Driving technological change at one of Canada’s oldest banks
Based in: Toronto, ON
“I couldn’t have gone this far without the financial acumen, the ethics, the marketing, the human experience I got at Athabasca University,” McGowan says. “I was able to learn on my own dime, on my own time.”Watch Claudette’s story here
Claudette McGowan, MBA '11
In 2008, Claudette McGowan was itching to take her career to the next level. She’d spent eight years as a technology director at the Bank of Montreal in Toronto, and she wanted to deploy her tech experience in an executive role at the company, whether that meant retail, or legal, or accounting. First Canadian Place offered a business program, but it would have required her to either take a leave from work or give up weekend time with her family, neither of which she was prepared to do.
“What I thought would be a slam dunk turned out to be a non-starter,” she says.
Athabasca University’s MBA program appealed to her not only for its flexibility, but for its embrace of burgeoning technological tools. In 2008, the concept of telework was just starting to permeate the corporate world, and McGowan had been instrumental in bringing mobile working and Skype for Business to BMO. And while she appreciated the opportunity to work around her own schedule, she also knew that Athabasca’s program was rigorous.
“People don’t know how difficult it is and how disciplined you need to be,” she says. “It’s not a free-for-all.”
The program also demanded collaboration and participation. When McGowan was completing her Bachelor of Arts at the University of Windsor, she was able to hide in a lecture hall of 300 people and stay anonymous. Athabasca’s program forced her to speak up.
“You’d expect virtual education is isolated, but it’s actually more collaborative,” she says. “You see other points of view. You open your mind and say, ‘Hey, I don’t have that perspective.’”
McGowan was an expert technologist, but it wasn’t until she got to Athabasca that she was trained to think about the customer. She took marketing courses that helped her think about who her end users were and how to engage them. She learned the significance of testing the products with audiences and incorporating their feedback.
“I’m now one of the experts in experiential technology, ensuring it has high adoption, brings joy, has utility,” she says.
McGowan had spent most of her university years avoiding accounting courses, but at Athabasca she realized they were crucial—if she wanted to get to the executive level, she’d have to get a handle on managing big budgets and working with a portfolio. In her operations course, she studied logistics, design and how products travel through the supply chain to distribution. Toward the end of the program, she wrote a dissertation about the multigenerational workforce, focusing on the similarities that connect boomers and millennials.
“They all want to have a sense of community. They all want to be heard. And they all want flexibility,” she says. “I may want to work from home because I have a baby or an ill parent or another constraint that prevents me from being mobile. That spans generations.”
In the years following McGowan’s graduation from Athabasca in 2011, she rapidly moved up the corporate ladder at BMO. She went from a director, in charge of 100 employees, up to a company vice-president, in charge of around 1,000 employees. She brought new email and mobility systems to the bank and helped shepherd the installation of Apple technology at the branches.
She kept supplementing her education, taking courses at Lakehead and Harvard, and last year she was promoted to chief information officer at BMO. She’s currently leading the technology strain for BMO’s splashy new 346,000-square-foot urban campus above the Eaton Centre in Toronto.
“I couldn’t have gone this far without the financial acumen, the ethics, the marketing, the human experience I got at Athabasca University,” she says. “I was able to learn on my own dime, on my own time.”
Claudette McGowan, MBA '11
Innovating bitumen production
Based in: Calgary, AB
“An MBA is about the systems that allow you to develop new technologies efficiently, effectively, and quickly. It’s taking an idea through to commercialization. Those pathways are definitely enforced in AU’s MBA program.”Learn more about Joy
Joy Romero, MBA '06
Joy Romero is vice-president of technology and innovation at Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. (CNR), in Calgary. She joined the oil-and-gas company 18 years ago, after working in British Columbia and Labrador in iron ore and coal. While obtaining her MBA through Athabasca University (AU) between 2003 and 2006, Romero was also in charge of developing the bitumen production component of the Horizon Oil Sands Mine, a $12-billion project that employed more than 10,000 people at peak construction. Romero explains how she used her MBA assignments to overcome work challenges, such as establishing a communication strategy that is still used today, and introducing technology to improve CNR’s environmental footprint.
Reinventing how a non-profit delivers housing in Grande Prairie
Based in: Grande Prairie, AB
“My motivation was professional growth. An MBA would give me the tools to do what I’d always wanted, to be a leader in my community.”Learn more about Steve
Steve Madden, MBA '15
Steve Madden has never been complacent. After studying environmental science in his native PEI, he couldn’t find a job locally so he packed up and moved west to Alberta.
