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Dave Cobb attends a press conference in Vancouver on Dec. 17, 2010. (Jeff Vinnick For The Globe and Mail/Jeff Vinnick For The Globe and Mail)
Dave Cobb attends a press conference in Vancouver on Dec. 17, 2010. (Jeff Vinnick For The Globe and Mail/Jeff Vinnick For The Globe and Mail)

Executive exit

Clark's arrival complicated job for BC Hydro CEO Add to ...

Dave Cobb very likely would have left his job as CEO of BC Hydro even if he had enjoyed a wrinkle-free relationship with his political masters in Victoria. After all, when an iconic Canadian businessman offers you a significant role in his vast corporate empire, it’s difficult to turn it down.

Few wouldn’t relish the opportunity to work, and learn, alongside someone of Jim Pattison’s pedigree.

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Still, there is little question that life at the Crown utility was far more complicated for Mr. Cobb after Christy Clark won the Liberal leadership and became Premier. And it became more challenging yet when she appointed Rich Coleman, a veteran cabinet minister with a reputation as a hands-on micromanager to oversee the public utility.

With Mr. Cobb departing at the end of next month, that will become someone else’s problem.

The presidency of Hydro is certainly one of the best jobs in the B.C. public service. But the developments that preceded Mr. Cobb’s surprise announcement on Wednesday should serve as a cautionary tale for anyone interested in succeeding him.

The biggest problem facing Hydro CEOs is the inherent conflict between the long-term view they must take when setting energy policy and the shorter-term interests and agenda of their bosses – the provincial government.

Ms. Clark’s predecessor, Gordon Campbell, took a strong interest in energy policy. He approved the Hydro plan that Ms. Clark inherited when she became the head of government last February. Ms. Clark ran for the leadership on the same populist agenda that she fully expected to take into an election campaign this fall. Consequently, her political aims were instantly felt throughout government.

Hydro was no exception.

All of a sudden, the rate hikes Hydro was planning to introduce over the next three years did not mesh with Ms. Clark’s Families First agenda. The brakes were put on other policy initiatives such as energy self-sufficiency. Word was sent to Hydro that a new sheriff was in town and things were going to change.

It wasn’t long before the utility was the subject of a top-to-bottom bureaucratic review of its operations. The assault was on.

It was around this time that a headhunter approached Mr. Cobb to inquire whether he’d be interested in a position with Mr. Pattison’s company. Maybe the timing was purely coincidental. Some find it odd that a headhunter would approach someone who had been in a high-profile job for such a short time. Unless, however, there was an educated inkling on the headhunter’s part that Mr. Cobb was increasingly growing tired and frustrated with the interference from Victoria.

“It was almost a perfect storm of circumstances,” said one person close to the Cobb decision. “You had a new Premier who wanted to make a statement about costs and rates ahead of an election. You had a new minister who wasn’t afraid to wade into the operations of a Crown corp.

“I also think there was a real resentment in Victoria about Hydro. There had been a succession of CEOs who had rubbed government the wrong way. Reversing direction on a bunch of energy policies approved by Gordon Campbell was also another way for the new Premier to distance herself from him.”

And against that backdrop, Mr. Cobb received what he now says is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity with Mr. Pattison. He will be one of only eight managing directors in The Pattison Group, each of whom reports directly to the big guy.

Mr. Cobb will be responsible for corporate acquisitions, which means he’ll be looking for investment and growth opportunities around the world.

What sold the former VANOC executive on the move was a series of meetings he had with Mr. Pattison. It’s not difficult imagining how enticed Mr. Cobb might have been by the opportunity to get back to the private sector, which is entrepreneurial, performance-based and where decisions are made quickly. Considering the environment in which Mr. Cobb found himself, Mr. Pattison’s proposition must have sounded like someone offering to help him escape the 50-pound ball he was dragging around behind him.

While the CEO pay at Hydro is good, and the challenge of the job inviting, any of the bright people who might be interested in taking it on might want to think about Dave Cobb’s experience before they do.

Follow on Twitter: @garymasonglobe

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