Skip to main content
rob magazine

One of our Best Executive Award honourees escaped from the 87th floor of the WTC on Sept. 11, 2001. Now she’s a top executive at Calgary-based Blackline Safety, whose technology tracks workers in the field and sends help when they need it

Open this photo in gallery:

Leah Hennel/The Globe and Mail

Welcome to our third annual Best Executive Awards, celebrating all those unsung lieutenants who toil in the CEO’s shadow but deserve a shoutout for keeping their organizations moving forward—whether it’s in operations, sales and marketing, finance, HR, technology or sustainability. Read the full list of honourees here and our feature on Holly Johnson, VP of Robotics and Space Operations at MDA.

The sound of a fire alarm burst into the conference room. Christine Gillies, chief marketing officer at Calgary’s Blackline Safety, spun into action. She slammed her laptop shut and hustled from the room, beating pretty much everyone to the parking lot. Under the smoky skies of an Alberta summer, she watched her colleagues meander out of the Blackline building. Several were still carrying on their discussion from the board room. Gillies wondered what they thought of her, the new executive two months into the job who’d just run from a meeting.

Then came the all-clear signal. A wave of relief. Someone said to Gillies, “Boy, you sure bolted.” Her heart still pounding, she replied, “You better believe it.”

Gillies had been mum about her past when she joined Blackline, a 19-year-old company that makes first-of-its-kind wireless, wearable sensors for people who work in industrial or remote locations. The devices are used by people like landfill workers who need to detect the presence of methane gas, by electricity-meter readers in case they fall or become unresponsive, and by volunteers in the backcountry who groom trails in areas without cell service.

When no one brought it up during the hiring process, Gillies realized that the story she’d carried for two decades—the reason people used to ask her at parties, “Hey, aren’t you that girl?”—had finally faded into the background.

If anyone had bothered to look, though, her story was easy to find—newspapers across North America had written about her in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack, when an airliner struck six floors above Gillies’s office as she was getting ready to start her workday. She’d escaped with thousands of others by dashing down 87 flights of stairs. Few survivors were closer to the impact than she was.

In the years after the World Trade Center attack, Gillies made her name on Calgary’s tech startup scene, where she was known as someone who believed in putting marketing at the forefront of a company’s strategy, and whose unique combination of enthusiasm and curiosity helped companies grow. She spent years telling startup stories, while mostly avoiding her own. She wanted to escape the burden of being that girl. She wasn’t even comfortable with the label survivor—she’d just been in a better place that day than many others. It felt selfish to dwell on it. So, she went quiet about 9/11.

And then she found herself in a role where her job was to tell the stories of a company whose motto is, “We make sure your people come home at night.” And she decided it was time to speak up.

Blackline Safety has its headquarters in Calgary’s Ramsay neighbourhood, just outside downtown. The century-old brick building used to house the Dominion Bridge Co., a famed Canadian construction giant that provided steel for the Lions Gate Bridge and Calgary Tower. The space does double duty as Blackline’s main manufacturing plant and operational centre. On the manufacturing floor, workers produce more than 500 devices a day. On the walls, digital screens display maps covered in thousands of little blue dots, each indicating a sensor tracking someone at work in one of 70 countries. At any given time, there are a dozen or so red dots interspersed among the blue, highlighted with exclamation marks. These indicate someone who needs to be checked on. This past winter, the operational centre dealt with 4,000 alerts. Blackline says that 99.5% of response times are less than one minute.

The company produces almost a dozen different products, including wearables and monitors. Blackline’s devices are “intrinsically safe,” meaning they don’t trigger combustion or fires around gases or fuels. Most cellphones don’t meet the same standard, which means Blackline’s products can go places phones can’t. One of the company’s chief challenges has been convincing organizations that this new technology makes a measurable difference to worker safety. It’s about creating a market, not finding space in an existing one, says Cody Slater, Blackline’s CEO. “The marketing is far more complex and nuanced,” he says. “You’re dealing with a bigger challenge in learning how to tell a story, versus trying to fit your story in with the rest of the market. And Christine’s done that exceptionally well.”

Gillies heard a buzzing and then a deafening bang. She didn’t know it, but it was the sound of American Airlines Flight 11 slamming into the building, six floors above

Gillies was recruited in June 2021. Since then, Blackline’s revenue has increased from $38 million to $73 million, and its customer base has expanded by 50% to 1,500 companies, including Suncor, Shell, FedEx and the Calgary Zoo—growth Slater credits in part to Gillies’s ability to reach new customers through a combination of traditional media, advertising, social media and trade shows. She’s even involved with early-stage product development, which is why she’s now chief product and marketing officer, overseeing two worlds she’d always thought were too siloed in many industries.

Gillies was born in Calgary—an “oil-and-gas brat” whose father worked in the industry. She had zero interest in joining the energy business. Instead, she set her heart on becoming an anthropologist, like her hero Jane Goodall. After high school, she joined the program of her dreams at the University of Calgary, loading up on anthropology, chemistry and science classes—always noticing the lack of women in the room. One summer, she joined anthropology professor Mary Pavelka on a field trip to Texas to study Japanese snow monkeys. The experience was life-changing, but not in the way Gillies expected: She learned that she intensely craved human interaction and wanted to spend her days with people rather than chimps.