He spent the next two decades building a successful career in his chosen field, most recently as an environmental service manager. Through it all, Madden had another, bigger plan in mind: to get his MBA.
“My motivation was professional growth,” he said. “The MBA would give me the tools to do what I’d always wanted, to be a leader in my community.”
After completing his Athabasca University (AU) MBA in 2015, Madden moved quickly through two senior management positions, first at a local engineering company and then in Bon Accord, a small community northeast of Edmonton. He most recently took the helm of the Grande Spirit Foundation (GSF), a non-profit housing management body that provides rental accommodations for more than 1,500 seniors and families throughout northwestern Alberta.
As GSF’s chief administrative officer, Madden works with his employees as well as provincial and federal counterparts to find capital for future housing projects. The need is significant, and there are “huge wait lists,” Madden said, adding he was drawn to this work because of his progressive social politics, as well as his experience managing rental properties as a family side business.
Madden is already making his mark at GSF by leading the development of a proposed $24-million care residence in nearby Spirit River that would accommodate 125 seniors and employ up to 30 people.
It’s a break from the organization’s roots. To date, GSF has primarily provided housekeeping and meal services with homecare to seniors who are able-bodied. But Madden’s plan is to build a facility that will be able to provide 24/7 assistance to residents who develop dementia, mobility, and eating difficulties. The goal is to help people to “aging in place,” which is increasingly important as Canada’s population gets older.
This “shift in thinking,” as Madden calls it, has proven complex since it entails dealing with many different stakeholders in order to move the project from wishful concept to reality. The epic challenge was conceived before Madden’s arrival at GSF, but it’s no less his baby.
Whether working to motivate employees or negotiating with cash-conscious governments, Madden has applied a “win-lose/win-win” principle, something he learned during his MBA.
Madden begins by trying to understand where the other party is coming from, or, “What their limitations are,” he says. He then builds a solution from that point rather than forcing his position from the start, something required for being a good leader.
“If something goes sideways, you accept the blame,” Madden said. “But if it’s a success, then you give it back to staff and say this is your win, not mine. You have to be humble.”
Madden is also putting this wisdom to use as the newly elected president of the local Rotary Club, where he plans to help rebuild a community centre, support youth exchange programs and scholarships, and raise funds to send service vehicles such as school buses, ambulances, and fire trucks to Mexico.
For Madden, receiving an MBA was a double dream come true. He was not only the first in his family to get university and graduate degrees, but his education also landed him squarely in that coveted role of community leader, trying every day to improve the lives of neighbours near and far.
“That’s what defines an MBA graduate,” Madden says. “You’re always thinking outside the box and trying to better your community.”
Looking ahead, Madden is optimistic about getting that new seniors’ residence up and running. “It will require planning, business acumen, negotiations, and strong relationships,” he says, “Success in this area will be a milestone for the organization.”
And, surely, for this MBA grad too.
A game changer in the world of junior hockey
Based in: Swift Current, SK
“I learned about the importance of having a sound mission and vision, and how to stay within those guidelines. You’re not making decisions about the bottom line, but about how to fulfill your vision. That’s why governments, organizations, and customers are supporting you at the end of the day.”Learn more about Nathan
Nathan MacDonald, MBA '18
Growing up, Nathan MacDonald was a devoted fan of the Calgary Flames. He worked for years as a chartered accountant, but through Athabasca University, he found a way to merge his business experience with his true passion, hockey. As a member of the first cohort of the Business of Hockey program, MacDonald began to see the sport in a new light, and to appreciate the complex economic theories and financial stakeholders behind the cheering crowds and bright lights of the arena. Now, with the help of his Athabasca University MBA, he’s fostering the hockey stars of the future.
From farmhand to the frontier of fintech
Based in: Edmonton, AB
“I see my MBA at Athabasca as a key part of my development and learning journey to get to where I am today—and I am loving it!”Learn more about Curtis
Curtis Stange, MBA '00
Curtis Stange began his working life as a farmhand in Saskatchewan and aspired to one day run a farm of his own. Then an encounter with a recruiter from one of Canada’s big banks upended all that.
Instead he went on to a career in banking that started with supporting farmers with their financial needs and later led to the very cutting edge of fintech—from pioneering international blockchain transfers to Apple Pay and virtual banking assistants. Now 54, Stange was named CEO of ATB Financial last summer. He says his journey from farmhand to bank whiz might never have happened without his Athabasca University MBA, which helped leverage the leadership skills he needed to get it all done.
“That learning moment was a big enabler at a pivotal time,” he says.
