “I’m an introvert,” he admits. “I like to do things myself. But I realized that I can add much more value by involving other people and helping them develop their abilities.”Learn more about Doug
Doug Grant, MBA '08
Late last fall, the fortunes of romaine lettuce took a hit as an E.coli outbreak sickened dozens across North America. A safety warning was issued the following month, but it took several weeks more to identify the single farm in California that was likely responsible. In theory, consumers could have still been awash in Caesar salads—if only we’d known the provenance of the problem lettuce.
Doug Grant is one of a group of industry leaders working on making that theory a reality. “Because they didn’t have traceability,” says Grant, “they stopped all romaine production, no matter where it came from. The amount of romaine lettuce that was either left to the fields or destroyed in transit is just a staggering amount of money.” Grant is speaking as a board member of the Centre for Produce Safety, and co-chair of the Produce Traceability Initiative (PTI), a position he took ten years ago, around the time he obtained his MBA from Athabasca University (AU). The goal, he says, is for every crate of produce to bear a bar code that traces it to its farm of origin, and for every supplier and major retailer to trace that code through their systems. In the event of an outbreak, they can then respond with precision and speed, saving both lives and millions of dollars. Most major suppliers have signed on, and many other retailers, led by Wal-mart, are starting to follow suit.
Grant knows the benefits of traceability from another perspective; he is executive vice president and COO of The Oppenheimer Group, a produce giant that brings 50 million cartons of fresh produce each year from farms to market. Oppenheimer—within the industry it’s simply called Oppy—is B.C.’s oldest company, a 160-year-old family business that first introduced Granny Smith apples and kiwi fruit to North America. Today it represents growers across North and South America as well as small farms in B.C. That means ever more complex operations systems.
Grant entered the business 23 years ago, when technology played a less central role. An IT specialist who had worked with the B.C. Automobile Association, he was charged with managing Oppenheimer’s computer systems. His job has expanded to encompass Oppy’s entire operations management, including cold storage and freight (70 to 80 storage units across North America, and 300 to 400 trucks a day making deliveries), as well as quality control, food safety and sustainability—as he puts it, “everything it takes to move the product from their farms all the way through the supply chains to the retail distribution centre.”
Grant credits his MBA with preparing him for this phase of his career. He enrolled at Athabasca while he was still overseeing IT at Oppy. The distance-education approach allowed him to continue in a demanding job while logging some 30 hours a week on his coursework. The two in-residence stints, in Calgary, Alberta and Guadalajara were invaluable, he says, essentially teaching him how to do business in Mexico. He now manages some 200 growers in South America as well as local Oppy staff there.
Grant says his work at AU also shaped his management style in overseeing a team of 150, in a company consistently recognized for good management and a healthy corporate culture. “I’m an introvert,” he admits. “I like to do things myself. But I realized that I can add much more value by involving other people and helping them develop their abilities.” He found the program so useful he recommended it to a promising associate, Steve Roosdahl. Roosdahl’s MBA thesis at AU, on using third-party services, became a blueprint for a new strategy at Oppy, Grant notes. It’s clear Grant takes his mentoring duties seriously.
In 23 years, Grant has seen the business evolve, shaped by the disruptive forces impacting so many other industries, namely automation, trade challenges, climate change, and an increasingly integrated global footprint. Product traceability—an interest of Grant’s since his early days at Oppy—matters more than ever. So does the technology to achieve it; today there are experiments in using blockchain rather than traditional e-commerce to track products more easily. Grant notes that transparency on products in transit through the supply chain also means better planning and procurement. But ultimately, he says, it’s about inspiring confidence, and trust. “Expect the world from us,” goes Oppy’s tagline, and when it comes to the food on their plates, consumers do.