She turned to Calgary’s burgeoning tech sector. Tech was just beginning to gain a foothold in Alberta, bringing in $7 billion a year to the province. Gillies sent her resumé to Smart technologies, an early darling on the local scene (it was acquired by Taiwanese tech-manufacturing company Foxconn Technology Group in 2016 for US$200 million). Smart made interactive whiteboards; a woman, Nancy Knowlton, was executive vice-president. Gillies interviewed for a job in marketing but heard nothing back. She called Knowlton to follow up, hellbent on the job. Knowlton told her she needed an executive assistant who could start immediately. Could Gillies be there by noon?

Gillies’s first year at Smart, 1998, was one of remarkable growth. In the first 10 months, Smart brought in $18 million in revenue—$5 million more than in all of 1997. Knowlton was promoted to president, a rarity at a time when fewer than 5% of senior managers in the world were women. Gillies moved up, too. After three months as Knowlton’s EA, she was promoted to a position in marketing. “It became immediately apparent that she was too good to be my assistant,” says Knowlton, now CEO at Nureva Inc. “She’s very, very quick to understand things. She recognizes opportunity.”

But soon Gillies set her sights on New York, home of the man who would become her husband, Craig DiLouie (they’ve since separated). In 2000, the 26-year-old took a job as marketing director with Thor Technologies, a small startup that made software for corporations to secure access to computer systems. Thor’s CEO, Brian Young, had just opened a glamorous office on the 87th floor of Tower One of the WTC. Young liked to wow clients with the view, pointing out traffic snarls in the distance so people could plan their route home. For a company with 42 employees, the space gave them instant credibility.

For Gillies, the job was trial by fire. Donald Trump’s Apprentice was still four years away, but the show would later remind her of her time in New York, trying to convince Wall Street investment bankers—most of them men—of the viability of Thor’s software. It was a high-pressure job, and Gillies was always in the office early. On Sept. 11, 2001, she was at her desk before 8:30 a.m., drinking Starbucks and going through expense reports. The sun was shining through the windows when she heard a buzzing and then a deafening bang. She didn’t know it, but that was the sound of American Airlines Flight 11 slamming into the building, six floors above. Fire broke out on the ceiling. Gillies saw a co-worker wobbling like he was drunk, trying to keep his balance as the building swayed. Clear liquid ran down the windows—water, she thought at the time; jet fuel, she thought later. She and three colleagues scrambled under their desks, where they coughed from the thickening smoke. Someone called 9-1-1. They could hear sirens. Gillies tried to call her husband, but the phones were dead.

As the fire took on a new ferocity, the foursome decided they needed to escape. They covered their faces with wet napkins and made their way to a stairwell. They began the long journey down, which became even longer when they hit a dead end, and had to climb back up to the 83rd floor and walk through fire to transfer to a different stairwell. While the world outside watched in horror, no one inside knew what was happening; cellphones were still a rarity, and very few were working in the chaos. On the stairs, some people made jokes to lighten the mood. Several men carried a disabled woman in an office chair. When they reached the 30th floor, Gillies stood aside to let firemen pass as they made their way up.

As she reached the ground level, Gillies saw the “Welcome to the World Trade Center” sign hanging askew in the dark and dust. Just then, Tower Two collapsed. Gillies fell to the ground and covered her head as debris rained down. She doesn’t know how long she stayed there, lying in pools of cold water from the overhead sprinklers. When she sat up, she could see nothing. She crawled out as part of a human chain, following the voice of a firefighter. When she emerged, she found an unrecognizable city, painted in dust, and packed with police cars and firefighters. People shouted at her to keep moving north. She kicked off her shoes so she could run. Paramedics gave her water to wash out her eyes and urged her on. She just kept going, even as the North Tower, whose stairwells she’d exited 10 minutes prior, collapsed in a cloud behind her. Finally, she reached her building in Midtown, a few kilometres away. She didn’t have her keys, so she rang the doorbell. A frantic DiLouie found her standing there, shoeless and disguised under a layer of white powder.

In the months after the attack, Gillies sought out a therapist. She was on guard all the time—fearful of noises and charged with adrenaline. The therapist asked what she wanted to accomplish with counselling. Gillies told her she wanted someone to tell her what she needed to do to be okay. “The therapist gave me a formula for positive mental health,” recalls Gillies. It was simple: community, purpose, exercise, sleep and self-care. “That just made sense to me.” It comforted Gillies to believe that if she could feed herself, exercise, go to work and volunteer her time to help New York City recover, she could be confident that she was doing all right. Gillies arranged for the counsellor to come to Thor Technologies’ new office on Park Avenue for a couple of lunchtime sessions with her co-workers, but it didn’t last. She remembers executives saying counselling wasn’t necessary. “Now in the corporate world, especially post-pandemic, we see mental health supports as an embedded and critical part of the employee experience and how corporations treat their people,” she says. “But it was different then.”