Stange was studying agriculture at the University of Saskatchewan’s College of Agriculture in Saskatoon when he met the recruiter, who was from CIBC.
“He wasn’t a Bay-Street, pinstriped-suit banker, he was an agrologist himself,” Stange says of the man whose career pitch changed his life.
“Work with farmers but do it as a banker,” the man advised. “Lend them money; know their businesses. That’s how you can stay connected to farming.”
After he returned to his summer job as a hired hand on a grain farm south of Swift Current, Sask., CIBC reached out to offer him a job. The farmer he was working for was an older man who had grown preoccupied with the question of who’d take over the farm after his retirement. Stange was intrigued by CIBC’s offer, and told the farmer he intended to accept the position.
“A few days later, one night after dinner, he called me to the porch,” Stange says. “He slouched down in his chair, put his hat over his eyes, and offered me an opportunity to buy into the farm.'”
Stange very nearly did. “It was a defining moment,” he says. Yet the banking world beckoned, and he followed its call. At CIBC, Stange worked his way from Kelvington, in northern Saskatchewan, to Regina and Saskatoon, followed by Kelowna, and Edmonton. Understanding CIBC’s size and the breadth of opportunity available there, he diversified, from agriculture to wealth management to leadership.
It was while he was a branch manager in Edmonton, in 1997, that he started the Athabasca MBA.
“I don’t want to undersell this one iota, it was meaningful,” he says of the program. “The types of courses I was taking, on strategy, marketing, human resources, I’d ask different questions than other branch managers—the right questions.”
As a result, he was singled out, and ultimately given responsibility for 15 CIBC branches across Edmonton.
From there the bank sent him to Toronto (where he finished AU’s online MBA program), then Ottawa, where he ran all of CIBC’s eastern- and northern-Ontario operations. Later, in Calgary, he was put in charge of CIBC Alberta. It was there, after 23 years at CIBC, that Stange got the call from ATB Financial.
He was soon leading the world’s first “big bang” replacement of a core banking system—the underlying tech that banks rely on for most transactions—and in one fell swoop moved ATB from a “mainframe” to a more malleable and technologically advanced “distributive” system. That put ATB ahead of even Canada’s largest banks and as its Chief Strategy and Operations Officer, a brand-new role designed just for him, Stange exploited the disruptive opportunities that this giant shift made available to him. He moved money from ATB’s books to a German bank via the blockchain in 2015, launched Apple Pay in concert with Canada’s largest banks, and helped create a bot in Facebook Messenger that today helps ATB customers do their banking on social media, a global first.
“We were being super disruptive, and we were showing off a little bit based on our new core,” says Stange. When Curtis looks back on his nearly ten years with ATB he points to three enablers.
“I’ve lived through three quotients that have increased in importance over the years,” as he puts it. “IQ gets you in the game, EQ, or emotional intelligence, keeps you there, and nowadays it’s AQ, the adaptability quotient—the ability to constantly be curious, hungry for information, always looking at disrupting. That resiliency allows you to fail and understand failure. AQ differentiates you and can differentiate companies.”
It differentiated Stange.
“I see my MBA at Athabasca as a key part of my development and learning journey to get to where I am today— and I am loving it!”
Powered up by education
Based in: Pickering, ON
“The main thing I learned was the ability to look at a problem from different perspectives: to learn how the same problem looks different to an HR person, or a financial person, or a marketing person.”Learn more about Frederick
Frederick Enns, MBA '04
Fred Enns had spent his post-university years loading up on night courses and continuing education, hoping to develop his mind, as well as his career. In 2001, he saw an article in a small Ontario newspaper about Athabasca University’s MBA program, and decided to apply with the goal of growing his business acumen. At Athabasca University (AU), he felt like he had found a second home, connecting with peers from other industries, and learning to look at business problems from different perspectives. He liked it so much that he stayed on after graduation, working for AU as director of finance and operations.
A global citizen speaking the international language of numbers
Based in: Brampton, ON
The Association of Chartered Certified Accountants had suggested several MBA programs, but Ofori-Mensah chose AU in part for its convenience. He could work at the same time as he pursued his studies.Learn more about Johnson
Johnson Ofori-Mensah, MBA '16
It may seem a long way from Accra, Ghana, to the Greater Toronto Area, but Johnson Ofori-Mensah discovered the language of numbers translates pretty well.
Ofori-Mensah, a financial manager and accountant by trade, immigrated to Canada in 2011, and recalls he arrived on the eleventh of November, 11-11-11. He wasted no time in trying to optimize that common language.