An internet pioneer in the world of law
Based in: Calgary, AB
“The first website I ever saw was a guy with a Unix programmer advertising his bait and boat shop in Florida,” Swanson says. “It was just a graphic with his toll-free number and a picture of the wharf. I had never seen anything like it, and I realized it was going to change everything.”Learn more about Jim
Jim Swanson, MBA '97
Jim Swanson has always considered himself a computer geek. He bought his first PC in 1979: a boxy, beige Atari 400 where he could manage his chequing account and sequence and record synthesizer music. A decade later, he was one of the first people online, browsing Usenet groups and sending early emails. And by the early ‘90s, Swanson was working as a technology lawyer, trying to figure out how the World Wide Web would change the way he practised law. “The first website I ever saw was a guy with a Unix programmer advertising his bait and boat shop in Florida,” Swanson says. “It was just a graphic with his toll-free number and a picture of the wharf. I had never seen anything like it, and I realized it was going to change everything.”
In 1993, at lunch with a few friends, someone mentioned that Athabasca University (AU) was planning to launch an MBA program using Lotus Notes. “I thought, ‘You could do an MBA program on Lotus Notes. You could do anything on that platform,” Swanson recalls. It was the first online MBA program in the world and, a year later, when it launched, Swanson was one of its first enrollees. The technology was primitive—you’d have to wait for the dial-up to connect and the server to deliver information from other computers—but professors were able to upload lessons, and the first cohort of students were able to submit assignments and engage in (very slow) group discussions.
Swanson found he was able to gain a whole new set of technical tools without interrupting his growing tech law practice. He mastered the fundamentals of business—strategic planning, accounting, marketing, management—while both students and professors used the platform to better understand educational behaviour. “From what I understand, a lot of the courses were essentially rewritten after the first offering,” he says. “Because they were able to see how people actually dealt with them. It became an exercise, ‘how do people work virtually as teams?’” For his dissertation, Swanson designed and created a website for the Alberta Civil Trial Lawyers’ Association. In the era before Swanson’s site launched, a lawyer in Grand Prairie would have to drive to Edmonton to access physical binders that listed reliable expert witnesses. Swanson’s site included a digital Expert Witness Bank, where lawyers could provide contact info for the witnesses along with comments about their performance—kind of like an early Yelp for trial lawyers.
Swanson graduated from the MBA program in 1997 and quickly set about putting his new knowledge to use. As an Internet pioneer, he acquired dozens of domain names, which became ultra-lucrative as more companies set up their own websites and bought the domains from him. After learning about economic bubbles in the program, he was circumspect with his investments and remained successful when the dotcom bubble burst. He also set up an online directory of every firm in Canada that had its own website—at that point, there were only 12. He figured he’d get more traffic to his firm’s site than he knew what to do with, and law firms would be calling him, begging to get into his directory. And that’s exactly what happened.
Over the years, Swanson has worked at several large national firms, but this year, he’s planning to branch out on his own and launch his own virtual law firm from his home. He’ll have a physical drop-off location for couriered documents and packages, but he’ll mostly meet with clients through virtual boardrooms and offices. For one of AU’s inaugural MBA graduates, it is the perfect opportunity to combine the business skills he first began to develop more than two decades ago with his law practise today. “At my firm, I’m the CEO, the chief marketing officer and chief technology officer,” he says. “I’m a successful, leading-edge law firm, applying my natural abilities as a lawyer as well as the knowledge and skills I learned in the program.”
How a family business entrepreneur found the confidence to drive change
Based in: Grande Prairie, AB
Minhas’ journey from pills to plants includes such stops along the way as car salesman, real estate developer, hotelier and—crucially—Athabasca University MBA graduate, the distinction he believes gave him the confidence to go for it all.Watch Vikram’s story here
Vickram Minhas, MBA '17
Vickram Minhas is only 31, but he’s already built a career as varied—and successful—as it is short. A pharmacist, he owns his own shop in Valleyview, Alta., 350 kilometres north of Edmonton. Now, he’s opening Valleyview’s first cannabis store, planning for a second in Slave Lake and a third in Grande Prairie, his birthplace. Minhas’ journey from pills to plants includes such stops along the way as car salesman, real estate developer, hotelier and—crucially—Athabasca University MBA graduate, the distinction he believes gave him the confidence to go for it all.
