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Dalhousie’s incoming president, Richard Florizone, says universities have a direct role to play in society’s challenges of the future: food, energy, climate.
Dalhousie’s incoming president, Richard Florizone, says universities have a direct role to play in society’s challenges of the future: food, energy, climate.

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Bringing a world of experience to Dalhousie Add to ...

Richard Florizone has the kind of boundary-blasting résumé that makes the rest of us feel inadequate – he’s been an MIT nuclear physicist, Boston Consulting Group operative, aerospace strategist, university administrator and he is only 45. Oh, and he just spent six months advising the World Bank.

Now he is about to take on his biggest gig, as president of Dalhousie University in Halifax, which means moving from Saskatoon, where he has been vice-president, finance and resources, for the University of Saskatchewan. Keep his name in mind, for you will be hearing a lot more about the Prince Albert, Sask.-born Mr. Florizone.

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You have said you will begin your Dalhousie tenure with 100 days of listening.

Someone joked, ‘Does that mean on Day 101, you will stop listening?’ This idea is informed by my consulting DNA and my experience at the World Bank. Good institutional strategy and vision are both bottom up and top down. I have ideas and thoughts, but I really want to listen.

What did you do at the World Bank?

I was seconded to International Finance Corp., a division of the World Bank Group which focuses on private-sector investment in developing countries. I was part of the public-private partnership transaction advisory group. PPPs are a big topic inside the bank group and this is driven by trying to leverage other sources of capital in development. Developing countries are looking for job creation, and this is another tool.

Is it the same model of PPP as in Canadian hospital projects, for example?

There is a whole range of models, everything from management contracts to a model where a private partner designs, builds and owns a piece of the infrastructure. Part of my group’s work was to give advice on anything from hospitals in Africa to water projects in Asia to hydroelectric in Europe – and to try to look at lessons learned.

Did this come out of your own work?

One thread in my career is how to bring together different sectors to address joint interests. There are times when certain things are of interest to governments, the corporate sector and universities. So how do you bring those disparate worlds together?

Partnerships sound nice, but can there be real dialogue between universities and business?

Everyone is wrestling with how those interactions should evolve – not so much the magnitude, but the quality. A couple of decades ago, you used to hear the phrase “ivory tower,” and you may still hear it outside universities, but on the inside you hear about engaged universities. How can a university engage with the local or national community to inform its teaching and research and have an impact in the world?

Yet if you look at productivity and innovation, it is clear we are not getting all the synergy we might expect. Canada leads the Group of Eight in government-sponsored research and development, but our industry R&D lags. I don’t think it is because of the quantity of conversation but, again, the quality.They are still quite different worlds and the challenge is bringing them together on these grand challenges.

How did you become a management consultant with Boston Consulting Group?

I was recruited by David Pecaut [the late BCG senior partner and influential civic leader in Toronto], and David articulated and embodied a view of how you could be active in business and still have a tremendous interest and impact in public policy. He was one of those individuals who could walk and talk between sectors.

Haven’t you done a bit of that?

I started out, in my education, with engineering and physics, and motivated by a real curiosity about the physical world and to understand the fundamental forces that govern the universe. As I finished my PhD, which focused on the interactions inside an atom, I realized I was just as interested in the interaction of people. Looking at my multinational research group at MIT, which involved work in different countries, I began to think about how people come together behind a common vision. How do you align those resources and spark that action?

I found the interactions between people at least as intriguing as between atoms and that drew me into the business world and into consulting. At the root, it was about curiosity. Business is about numbers and people, and it is all about balancing them.

Why move into aerospace?

Opportunity and people. I had done my many hours in consulting and enjoyed it, but I felt I had built my tool kit and I was interested in making longer-term commitments. When a manager at BCG went over to Bombardier Aerospace, there was a chance for me to get involved in this new C Series aircraft program.

What did you learn there?

It was integrating across a large organization. A challenge in any large organization is dealing with silos. If you want to design a great plane, it can’t just be technically great; it can’t be left just in the hands of aerospace engineers. It also has to be an aircraft that can be built – thus, a manufacturing dimension– and financed – thus, a financial dimension. There have to be jurisdictions that are politically supportive – therefore, government relations. And it must be easily maintained – a customer-support dimension. It is a case study on how you bring these different views together to optimize the design. It is a powerful illustration of what institutions face all the time.

Are you second-guessing yourself about shifting into cash-starved academia?

I fully realize the financial challenges – the pension and funding issues – but if you think of the university’s mission, it is hard not to imagine us growing and succeeding in the future. Look at the light bulb or the iPhone. There is so much that university-based R&D has touched and where it has shaped our lives. Then look at challenges we face in the future – food, energy, climate – and the university has such a direct and intimate role to play.

I tend to be quite bullish about the mission of the university, long-term. Of course, we have to continue to look at cost effectiveness and there are valid questions about our cost trajectory and a lot of discussion about the role technology can play.

Having come from booming Saskatchewan, can you help Atlantic Canada in its economic challenges?

I hope so. I was fairly active in Saskatchewan and I have an interest in public policy. It has been part of my academic work. In comparing Nova Scotia to Saskatchewan, I take the historical view. In 2004-2005, when I was thinking of moving back to Saskatchewan, people said I was crazy: “Why are you going there?” So things change in terms of econo-mic factors – they climb and fall.

You headed a Saskatchewan panel that urged the province to open the door to nuclear power. Will you do that kind of thing in the East?

In that situation, I saw I had a set of skills to catalyze and inform a public-policy debate. Doing that is part of the mission of the university. When there are sensitive topics, a university has to walk right into them. That’s what we are there for. A university can bring government and industry together to address tough policy problems.

You have clearly benefited from mentors and colleagues who helped your career.

We underestimate relationships a bit when we are younger. When we look back, we will look at a few projects, yes, but also at those relationships. That is what you remember.

So are you now a numbers and a people person?

Probably, I’ve become more interested in people. When I was younger, maybe I was more interested in numbers.

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Title

Incoming president, Dalhousie University, Halifax.

Personal

Born in Prince Albert, Sask.; 45 years old.

Education

Bachelor’s degree in engineering physics; master’s degree in nuclear physics, University of Saskatchewan; PhD in nuclear physics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Career highlights

1999-2004: Consultant at Boston Consulting Group, Toronto.

2004-2005: Director, strategic initiatives, new commercial aircraft program, Bombardier Inc.

2005-2013: Vice-president, finance and resources, University of Saskatchewan.

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