When he left Accra, he was finance manager and acting Chief Financial Officer (CFO) with an insurance company. Within a year of arriving in Canada, he had enrolled in Athabasca University’s (AU) MBA program, pursuing coursework with a focus on corporate governance and strategic management.
Ofori-Mensah came with high-level professional experience. In Ghana, he had obtained a respected international accreditation from the U.K.-based Association of Certified Chartered Accountants. He started his career at PKF, a multinational network of accounting firms that operates in 150 countries around the world. He began as an audit assistant and rose to audit manager.
“That’s where I cut my teeth, so to speak, in developing my skills and competencies in audits and financial accounts, as well as in providing some advice in management and corporate governance,” he said.
After 10 years with PKF, he left for Trasacco Estates Development Company, a major property developer in Accra. Trasacco’s current building projects are worth upwards of $460 million, including a football stadium and Ghana’s tallest commercial and residential tower. In his role as accounting manager, Ofori-Mensah oversaw his department, preparing financial statements, overseeing payables and receivables, and working with external auditors for the firm.
He went from Trasacco to Export Finance Company Limited, which he describes as Ghana’s equivalence to Canada’s Export Development Corporation. A head-hunter then recruited him to Unique Insurance, a company co-owned by the Ghana Mine Workers Union, the national teachers’ union, and other significant players in Ghana.
He became finance manager and acting CFO at Unique in 2009, just two years before he left the country—and a thriving career. But he was drawn to Canada by some of the same things that have drawn millions of newcomers here.
“I always wanted to be a global citizen,” he said. “Canada, being a peaceful and multicultural country appealed to me.”
Ofori-Mensah’s professional aim was to get into the Canadian finance sector. He registered with Costi, a non-profit that helps newcomers connect with opportunities and he decided to pursue his Chartered Professional Accountant designation. But first he wanted to get his MBA, which he saw as a way of broadening and developing his on-the-job management experience. The Association of Chartered Certified Accountants had suggested several programs, but he chose AU in part for its convenience. He could work at the same time as he pursued his studies. The program at AU, in addition to providing a high-quality education, also offered networking opportunities.
“Networking here is very important to move ahead in your career,” he said. “It’s not so key in Ghana.” He chose to focus on corporate governance and risk management because issues of governance are “so key in companies, especially large ones. They can impact society positively—or otherwise.”
Since 2012 Ofori-Mensah has worked for the John M. Yeboah Professional Corporation, an independent accounting firm. He started as client services manager, providing business, taxation, and accounting services to companies. He is currently a finance and governance consultant, working with senior management with a range of clients—law offices, dental clinics, and various small- and mid-size companies—to strengthen internal controls and governance.
He’s matter- of- fact about the huge changes he’s made in the past seven years. Canada and Ghana aren’t that different, he says—“they’re both Commonwealth countries, so there are similarities.” He’s acclimatized to the winters, and his wife and children, too, are comfortable with the rhythm of life here.
Looking ahead to the next chapter, Ofori-Mensah, armed with his MBA, plans to eventually move into a larger-scale, business environment more like the ones he worked at back home. He enjoys his work with his small-business clients very much, but corporate life has its draw. “I like to be in the middle of the action!”
It will be yet another chance to prove how the language of numbers can translate into opportunity.
Uncorking a global vision for a growing wine importer
Based in: Toronto, ON
“Once I decided that an MBA would be a good idea, I looked for programs with flexible schedules. I was in my early 40s, I travelled frequently for work, and I couldn’t be tied to the classroom. AU jumped right out.”Learn more about Scott
Scott Montgomery, MBA '09
Scott Montgomery was a was Canadian Sales & Marketing manager for a growing wine company when he realized he needed to augment his business skills. His job required frequent travel, so he searched for a flexible MBA program that would allow him to complete courses remotely. He enrolled at Athabasca University (AU) and was struck by the diversity of students in the program—he was the only person in his cohort who worked in the wine industry. He learned to see the bigger picture of running a healthy company in the long term and 13 years later, he’s a vice-president at one of North America’s top wine importers. Here, he shares how AU helped to get him there.
Helping at-risk youth with a new non-profit model for corporate partnerships
Based in: Calgary, AB
“We tend to deal with what’s in front of us—serving this youth,” Blair said. “But we don’t take the time or the resources to grow the business. An MBA seemed like a good next step for me.”Learn more about Denise
Denise Blair, MBA '10
In 2008, Denise Blair had spent 12 years as executive director of the Calgary Youth Justice Society (CYJS), providing support to at-risk youth and offering them opportunities that would divert them from criminal behaviour. The CYJS was a small organization, and Blair wore a lot of hats in addition to her role as executive director, she was also the charity’s de facto CFO, operations chief, HR manager, marketing lead, and head of strategic planning.