“I cannot exaggerate the value of what I learned through the MBA program” he says. It’s also the case that an appetite for the new and unknown runs in the family. Minhas grew up in a household of two patriarchs: his father and uncle, who both arrived in northern Alberta from Punjab in the 1970s and took logging jobs deep in the bush. Together, they set up house with their wives and parents, and collectively, they raised Minhas, his sister, and cousins. At the same time, the family built a stump-to-dump logging truck business that peaked in the 2000s at almost four dozen vehicles. It was 24-hour work, especially in winter when the earth hardens to accommodate greater loads. Minhas watched his dad and uncle work tirelessly, taking midnight calls and stamping out logistical fires. He’d inherit their drive.
Minhas moved to Edmonton to study pharmacy at the University of Alberta, returning home each summer to sell cars at another family enterprise: a Mazda dealership. The summer before graduating, he came back home to learn they’d fired the manager; suddenly, at 21, he was thrust into the demanding job of running the dealership. “I was thrown to the dogs,” he says. “It was the most stressful summer of my life.” But he flourished. Today, the family owns five car dealerships along with four hotels—“diversify” may be the family motto.
In 2009, Minhas began working as a pharmacist in Grande Prairie. Shortly after, his uncle died, forcing the family to look at who would inherit his management role. Minhas eventually filled the job, stewarding three major land developments, totalling 300 acres and valued at nearly $50 million, including retail malls, hotels, and a seniors’ home. “Give me a raw piece of farmland and I’ll develop it,” he laughs.
Still, the pressure was enormous, and with little business experience, Minhas says “I found myself with quite a few confidence and competency issues—it was a big learning curve.” He looked around for a good MBA program. When he saw the AU curriculum he knew he’d found the one for him. This was around the time he and his wife had their first of three children. Every night at eight, after the baby was put to sleep, Minhas worked on his lessons, often hitting the books until midnight or later. “It really helped me to believe in what I was doing,” he says, “and get a proper understanding of it.”
Minhas wasted little time putting his newfound confidence to work, and built his own successful Valleyview pharmacy. A second venture followed when Minhas opened Grande Prairie’s first co-working business, which lets out shared and flexible office space to other enterprises (and which at the same time became his own headquarters).
Then, in 2017, came news that Canada’s cannabis laws would be changing. “I don’t smoke, but it was a new industry and that got my juices going,” he says. He incorporated a business—URBN Leaf Cannabis Company—and submitted an application to Alberta’s retail cannabis licensing body the day after they began accepting them. He fashioned a brand and store design, located properties, and built the shops. The company opened its doors in December.
None of it came easy. “You’re disrupting a lot when you open a cannabis store,” he says. “There’s push back from the city and community members saying ‘No, I don’t want a cannabis store.’ You’re disrupting old ways of thinking and doing business.”
All along, Minhas remembered what he learned at AU about perseverance.
“There are a lot of times in your MBA when you feel you’re far from the light,” he says. “It’s just a matter of: Okay, put your head down, keep going, keep going. And you do, and you will succeed.”
Vickram Minhas, MBA '17
Connecting the dots between diversity and productivity
Based in: Halifax, NS
A Nova Scotia native with French Acadian and Mi’kmaq heritage, Denise Pothier began her career in chemical engineering before shifting to a management track, working as a consultant for clients in the oil and gas sector. In 2007, her company was bought by Stantec, where Pothier now holds two titles: Vice President of Practice Services and Stantec’s first-ever Vice President of Indigenous Relations.Learn more about Denise
Denise Pothier, MBA '18
Changing how the world thinks about sustainable procurement
Based in: Surrey, BC
“Ethical and sustainable procurement is about the principles that we adhere to when are buying anything. Particularly in the public sector, we shouldn’t be buying sweatshirts or t-shirts made in sweatshops.”
