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Careers Brian Athaide: ‘It’s important to understand the value chain, where value creation is’

Brian Athaide

THE GLOBE AND MAIL/Mary Wardlaw-Athaide

Brian Athaide, 49, became chief financial officer and executive vice-president of Human Resources/Information Technology in 2014 at Andrew Peller Limited, based in Grimsby, Ont.

I was born in Bangladesh, my parents [are] from Goa, India, so my mom's first language is Portuguese. They lived in Pakistan – with the violence and animosity, they wanted to immigrate for better quality of life, better opportunities for our family. My dad came in 1971, landing in Montreal. He was a textile engineer, got a job in a mill in Brandon, Man. The rest of us, my mom a teacher and three older sisters, moved in 1972 when I was three. A church congregation helped us settle in.

My parents split when I was young – my mom remarried so I went to high school in Labrador City. It was a good experience there – you really need to like winter sports. My parents had a unique way of thinking – there's a strong Indian community in Canada but they wanted us to be Canadian, not integrate into that community.

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Originally, I wanted to go into law, wanted something useful and practical for my undergrad so [I] went into business. After my BComm, I thought I'd do a combined MBA/LLB. At McGill, I studied finance and marketing, did Proctor and Gamble case studies so I applied there and moved to Toronto. After two years, I thought I'd go back to university but enjoyed working, gave up on law. I enrolled in a part-time MBA in New York, then P&G offered me a job in Cincinnati.

I didn't make it to a single class.

I did international cost forecasting and analysis, consolidations. I enjoyed that a lot, had great exposure to global business, especially in emerging markets, got a feel for challenges and found it fascinating. I came back to Toronto; Vietnam was opening, also Russia, so I expressed interest. My girlfriend and I got married, moving from our own apartments to a tiny apartment in the heart of Moscow in 1995, still early days after the Soviet Union's collapse. It was an $80-million business, three years later – $800-million; by then I'd moved to comptroller. Then the ruble crisis happened, business went to $200-million overnight. I was to move to the Balkans but spent months to help sort through the crisis – probably the most stressful role I've ever had – that's when I lost all my hair.

I'm responsible here for four teams: HR, IT, finance and accounting. It`s important to understand the value chain, where value creation is and how you get more in domestic markets. We've had a partnership [with] Wayne [Gretzky] for six years. It was a distressed business, he was working with [a company] – we basically bought the inventory, wrote half off and focused on wine-making, improving the quality. Then John [Peller] had the vision to get into spirits. You might buy whisky for Wayne's name the first time, but now you buy it for the whisky.

People buying wine kits also buy premium and ultra-premium wine. You can make wine for $5 a bottle; it's good value. We've put Winexpert into contests and they do well. We got great feedback after we bought three wineries in B.C. – people are glad they stayed Canadian, because they could have gone to international buyers. My wife and I did wine courses here – got a tip that Riesling pairs well with potato chips.

I've lived in 12 countries, moving to Chile when our son was five, daughter six. We did a couple wine tours; they were teaching our kids how to swirl, the nose, how to spit. They're third-culture kids. We came back so they could go to high school. You appreciate Canada when you've been gone, come back, see how the country works and people interact. It's the best country in the world. I appreciate it a lot more having been elsewhere. Especially after being gone 20 years, it's so inspirational seeing the level of diversity – that's a huge strength. You don't get that in other countries so easily. Listening to those who are anti-immigration – it makes no economic sense because you get immigrant families coming in – they're hungry, work hard, create business and generate economic growth.

[I won't hire] someone who doesn't make eye contact or mumbles. They have to have an innate level of curiosity, that desire to do things better. People don't leave a company, they leave a manager. I've been lucky – I've had great organizations, mentors, role models. I've been able to learn from so many different people and cultures – that's a lot of who I am.

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This interview has been edited and condensed.

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