Jim Shepard has one of Canadian business's most unforgiving jobs: turn around Canfor Corp., the B.C. lumber giant battered by the U.S. housing collapse and a host of economic forces. If anyone can cope with adversity, it is the 71-year-old Mr. Shepard, whose mother died when he was young, leaving him in the care of an alcoholic father. Fifty-five years later, the resilient Mr. Shepard, now Canfor's CEO, may prevail once more. Canfor is benefiting from the sharp reduction in lumber supply and a surging market in China. But he admits he is not out of the woods yet.
Is this your toughest leadership challenge?
Absolutely. My time as CEO of Finning [a Caterpillar equipment dealer]was kind of a training ground for going into this battle.
You were 68 when you took this job. Why would anyone come out of retirement to do this?
I don't think anybody knew how bad it was going to get. When I first arrived at Canfor three and 1/2 years ago, the thing that concerned me most was I just didn't get a sense of urgency. The first thing I had to do was instill that urgency and do it quickly, and put together a team.
Within a matter of days I gave myself a 25-per-cent pay cut, put the jet up for sale and announced the closing of some offices that were extraneous to the business. I had to get things going fast.
As I got into it, I appreciated this company is very unique, very special. The people are tremendous - they have really hunkered down and delivered. I was riding along B.C.'s Upper Levels Highway a few months ago and outside this church was a sign: "Squander your life on something worthwhile," and I thought, "That's it. I'm squandering my retirement on Canfor."
How much longer will you do this?
I am off with my fiancée on a bike tour, and in August, we are getting married. [Mr. Shepard is a widower.]That means I will have a lovely lady and a wonderful step-daughter moving into the household. With two more mouths to feed, retirement isn't immediate, by any means. And I've got a marathon to run in November so I'm not planning to get into the rocking chair just yet.
Does the running provide the stamina to manage a company at 71?
Back in the beginning, Jim Pattison [the largest Canfor shareholder]asked me if I'd be interested in a short-term project. I found it was to come in as his interim CEO of Canfor. I took a week to figure out if I really wanted to give up retirement and get into something like that. I discussed it with my two boys and made up my mind. When I phoned my older son to say I'd take it on, he said, "Yeah, I knew that. Dad, you're nothing but an action junkie."
Aren't you also co-author of a children's book?
It's called the Adventures of Commander Didlittle and the Lost Battalion. I had it pretty much all written by the time I got to Canfor. It was the crazy idea of my two oldest grandchildren and I tied it all together. It's 168 pages, self-published and a real book, for 8- to 10-year-old boys.
It's the story of a guy who is quite bright but not quite as bright as he thinks he is. He's got this over-inflated confidence and doesn't read his orders fully. He gets sent out on these missions where he is parachuted into the jungles of Africa but he is equipped for the Arctic. He didn't read his instructions properly.
Is it really about you?
In all fairness, I get a feeling like it's kind of a parody on me. The guy is quite comical, truthfully. I would sit around telling stories to the boys when they were six and seven and we developed this Commander Didlittle character. After a while, I couldn't remember all the stories I had told. So my daughter-in-law said, "You are going to have to write these down." One of the boys said, "Grandpa, let's write a book." Now, we're going to focus on the Christmas buying season.