Progressive purchasing can ensure that we don’t.Learn more about Larry
Larry Berglund, MBA '03
For many of us, the words “supply chain management” may sound more like a sleep aid than a hope-filled pathway to a better world. Larry Berglund, a Vancouver-area consultant, coach and speaker, would beg to differ.
Overseeing an institution’s supply chain, he says, means making or influencing decisions about all the goods and services it procures—from printer paper to construction materials and personnel for a major building project. If you have an interest in sustainability, that represents a tremendous opportunity to make change.
“Ethical and sustainable procurement is about the principles that we adhere to when are buying anything,” he says. “Particularly in the public sector, we shouldn’t be buying sweatshirts or t-shirts made in sweatshops.”
Progressive purchasing can ensure that we don’t.
Not much about Larry Berglund is typical. A man who didn’t bother with an undergraduate degree, he has worked at the University of British Columbia and taught at the B.C. Institute of Technology and Athabasca University, where he also did his MBA. A municipal worker who started out ordering supplies for the City of Vancouver’s sewers department, he eventually helped write the ethical and sustainable procurement policy that was part of Vancouver’s winning bid to host the Winter Games in 2010. His clients include school boards and mining companies, and his involvement with the Supply Chain Management Association of Canada has, intriguingly, led him to teach workshops on leadership and sustainability to UN peacekeeping staff.
Until about 2003, Berglund took a conventional approach to procurement. He fell into the field in the mid-1970s. Family life prompted him to give up his rock ‘n’ roll aspirations— “everybody was in a band in the late 1960s,” he says—and get a real job.
“My wife and I started with one dollar in the bank,” he says.
While at the sewers department, he took courses in purchasing at night. Over the next two decades, he handled procurement for Langley Memorial Hospital, a local shipyard, a sawmill logging operator, and a hospital regional group, becoming a “certified professional purchaser” in 1982.
“I was a traditional buyer, less concerned with where goods came from or how they were made. As long as it hit the price point, I would buy it,” he says.
In 2000, he turned 50 and began mapping a more entrepreneurial course. Thanks to years of work experience, he was able to enrol in Athabasca University’s MBA program as a mature student. His last course at AU, he says, was on the diamond industry.
“It was my first real encounter with the dark side of business,” he says. “I learned about blood diamonds, about exploitive practices. It raised my consciousness. That MBA made a dim bulb a spotlight.”
This nascent interest sprang to life in his new job as the City of Vancouver’s manager of materials management. Vancouver was crafting its Olympic bid and its mayor, Larry Campbell was emphatic that the Games should leave a positive legacy for the city. The Ethical & Sustainable Purchasing Policy Berglund crafted under his tenure made Vancouver a pioneer among Canadian cities.
Berglund notes that “social procurement” goes beyond environmental sustainability, applying ethical principles to all purchasing decisions. Vancouver became one of Canada’s first municipalities to bring in fair-trade-certified agricultural products and coffee in its facilities. The city required compliance with international labour codes—a growing factor in procurement policies that has required Berglund to beef up on trade agreements and labour and bid law.
Berglund also made it a priority to help people with barriers to unemployment find work. During his tenure the city awarded contracts to companies such as Starworks Packaging and Assembly, which employs skilled people from Vancouver’s downtown east-side struggling with alcohol or substance abuse.
“The idea is to help them regain their self-esteem and a pathway to meaningful employment,” he says.
Berglund’s interest in social enterprise has deepened through his work with companies such as Vancouver’s CleanStart, which has applied the idea of hiring disenfranchised workers to a franchise model not reliant on government subsidies.
“It works, it doesn’t cost anybody any more, and it reduces the burden on society to provide those social services,” Berglund says.
A cycle of give and take is built into Berglund’s view of doing business. He does pro bono work for social enterprises. He has written articles about the “circular economy,” which aims to eliminate waste from the supply chain rather than recycling it later, and authored two self-published books, most recently Good Planets are Hard to Buy.
