Brian Vaasjo knows about turning adversity into triumph. An industrial injury in his youth set him on a business career path, which has taken him to the top of one of Canada's major new companies, Capital Power Corp. is the power-generating spinoff from Edmonton's electricity supplier, Epcor Utilities Inc. Last year, he guided Capital Power through a $500-million initial public offering in a tough market. Now comes his biggest challenge: changing the corporate culture from public utility to private enterprise, while pursuing an aggressive growth strategy.
Did you decide early in life that you wanted to be in business?
No, my undergraduate degree was in education - in secondary-school social studies.
I ended up doing student teaching and substitute teaching. Although I did quite well, it just seemed to be quite a struggle. I ended up in a couple of not very good schools. I thought, "Geez, do I want a life of trying to move these kids along?" It's funny how things twist and turn. By chance, I wrote the standard test for entry into business school. That summer, when I was working on drilling rigs up north, a tool joint came down and took off four toes and part of my foot. So I ended up going to [business]school when I was on workers' compensation for a year.
And if you hadn't been hurt?
I might well have ended up staying a teacher. It turned out I enrolled in the MBA program and that started the whole process. I liked it a lot.
Did you have a teacher who influenced you?
One professor in particular at University of Alberta, Terry Daniel, was very down to earth. You get those professors who know their subject matter and can bring in interesting things. I was taking statistics from him, and math isn't necessarily my strong suit, but Terry was very good. A lot of other professors are just academics. Someone teaches management science and they've never really worked in a company.
Why have you said the power market today is complicated and unforgiving?
Power prices are half of where they were a year ago. It has made a difference in the perspective of the organization - and for the better. If not for this decline, we would have been rolling into 2010 with annual revenues $100-million to $150-million higher. In that kind of environment, you're not as worried about being efficient or being effective. You don't have that push to get there. But in our situation, we actually have a burning platform.
Capital Power now has capacity of 3,400 megawatts. What does your goal of '20 times 20' mean?
That means 20,000 megawatts by the year 2020. It's a stretch goal. Our balance sheet now has $5-billion in assets; that would mean rising to $20-[billion] to $30-billion. There are some good, emerging acquisition opportunities in North America, and we see growth through our own development.
Even though there are signs we are out of recession, you have some fairly large independent power producers, or people who have power interests, who are coming under financial stress, when they have to go back and renew bank facilities and they have to refinance. It's a very different world for many of them. We have a team that is very active in looking at such things.
What is your biggest challenge?
It's moving the top 150 people in our organization to a real leadership position.
Haven't you said you want leaders, not supervisors?
It is a big leap, and we're putting in place the structure, definitions and compensation programs to support it. Not that we're putting more money in it, but there is greater alignment of pay and performance. Those things are often pretty murky in an organization.
Don't take my comments as mercenary. I'm a firm believer that very good people aren't necessarily driven by dollars, but that is the score sheet. If you've done really well, what you get at the end of the year is just recognition of how well you've done.
Do you accept that some managers will take to this new culture and some will leave?
A lot of the challenge is to work hard to try to move people to begin acting in these roles. That will take a lot of effort. We could approach it by saying, "Well, we think 30 per cent aren't going to make it, so let's bring on 30 per cent more people." But that's not showing strong values relating to people. If that number is 30 per cent, we have to get it down to 5 per cent - by educating people, working with them, making sure they get the proper mentoring.