“We tend to deal with what’s in front of us—serving this youth,” she said. “But we don’t take the time or the resources to grow the business. An MBA seemed like a good next step for me.”
Blair attended an information session on Athabasca University’s (AU) MBA program, which would allow her to develop her business acumen without sacrificing time on the job. The CYJS didn’t have the funds to pay for her degree, but she found out that the school was offering a one-time scholarship reserved for students involved in leadership and community service. She submitted an essay, outlining her career path and her ambitions for her organization, and won the scholarship. It paid for her full tuition.
“It was like winning the lottery,” she said. “When I heard the news, I knew I was going to do whatever I could to pay it forward and use my education to benefit the community. This wasn’t just about me and my career.”
People had warned Blair that doing her MBA online could be isolating and might prevent her from building networks. But Blair had no qualms. In fact, she found studying at AU to be just the opposite of isolating. Unlike in her undergrad, where she sat in large lecture halls and didn’t speak to anyone, discussions and group work were built right into the MBA’s curriculum. Blair found that she had access to a more diverse cross-section of students than she would at a traditional university.
“Where do you get access to so many people who have unique and different challenges in one place? The conversations were extremely rich,” she says. One of her classmates was a soldier serving in Afghanistan. Another woman was an Indigenous trapper living in a log cabin in rural Canada.
She wanted to use her degree to improve her community. All of her classes were applicable to the non-profit sector, but the one she found most useful was her marketing course. For one of her assignments, she was tasked with developing a marketing plan. She decided to base her strategy on an idea for a leadership program for vulnerable students she had been mulling over.
Her new business aptitude helped her look at the idea of corporate partnerships in a fresh way. She envisioned a program that would generate a tangible return on investment for companies that got involved with CYJS. In addition to asking for funding, she would ask employees of a corporate partner to volunteer as coaches for the kids.
“We wanted to measure how the employees and workplace would be impacted by this experience,” she says. “We wanted to measure the coaches’ engagement with their corporation and their skills as employees and supervisors, and help build a mentoring culture in the company.”
A few weeks after drawing up the plan for her class, Blair described her idea to a woman who turned out to work in community investment at a large energy company. That company ended up committing to three years of partnership, turning a marketing-class assignment into a fully realized program.
Blair graduated from AU in 2010. Her leadership program, called “In the Lead,” has run for about eight years and mentored hundreds of kids. They’ve worked with five corporations and deployed the program in school and community settings. And that original corporate partner is still with them.
“When I first graduated, I was already equipped with skills and tools for a running start,” Blair said. “As the years went on, it evolved into changing the way I thought and who I was as a leader.”
Forging growth in the steel industry
Based in: Edmonton, AB
“I believe that education is key to correcting a lot of the short falls we see in our communities today. It’s not just a post-secondary education, but education in general. If we can find a way to improve the level of education, then that will be better for everyone.”Learn more about Doug
Doug Schindel, MBA '05
Doug Schindel has had what would now be considered an unconventional career. For 42 years, the longtime engineer worked for Weldco, a company that creates heavy steel implements for the construction and mining sectors. He worked his way up, and decided to get his MBA only after he became president of the company—an experience that helped him determine which aspects of the business suited his expertise, and which would be better served by hiring talented personnel. Now retired, Schindel explains why he stuck with the same company for so long, and his decision to get an MBA from Athabasca University (AU).
Leading non-profits through change
Based in: Toronto, ON
Cummings credits her MBA with preparing her for strategic challenges in her career. Along the way she has picked up a useful “hobby” in non-profit governance, and some industry recognition—including a 2016 award for a program she helped launch at the CCCA.Learn more about Cathy
Cathy Cummings, MBA '02
Years ago, Cathy Cummings’s kids had a talk with her.
“I get frustrated easily in retail environments when service doesn’t go my way,” Cummings said.
“A little too critical” was how her kids put it. Cummings, entirely to her credit, listened. In response she launched a personal effort she calls the “bouquet project,” in which she registers praise for work well done rather than complaints when something goes wrong. Bucking the trend of Yelp revenge, Cummings began singling out people for praise, and in the process of giving back, found a generally rosier outlook on the world.
Her new job is, in a sense, a perfect expression of that philosophy. Cummings, a graduate of Athabasca University’s MBA program, was recently named executive director of the International Alliance of ALS/MND Associations, a global body with its roots in the U.K., which aims to provide a support network and shared information for ALS organizations around the world.