He continues to coach and teach, and this summer will return to Italy to run a weeklong workshop for UN support staff from troubled spots in the world. Some have many years of experience in the UN. They are accomplished people with extraordinary stories, he says. Knowledge, too, travels in both directions.
“I’m fifty per cent teacher, fifty per cent student,” he says.
A life of finding opportunity in disruption
Based in: Plymouth, England
You could sum up Michael LeGoff’s career with a variation on an old gag: a physicist, an engineer, a Navy man, and a CEO walk into a bar—and they’re all Michael LeGoff.Learn more about Michael
Michael LeGoff, MBA '98
LeGoff’s career has taken him to some interesting places: Samoa, Japan, and Peru while in the Navy; several years in Ottawa during its golden age as Silicon Valley North; and 20 years in Plymouth, England, where he bought and relaunched an offshoot of a major British electronics firm, making it a player in the global LED light business.
He has racked up some impressive degrees along the way: an undergraduate degree in physics from the University of Victoria, a master’s degree in engineering from Carleton, and an MBA from Athabasca University that he says had a strong hand in shaping the second half of an eventful career.
LeGoff started out squarely in science. After high school in Winnipeg he joined the Navy, which put him through university. He served for nine years as a naval engineer before doing a stint with construction giant in the early 1990s and obtaining a master’s degree in mechanical engineering. By the time he left that position, he was ready to act on his entrepreneurial ambitions, and enrolled at Athabasca University.
“Working in industry and with small companies I realized I was missing a big piece of my toolbox,” he says. “I was a quite strong engineer, but there’s a lot you don’t know about how a business operates, and at first you don’t even know what you don’t know.”
The MBA gave him a swift education and proved immediately useful. While doing the degree, he was starting his company, Dynex Inc., a semiconductor manufacturer.
“Every module, everything I was learning,” he says, “was directly applicable to what I was doing with my company.”
He set the firm’s strategy while doing the program.
“It was perfectly in sync, the learning at Athabasca and growing my first company, to the extent that I graduated in the spring of 1998 and listed the company in August,” he says.
Dynex launched in the thick of the dotcom boom.
“Telecom was going through the roof, we had mobile telephony taking off, public markets were flying, people were renting jets to get around,” LeGoff says. “It was an exciting time.”
A couple of years later, he acquired a facility in the U.K., which took Dynex from a modest operation with 20 or 30 employees and $5 million a year in sales to employing 400 and topping $50 million a year in sales.
“Our share price went through the roof,” he says.
And then the early 2000s happened. The dotcom bubble burst, markets collapsed, and that was even before 9/11.
“Again, the backing of the MBA gave me a solid base to rely on,” he says.
Dynex retrenched, closing its Canadian office and offices in France and Germany, and moving to the U.K. In 2006, it sold to a Chinese company; LeGoff used his share of the proceeds to acquire the U.K. firm Plessy Semiconductors, for around $1.6 million. He kept the technologies and sold the manufacturing tools, using those funds to buy a site in Plymouth. He raised more than $200 million in private equity to expand Plessy’s technological innovations in the realm of LEDs or light-emitting diodes.
LeGoff’s description of the company’s technology betrays his many years in science.
“The University of Cambridge had developed a way to grow gallium nitride in large-diameter silicon substrates,” he says, before the MBA in him jumps in to translate. “Most LEDs are made on little bits of jewel, either manmade sapphire or manmade diamond. We, with Cambridge, had developed a way to make it on silicon, i.e., a semiconductor product. So our LEDs could be, and still are, a tenth of the cost of even products out of China.”
Plessy focused on specialist applications. Its technology is used in lighting systems in warehouses and factories, and in circadian lighting, “where we control the wavelength of the light, so it doesn’t interfere with circadian rhythms, for those companies that employ a lot of shift workers.”
Another application was what LeGoff calls “horticultural lighting… for the indoor farming market,” including medical-marijuana operations. Plessy was also exploring branching into competitive consumer-focused areas such as wearable VR technologies. But while LeGoff was interested in continuing to build the company, investors wanted to prepare the company for sale. Confronted with the difference in vision, he sold his stake in the company last summer.
