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(David Parkins for The Globe and Mail)
(David Parkins for The Globe and Mail)

British Columbians who matter

Mike Corrigan: BC Ferries CEO isn’t relaxing in the Seawest Lounge Add to ...

Whenever Mike Corrigan and his wife board a B.C. ferry between Vancouver Island and the mainland, they fall into a routine that leaves Mrs. Corrigan to her own devices for the ride.

“We don’t even have to speak any more. As soon as she gets out of the car, she goes and does her thing in the Seawest Lounge,” said Mr. Corrigan, 52.

Meanwhile, the president and CEO of BC Ferries goes elsewhere.

“I go and speak to the three different departments on the vessel and employees on the ship and meet her at the car an hour and a half later.”

Mr. Corrigan fesses up to occasionally thinking of trying to be a “normal traveller.”

“Sometimes you would like to just stay in the Seawest Lounge or in the buffet, but I never end up doing that,” he said in an interview with The Globe and Mail. “It sure wouldn’t look good to the employees. Secondly, I realize that’s a pretty critical time for me to be on the ship and talk with employees.”

Critical times are routine for BC Ferries, especially now as a re-elected Liberal government settles in along with a new Transportation Minister, Todd Stone. And there will always be questions about fares and service levels for the much scrutinized operation. During the provincial election, the B.C. NDP campaigned on a fare freeze, and transportation critic Claire Trevena says she will be pushing to make sure the operation is more responsive to the travelling public.

One issue that arose after the interview was Mr. Corrigan’s announcement that BC Ferries would order three new intermediate-class vessels fuelled by liquefied natural gas. Premier Christy Clark has made LNG the centrepiece of her government’s hopes for provincial prosperity. The new ships are supposed to replace two set to be retired in 2016, with the third adding capacity on routes covered by one of the two.

At the time of the interview, Mr. Corrigan said he had had a half-hour introductory phone conversation with Mr. Stone.

“From the brief conversation I have had with him and the way everybody speaks about him, I am very confident we will be able to find a way to create a win-win-win situation for the government, for the company and for the travelling public,” he said.

“It’s an education process for anybody who comes into it just to understand all of the balls that are in the air when you deal with BC Ferries.”

They include the connection between fares, service levels and subsidies – government subsidizes 22 of 25 ferry routes so they can break even.

“If people don’t want their fares to change and they don’t want their service levels to change, the only other thing that can happen is that the government subsidy has to go up,” he said. “It’s really a balancing act. That’s really the discussion that continues to unfold.”

Looking ahead, he said he sees flat traffic in coming years so costs will have to be kept in order.

Timmins-born Mr. Corrigan came into that discussion in 2003 when he joined BC Ferries after moving west to work in the natural-gas sector. He had been with Westcoast Energy when he joined the transportation company.

He was number two at BC Ferries under outspoken David Hahn when tapped to replace him in 2011.

But he began with a pay cut. When Mr. Hahn stepped down, Mr. Corrigan was hired with a compensation package that was about 60 per cent of Mr, Hahn’s as the company’s board of directors sought to send an austerity message. Mr. Hahn had been under fire for receiving a $1-million compensation package.

Mr. Corrigan said his options included staying in his previous job as executive vice-president for business development and chief operating officer, leaving altogether, or taking the job.

The former player in the farm system of the Detroit Red Wings, who won a Memorial Cup in 1980 as a member of the Cornwall Royals, has a motto that he says has guided him through such tough times: “Just keep getting back up off the ice.” So he stayed. “There’s more to life than money. I would have liked to be compensated better than I am, but I love the job. I love the people.”

By then, he said the ferry culture was hard to shake. “I have such a huge investment in the company – personal, emotional psychological – all parts of it. When you work for BC Ferries, you eat sleep and breathe the business. You just do. It’s 24-7, 365. After being in that business for 10 years, it’s hard to walk away.”

He said he isn’t interested in the higher profile Mr. Hahn had. “I speak to the media when I have to speak to the media,” he said. “David had a unique style about him and he had a mandate, and I think he was very successful doing exactly what the board asked him to do.”

He has four more years on his contract. Beyond that, it’s up to the board of directors. “It will be a tough place to walk away from. Some people think I am crazy when I say that.”

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