Cummings has a personal connection to Lou Gehrig’s Disease (known outside North America as Motor Neuron Disease). Her mother died from ALS, a condition in which nerves lose the ability to communicate with muscles, leading to a loss of speech, mobility, and eventually functions such as breathing. Post diagnosis, the life expectancy for patients typically tops out at five years. ALS became a personal cause for Cummings; she served as chair of ALS Ontario and as board member of ALS Canada, two organizations she then helped to amalgamate successfully.
Her new job is also the culmination of a fruitful career leading non-profits. Cummings started out handling payroll and benefits at the Canadian Auto Workers, now Unifor. While there she enrolled at Athabasca. She had two young children, and the school’s flexibility and its well-developed online modules appealed to her. She still recalls an influential AU workshop on knowledge management, held in Halifax.
“The focus was not on technology, which is what a lot of people think of,” Cummings said. “It was more about the human interactions, and how they can play out in the workplace—for example how to change the way sidewalk conversations happen.”
Cummings said the course shaped her management style. When she started her next job, as a vice president at the Canadian Payroll Association, she saw how physical space affects corporate culture.
“One of the things I noticed is that we worked in a building shaped like an H,” she said. “The elevators were the bar of the H; the president was on one side and the rest of the staff on the other side.”
Cummings was struck by the remoteness this signaled and resolved not to repeat it if she one day found herself running an organization. She soon was, as head of the Canadian Corporate Counsel Association (CCCA), a subsidiary of the Canadian Bar Association (CBA).
She stepped into an organization undergoing significant change. The group had just dissolved its board and staff after disputes over funding and the group’s relationship to the CBA. She was hired as interim executive director while they searched for a lawyer to lead the group.
“I said to them in that first interview, ‘With all due respect, you don’t need a lawyer to run an association; you need an association manager,’” Cummings said, and it didn’t take long for them to be convinced. “We had to rebuild the board and rebuild the operation, and we had about eight months. It’s a great learning opportunity to work through a crisis like that.”
The legal sector, too, has gone through upheaval, a reality she saw when she became executive director of Shared Service at the CBA, working with regional offices and subsidiaries to coordinate administrative resources, programs that support member lawyers, and more. Just as outside the law debates swirl about questions of access and affordability, within it, businesses—the biggest consumers of legal services—are demanding change and efficiency.
Some scholars including the legal authority Richard Susskind, with whom Cummings has worked, have explored online courts inspired by eBay’s dispute-resolution mechanism, which has settled some 60 million disagreements without the need for court appearances. A colleague of Cummings’s saw a good model for the legal profession in “unbundling” services the way dental clinics do: when you go to see the dentist, you also see a hygienist, perhaps an X-ray technician, someone in invoicing.
“There are transactional pieces that can be done by a different group or by artificial intelligence,” Cummings notes—changes that would, of course, bring their own set of questions,” she said.
Cummings credits her MBA with preparing her for such strategic challenges in her career. Along the way she has picked up a useful “hobby” in non-profit governance, and some industry recognition—including a 2016 award for a program she helped launch at the CCCA.
The professional certification, offered with the Rotman School of Business at U of T, aims to give in-house corporate lawyers the sorts of business skills that law school doesn’t teach. That project is what she’s proudest of in her career, she said.
Well, so far. One gets the feeling that Cathy Cummings isn’t done collecting bouquets—any more than she’s done giving them.
Bring business principles to the delivery of social services at the Samson Cree Nation
Based in: Maskwacis, AB
“You can’t go home again,” the saying goes—proving only that clichés can persist despite being untrue. The idea is that it’s impossible to return to your past. But you can go back to your roots, of course—and quite happily, as Heather Buffalo will tell you.Learn more about Heather
Heather Buffalo, MBA '14
“You can’t go home again,” the saying goes—proving only that clichés can persist despite being untrue. The idea is that it’s impossible to return to your past. But you can go back to your roots, of course—and quite happily, as Heather Buffalo will tell you.
Buffalo grew up in Samson Cree Nation, in Alberta, but left to pursue studies in Calgary and then Los Angeles before coming home to Maskwacis, where she has spent the last two decades working to bring change and innovation to community programs.
Buffalo, who has an MBA from Athabasca University, is senior manager for Nipisihkopahk Wellness and Social Development on the Samson reserve. The value of education was instilled by her father, a five-term Samson Cree chief, and founder of an education trust that brought the first on-reserve schools to the community in the 1980s.
