So I called my dad in Montreal, who was then retired from Alcan, where he had been chief of electrical engineering, to help me take a look. I did my due diligence. I read extensively and talked to the Ministry of Energy and the Ministry of the Environment, and liked what I saw. IPP (independent power production) was big business in the U.S., but below everybody’s radar in Canada, yet it was rolling out in the U.S. at the rate of about $5 billion a year. I had a sense that this was going to happen in Canada.
So I went in, but not just for that plant. I wanted to build a company with a name and a logo and was willing to put up 90 per cent of the money, about $3 million. One of the engineers dropped out and the other stayed on. We incorporated in February, 1987.
Q: You say you’ve been lucky. Is success luck?
A: There’s a great book called Luck that I read years ago. How is it that some people are so lucky and others work hard but aren’t lucky? It’s like a pinball machine. If you pull back gently, your ball will come out, hit a couple of things and that’s it. If you pull back hard, it will hit a heck of a lot of things and the points go up. Luck is about that. When you see things happen, you jump on it.
Q: So how do you do that?
A: It’s about networking, being generally interested in people and developments and what’s going on. When you start a business, the single most important thing is to surround yourself with the talent that you’ll need to build the business. You network by going to conferences where people get together and talk about the industry. That’s how I met these two young engineers 23 years ago, John Brace and Tim Richardson, who were partners in a hydro development company. I was intrigued by John – a gold medalist in engineering physics from Queen’s University – so I invited him into the company. He turned me down but six months later, he joined. Today he’s my CEO. Both are still with me.
Q: How do you inspire loyalty?
A: We shouldn’t hold people because of money but because they love it. People like knowing that they’re sitting next to good, solid, qualified professional people. That’s a great feeling. It seems to work. We don’t lose anybody.
Q: How do you connect with your people?
A: I’m chairman now so it’s different, but when I was CEO, I didn’t direct people. Sometimes you have to but it’s very rare. And when you have to, something is wrong in the organization. Nobody is so smart that he or she has all the answers, so I’d say, ‘Let’s think about this, or here’s a suggestion.’ But I’d impart that with a lot of enthusiasm so people sign on, but it’s always a consensus.
The person who gives orders or edicts risks losing respect because along the way you’re going to make a bad call and then, it’s all yours. The smart person leaves an out. You do that by getting everybody together to coalesce around an idea. Then they’re chomping at the bit to get it done.
Q: What was your biggest learning curve starting Northland?
A: The toughest thing was learning to properly gauge what that project will look like in terms of its cost and schedule. You get a power contract and then you have to find out what it takes to build that plant. Prior to that, it’s estimates. You have a conceptual design but then comes the real detailed engineering and contract negotiating. You’ve got to get that right and we didn’t. Twice.
Q: That could have killed the company...