LeGoff is now considering his next move. One possibility is a return to Canada; he has young children, and family back home. In the meantime, never one to sit still, he has acquired part ownership of another lighting company and is investing in small start-ups with applications such as antibacterial lighting. He chairs Plymouth Science Park, a MaRS-style public-private partnership between the city council and the University of Plymouth, that has provided a home for innovative companies. He is also consulting, working with a couple of startups launched out of the University of Cambridge.
He says it’s an interesting time to be starting something in the U.K.
“During massive fluctuations, that’s when things happen, where the opportunity is. Brexit is one of these moments,” he says.
He credits his time at Athabasca, and conversations with the MBA program’s founder, Stephen Murgatroyd, in part for awakening him to the potential that exists in times of flux. He acquired the Plessy site in Swindon just after the 2008 financial crisis, when most investors were keeping their heads down. He bought the Plymouth site soon after, in the period between a steep decline and a sharp recovery in the semiconductor industry.
“The problem, of course, in these times is that there’s also risk,” he says. “My view is, you’ve got to do something. Do something.”
Seeing the bigger picture in sustainable oil development
Based in: Calgary, AB
“The real crux of the matter is that every company is in business to be profitable,” Harris says. With an MBA, “Rather than presenting elegant engineering solutions, you are better suited to provide practical solutions that fit the business drivers and the strategic goals of the organization and your department.”Learn more about Roger
Roger Harris, MBA '02
Roger Harris was just 21 years old when he emigrated from his native Guyana to Canada in 1971. Thunder Bay, Ontario, was a long way from home, but it was where his godfather lived—and where his godfather’s wife held a position at Lakehead University. They took Harris under their wing and gave him a place to stay while he worked toward his first undergraduate degree in the sciences, before entering the university’s chemical engineering program.
By 1976, Harris was a Canadian citizen, and two years later he completed his bachelor of science in chemical engineering. It would be another twenty years before he enrolled at Athabasca University’s MBA program, decades during which Harris would come to appreciate the importance of being able to present engineering solutions from a business perspective.
After graduating from Lakehead, Harris and his wife moved to Alberta’s oil patch, where he worked in field operations for a small drilling outfit called International Drilling Fluids. From there, he moved to Amoco, which soon merged with British Petroleum to form BP Amoco. Then Canadian Natural Resources Limited bought all of BP Amoco’s Alberta oil assets.
“I got sold twice,” Harris says.
All the while he was working on heavy oil field experiments, helping to develop efficient and cost-effective oil extraction methods. By the late 1990s, Harris was starting to feel hampered by his lack of knowledge of the oil industry’s business side.
“I was looking at my career,” he says, “and at that time a powerful combination would have been an engineering degree with an MBA.”
But there was no way for Harris to go to a bricks-and-mortar university. He was working in small oil patch towns like Fort McMurray and Drayton Valley, far from cities where he might attend classes.
“Athabasca was a perfect fit for me because I could do it long-distance,” he says.
He’d met others through his work who’d recommended Athabasca University’s MBA program, so he enrolled while on the job in Slave Lake, Alberta.
“The real crux of the matter is that every company is in business to be profitable,” Harris says. With an MBA, “Rather than presenting elegant engineering solutions, you are better suited to provide practical solutions that fit the business drivers and the strategic goals of the organization and your department.”
It wasn’t easy to complete an MBA while working full-time, but the program allowed Harris to see his job in a whole new light. For his final paper—which Athabasca awarded one of the best of the year when Harris graduated, and which was later published in the journal Technovation—he wrote about sustainable development for oil producers.
“(The research) was a real eye-opener, especially in light of the issues of today of petroleum development versus environmental issues, and the balance between the two,” he says.
Since his early days in petroleum production, Harris has seen an astonishing migration of thought in terms of how businesses, particularly in the energy sector, view issues of environmental impact. Thirty years ago, the emphasis was on producing as much as possible when the prices were right; now, companies take into account many more factors.
