An MBA and Chartered Accountant designation may have helped Brian Hesje build a successful business career, but it was his farm upbringing and education degree that shaped his reputation as a common-sense leader and highly sought-after mentor.
“I’ve felt my whole career has been teaching, just in a different classroom in different phases of my career,” says Mr. Hesje, the outgoing Board Chair of ATB Financial, who was born and raised on a farm in Birch Hill, Sask. “And the more I’ve learned over the years, the more I’ve been able to teach.”
Mr. Hesje, one of the ATB board’s founding members, is retiring at the end of the year after seven years as Board Chair and serving as a director from 1996 to 2009. He’s known for his sharp business acumen and strong governance practices, including building a diverse ATB board with a strategic, customer-first approach. It’s been under Mr. Hesje’s guidance that ATB has won numerous governance awards.
“If you step back and look at the past two decades, there is no single individual who has had more of an impact on ATB than Brian Hesje,” says ATB’s President and CEO Curtis Stange.
Mr. Hesje, the former President, CEO and Chairman of Fountain Tire Ltd., has slowly been stepping away from his corporate directorships to spend more time with his family and to focus on his writing. He has already written two self-published books including Why Save Your Golf Balls, a memoir about the personal collection from his favourite sport, and Thoughts on Thinking, which offers insights into his leadership approach. Proceeds from his book sales help the Rick Hansen Foundation, where Mr. Hesje is also a board member.
It’s his critical thinking and common-sense approach that incoming ATB Board Chair Joan Hertz says she’ll miss most when Mr. Hesje leaves the board on December 31.
“There are not that many people who are a combination of being strong business people and really deep thinkers. Brian is that combination and he inspires everyone around him,” says Ms. Hertz, who served as an ATB board member for 10 years and is the vice president of external affairs and corporate counsel at NorQuest College in Edmonton.
Mr. Stange remembers clearly his first day as CEO when Mr. Hesje pointed out photos in his office featuring past ATB chairs and CEOs. The show and tell was a reminder that every past chair has selected a CEO — and Brian’s selection was Mr. Stange. “He said, ‘my reputation is with you. No pressure, but don’t mess things up’,” Mr. Stange recalls with a laugh.
“We’ll miss his wit and humour, his business acumen and the quality of his questions around governance,” adds Mr. Stange. “He really raised the bar not only on the quality of board members selected but the ability to govern a board through strong committees.”
Challenging corporate stereotypes
Humour has always been an equalizer for Mr. Hesje, who is known for debunking a number of myths about how to be successful in business. “I’m a big believer in laughter,” he says. “I never found people smarter because they didn’t know how to laugh.”
Mr. Hesje also rejects the common adage that success in business is based not on what you know, but who you know. “For me, I found that what you know will determine who you know and is more important than who you know,” said Mr. Hesje. “It was something I learned early on in my career, in part because I didn’t know anybody.”
The business leader is also known for spreading his common-sense style, including recommending his peers read the book about a 1916 businessman, an Obvious Adams: The Story of a Successful Businessman. The book, which encourages leaders to keep it simple and remember the obvious, is used in business schools and often read and reread by people studying entrepreneurship, advertising and business.
“Instead of thinking about what’s the most complex thing I can do, consider, how can this be done simply,” says Mr. Hesje. It’s also his parting advice as he leaves the ATB board and corporate life in general. “I would like to see more individuals and corporations make common sense and simplicity high priority values,” he says.
Advertising feature produced by Globe Content Studio. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.