As a teen Heather went to Athol Murray College of Notre Dame, a top-notch Catholic high school in Wilcox, Sask., with an emphasis on academics, athletics, and faith. Post-graduation, she started with modest ambitions. She took a few courses at Mount Royal University in Calgary, then returned to Samson to work a series of clerical jobs, in customer service, and payroll. In 1994, she returned to school, leaving home for Glendale Community College, in California.
“I needed something different in my life, and I had friends down there,” she says.
California was certainly different; on her first night in her own apartment the famous Northridge earthquake occurred. But she settled into her new life. At first, she says, “my aspirations weren’t high at all.” Then she met a student counselor, who reviewed her coursework and encouraged her to apply to California State University.
“She was really good and really patient,” Buffalo says.
So Buffalo did, and was accepted. She earned her bachelor of science in business administration from Cal-State, then headed back to Canada after graduating in 1999. It was not a struggle to leave sunny L.A.
“I was going home,” she says. “I got a U-Haul, and family came down and helped me move.”
For a time she worked at Peace Hills Trust, the First Nations-owned bank, then moved on to a position as manager of human resource training and development for Samson Cree Nation. Her role involved helping low-income individuals participate in training programs and opportunities to employment.
In 2007, hungry for another challenge, she enrolled at Athabasca. She continued to work, and a couple of years after she enrolled, she was promoted to her current position. She now oversees various departments in the area of social development focusing on service delivery to Samson Cree Nation members and residents.
Her MBA proved useful from day one, she says. Her coursework focused on areas such as leadership, change-management theory and team building, which were entirely relevant to her new position.
“What benefited me the most was (studying) negotiation,” she says, explaining that she deals a lot with provincial and federal governments on funding arrangements.
Her MBA program also helped her in “changing the culture in the organization,” she says. In her work, Buffalo found herself confronting some staffing issues.
“At one point I was overseeing 15 managers, and I thought that was ridiculous,” she says. “Some of the work was redundant and some of it was duplication. They all knew changes needed to be made, and we were going to streamline.”
The challenge was getting people onside.
“I brought them all together and we did kind of a retreat. It took time, but we compromised and agreed to five managers,” she says.
The focus of the social services she oversees is, she says, “building capacity among community members to help each other.” There are funding constraints, of course.
“One of the biggest challenges is in not meeting the needs of every person,” she says.
But she aims to bring a solid grounding in business principles to the administration of programs and resources on the reserve.
“With the new tools, my team and I have worked to integrate programs and departments and break down silos. With limited resources,” she says, “we do our best.”
From satellites to AI, a life on technology’s cutting edge
Based in: Toronto, ON
While it wasn’t intentional, Michael Martin has been on technology’s cutting edge since his first job in video in 1976. The Toronto-based executive who built Bell ExpressVu, was a behind-the-scenes tech producer on SCTV, and is now working in the office of the CTO at IBM Services, responsible for Internet of Things (IoT) and broadband networks. He helps clients navigate often-bewildering new technologies like AI and blockchain. As big of a tech guy as he is, he wouldn’t be where he is today without his Athabasca MBA—the degree that kick-started his appreciation for lifelong learning. Martin discusses his fascinating career and how he became “addicted” to higher education.Learn more about Martin
Michael Martin, MBA '07
Reaching new heights in the aviation sector
Based in: Vancouver, BC
Michael Nagel was bit by the aviation bug at an early age. Growing up in Montreal, he had an uncle who worked as an airline engineer, which inspired him to get his license to fly helicopters. For over a decade, he flew all over Canada before transitioning to a managerial position at Canadian Airlines and Air Canada. But he wanted to climb higher, so he enrolled at Athabasca University, poring over books in hotel rooms at night as he traveled for work. Today, Nagel is an aviation consultant for major oil and gas companies, with a focus on workforce logistics. He shares how his Athabasca University MBA got him where he needed to go.Learn more about Michael
Michael Nagel, MBA '01
Bringing a holistic approach to the recruitment industry
Based in: Calgary, AB
“Multinational organizations have many departments that all interface with each other internally. I wanted to be a more holistic provider and more engaged listener.”Learn more about Rae
Rae Shungur, MBA '13
From the time Rae Shungur graduated with his bachelor of arts from the University of Calgary in 2000, he knew he wanted to one day pursue an MBA.
“I always felt like there was going to be a sequel to what I’d just finished,” he said.
He spent much of the next decade travelling through Asia, working in the gem trade, before returning to Alberta and landing a job as an account manager at a recruitment firm. He had a knack for the work right away, but he always felt he was missing the business background that he required to properly serve his clients. He was working with massive oil and gas companies, and he needed to understand how they worked.