“Business decisions these days are going green,” he says, “even in the petroleum sector. That’s been a huge focus for engineering and petroleum companies in Alberta. Not only using technology but using strategies and efficiencies to reduce environmental impact.”
Harris’s time at Athabasca helped him reassess the work he had been doing as an engineer. With the help of a particularly fascinating finance course, Harris hung out his own shingle upon retiring from Canadian Natural Resources Limited in 2012, launching a growing private investment company that he runs from his home in Calgary. Looking back on his own undergraduate education, he believes engineering schools should split their curricula between technical issues and business and environmental concerns.
“There’s a balance to be made,” he says. “Nature has a way of repairing damage if it’s not overdone, but humans have a responsibility to limit that damage.”
Rethinking expectations in Canadian banking
Based in: Toronto, ON
Sharon Ritchie never pictured herself working past her 20s, so she’s just as surprised as anyone by how high up the corporate ladder she’s climbed. Ritchie, a Toronto-based vice president with the Royal Bank of Canada, married when she was just 19 and planned to stay home and raise children while her husband worked.Learn more about Sharon
Sharon Ritchie, MBA '99
Sharon Ritchie never pictured herself working past her 20s, so she’s just as surprised as anyone by how high up the corporate ladder she’s climbed. Ritchie, a Toronto-based vice president with the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC), married when she was just 19 and planned to stay home and raise children while her husband worked.
Until then, though, she needed a job, which is why she applied to be a bank teller at RBC fresh out of high school.
“They hired me on the spot,” she says. “I didn’t think I needed a career, but then I started switching jobs every couple of years.”
Despite having no post-secondary education, Ritchie was being offered increasingly more senior jobs at her branch until, in 1996, she was asked to take a temporary position at RBC’s head office.
“I was apprehensive,” she says. “I knew what I was doing at the branch. Head office seemed like a big black hole and I didn’t know what it would be like.”
She was only supposed to stay a year but ended up loving the challenges that came with helping grow RBC’s business on a national level. It also gave her a taste of the corporate life— and she wanted more. However, there was one problem: landing a coveted vice president spot at the company would require post-secondary education. She had been taking night classes to improve her skills, but it wasn’t enough.
In 1997, Ritchie, who by this time had two young children, enrolled in Athabasca University’s online MBA program—she only needed a high school diploma and management experience to be accepted—in part, because it allowed her to continue working full-time at RBC and raise a family. Most of the work was virtual.
“They were ahead of their time,” says Ritchie about the university.
She had to put in about 15 to 30 hours a week, less than what other MBA programs demanded.
“I was able to balance work and family and still get a high-quality education,” she says.
Not surprisingly, Ritchie was nervous at first.
“I had been out of school for so long and I get bored very easily,” she says.
But her apprehension quickly faded. Every course was fascinating. She particularly liked finance, which surprised her, as she was more of an operations person. The Harvard case studies she worked on were riveting and the hands-on work helped prepare her for the real world. She enjoyed it so much that she doubled up on her courses.
One class in particular continues to stand out. She was asked to look at a U.S.-based company’s operations and then, in a week, come up with recommendations on how it could grow its business. Her group presented their findings via live video to the company’s executives.
“These things make it more relevant,” she says. “We were helping people in their business.”
Ritchie got a lot out of the program, including lifelong friends. But perhaps most importantly, it helped her land that vice president role, which she moved into in 2010. Now, as vice president, operations centre, Ritchie oversees 2,000 people across multiple divisions. Her group retrains staff to work in other areas of the company.
Looking back now, she thinks Athabasca’s MBA made her a better banker and it helped her gain a love of learning that she didn’t know she had.
“I would not have traded this for anything,” she says.
What’s most surprising to her, though, is her MBA, along with her strong work ethic and constant drive, has given her a life she didn’t think could ever exist for herself.
“I ended up becoming the breadwinner and my husband stayed home,” he says. “That’s something I never imagined.”