In that first year, Gillies threw her energy into rebuilding the company and her community. It was almost by luck that Thor could keep going. In 2001, no cloud back-up system for software existed. By chance, employees who’d been at conferences out of state had a version on their laptops that allowed the company to restart. On weekends, Gillies volunteered at the Red Cross to process cheques that had been sent in from all over the world. She gave interviews to media in Canada and the United States, describing again and again the events of that day, and her deep appreciation for the fragility of life.

Open this photo in gallery:

Leah Hennel/The Globe and Mail

New York never felt the same after that. In 2004, she and DiLouie moved to Calgary and wrote a personal essay in The Globe and Mail about their experience. Later, people would sometimes recognize her as the woman who’d survived the unimaginable. People approached her at house parties, a friend’s wedding, work conferences, even her parents’ house. One even called her “that 9/11 girl.” “I hated that,” says Gillies. She didn’t want to be affiliated with a horrific mass murder, and she cringed when anyone called her a survivor. “I felt it was too dramatic, as if I hadn’t really earned it.” She stopped talking about it and largely excised the story from her professional life. She stuck carefully to the protocol her therapist had laid out for her: community, purpose, exercise, sleep and self-care. Repeat.

In 2005, Gillies did her MBA at the University of Calgary’s Haskayne School of Business and found solace in a weeklong wilderness training program. She began to recognize that she felt a burden to do something enormous with her life. Maybe, she realized, she could just live her life how she wanted and that would be enough. She competed in the MBA world championships, a tournament between elite business schools to resolve simulations of real-world corporate dilemmas. Her five-person team won, ending a 10-year drought for the university. Gillies’s skills were on full display, remembers Robert Schulz, one of her professors. “She has a unique combination of analytical skills, people skills, an ability to get things done and being visionary all at the same time,” he says. He didn’t know until recently that she’d been in the World Trade Center on 9/11, but said she’s always come across as resilient. “She’s built a career on taking things from one level in a company to move it to another level. In order to do that at the level she’s at, you’ve got to have a lot of inner strength.”

Gillies threw herself back into tech, attracted to the fast pace of change. “I think this is where the anthropologist in me comes in,” she says. “Because there’s a lot of listening to humans and watching for market trends, and then solving problems and responding.” At industry meetings and on podcasts, Gillies spoke out about the need for marketing to be integral to any company’s strategic plan. There’s a tendency to think about marketing as an add-on, dumping it into what Gillies calls “the make-it-pretty department.” But that misses out on the power of marketing, she believes.

In 2005, she returned to Smart technologies, where she worked on product strategy for six years. She had two children. She moved on to Mitacs, a federally funded non-profit that pairs young scientists with industry support. She became a vocal advocate for science and for women, particularly those in science. “I experienced firsthand how tough it was to find my way in STEM as a woman,” she says. She knew that even women who graduated with science degrees rarely went on to the C-suite.

She became vice-president of marketing at Mitacs and then moved to Aware360, a tech company focused on safety in the connected workspace. She was barely there a year when an opportunity at Benevity Inc., the new leading light in Calgary tech, came up. Benevity’s draw was two-fold: it was a fast-growing company—in 2019, it expanded from about 400 to 650 employees—but also did social good. Benevity produces software for companies to co-ordinate workplace giving programs, fulfilling the “purpose” requirement set out by her post-9/11 counsellor. In 2020, Gillies was part of the team that helped the Calgary firm land unicorn status with a rare US$1.1-billion deal with a U.K. private equity firm.

Gillies had no plans to leave Benevity. But in 2021, a recruiter called her on behalf of Blackline. In her first meeting with the company, Gillies didn’t bring up 9/11, and no one asked. Slater, the CEO, says he had no idea she’d been in the World Trade Center that terrible day. It only came up when one of the directors performed a Google search on her as they prepared to offer her a job. For Gillies, the move made sense. Blackline was a publicly traded company growing at lightspeed, with a 428% revenue growth rate in the previous five years and new products in the pipeline. The job meant a promotion, but with the added bonus that the company’s mission still aligned with her purpose. “My own experience on 9/11 was there were 3,000 people who just went to work that day, and they never came home,” she says. “So to come full circle and find a company that’s essentially working to avoid that horrific scenario I lived through? It just felt right.”

As part of her role, she likes to talk about one of Blackline’s services that’s especially important for her: When an alert is triggered by a device and help is called, someone can speak to the employee to tell them to move or stay put, assuring them help is on the way.

No one could tell her that on 9/11. She guessed help wasn’t coming and she needed to move. She guessed right.

Gillies knows a powerful story when she hears one, and she recognizes hers is just that. But she no longer feels shame in telling it. She almost died at work on a day when thousands never made it, and she’s comfortable speaking about it as a foundational event in her life—a chapter, but not the end.

Your time is valuable. Have the Top Business Headlines newsletter conveniently delivered to your inbox in the morning or evening. Sign up today.