“The people I was speaking to were talking over my head,” he said. “These multinational organizations have many departments that all interface with each other internally. I needed to be a more holistic provider and more engaged listener.”
One day in 2010, Shungur was chatting with a friend of his, a professor in northern British Columbia, who asked, “So, what are you going to do with that cute little degree of yours?’” He told Shungur about the MBA program at Athabasca University (AU), and took the liberty of signing his friend up for the program that night. Within weeks, Shungur was starting his courses.
Many AU MBA students enter the program hoping to develop expertise in a particular area, but Shungur’s goal was to understand how businesses worked as a whole. That meant deep dives into operations, human resources, accounting, finance, managerial economics, IT, and security. One of his favourite courses focused on supply chain management, since supply chain managers are the ones buying parts and raw materials for an entire company.
“They want to achieve a level of stasis in buying. Their big four motivators are reliability, consistency, quality, and cost,” he explained.
Another course he enjoyed was on IT, which focuses on making sure communications are fluid, information is secure, data is available, and operations are managed efficiently.
“They sit down every day and the only way those goals are achieved is if nobody knows they exist,” Shungur said.
He describes a business as a body, where IT might be the nerves and veins, operations is the brains, and so on.
“They all have to interact to create a system of behaviour, and I was excited to see how these bits became parts of the whole,” Shungur said.
He had expected that one of the drawbacks of distance education would be a lack of network development—that he wouldn’t be able to get to know his classmates, to go for a coffee or beer with them after class. But he was pleasantly surprised to discover the extra measures AU takes to make sure its students develop relationships.
“You’re interacting at a heightened level,” he said. “You have to comment on what other people write, contribute to discussions. It’s all in the spirit of ‘let’s do this better.’ And the mentors are so involved in fostering conversation.”
He was impressed by the range of perspectives he found in the virtual classroom: his cohort included oil and gas executives from Alberta, doctors, medical sales people, a man in the German auto industry, and another who spent his days surfing in Bali.
When Shungur graduated from the program in 2013, he found himself equipped with a new vocabulary, and a new high-level understanding of the mechanics of business that he could bring to his work at Design Group Staffing, the recruiting company.
“The clients felt that I got them, that I understood their challenges,” he said. “I went from being a salesperson to being a consultant.”
He quickly found better strategies for interacting with energy companies of all size and scope more strategically—he could speak their language, and convince them he was worth their time and spend. In the seven years since he finished the program, he has risen precipitously through the ranks, getting promoted first into a practice lead, then later into his current role as the Enterprise Solutions Executive at the national level.
“I have a general understanding of how businesses operate and make decisions, and what they spend their dollars on,” he said. “I have a better insight on that today than I ever did before.”
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
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 (CPS) 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 carton 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 lives and millions of dollars. Most major suppliers have signed on, and many other retailers, led by Walmart, are starting to follow suit.
Better yet, is to minimize pathogens from entering our food supply chain in the first place. Over the last year, Doughas chaired the CPS Knowledge Transfer Task Force to share knowledge gained from scientific research with the industry.His ongoing monthly series of articles can be found here.
Grant knows the benefits of food safety and traceability from another perspective as the executive vice president and Chief Operation Officer 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 from 27 countries with half based in North America. and means ever more complex operations systems.
Grant entered the business 24 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 oversee Oppy’s entire supply chain, including cold storages and freight (30 primary facilities across North America and hundreds of freight deliveries a day), 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 chain to the retail or food service 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, providing key insights in doing business in Mexico. He oversees Oppy’s South American offices and works closely with growers.
Grant says his work at AU also shaped his management style in overseeing a team of 150 within a company that is 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 building third-party freight services, became a blueprint for a new and very successful strategy at Oppy, Grant notes.
In 24 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. Food safety and 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 Vickram’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 was nervous about starting her MBA at first, but she was able to keep working full-time and raising her family.
“I was able to balance work and family and still get a high-quality education,” Ritchie says.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), was married when she was just 19 and wanted a family. Until then, she thought she’d get a job and be a secondary income for their household.
She remembers always being bored in high school, so she thought she’d try her hand at getting a good job and applied to be a bank teller at RBC.
“They hired me on the spot,” she says. “I didn’t think I needed a career, but then starting quickly working my way through new and ever-more challenging roles. It was an incredible opportunity to build my skillset and capabilities within the same company.”
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 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. She wanted to continue growing at RBC, while protecting her family time and thought an MBA would be the best way to ensure that and give her the job security she was also after.
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. Although the primary function of her group is to process work and support clients and partners, and are constantly looking to reskill staff with a strong focus on talent management.
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.”