24/7 Executives is a series of stories on high-performing professionals who are as serious at play as they are in the conference room. See the other stories here.
When Cactus Club's flagship restaurant in Ontario opens at the intersection of Adelaide and Bay streets in Toronto's First Canadian Place this fall, it will be a culmination of a decades-long journey for chief executive officer and president Richard Jaffray.
What started more than 27 years ago in a suburb of Vancouver as an irreverent, casual spot for potato skins and burgers has grown into a national chain of restaurants where patrons are more likely to order a Russian River pinot noir paired with sablefish created by Iron Chef America winner (and Globe and Mail columnist) Rob Feenie than anything with bacon bits on top. How will the CEO celebrate the achievement? Probably by going surfing.
The laid-back vibe of surfing might seem incongruous for a man who manages more than 4,000 employees in four provinces in a notoriously competitive industry, but in a roundabout way it was surfing that got Mr. Jaffray into the restaurant business in the first place.
As a second-year engineering student at the University of Calgary, he tagged along with a group of friends on a summer trip to Hawaii, and while they explored the area he paddled out at Waikiki for the first time.
"The surfboard was so big you could describe it as a small boat," he says, chuckling, but he got up that first time – with no lessons – and from that point forward he was hooked. The idea of heading back to landlocked Calgary and engineering school was shelved and he instead flew to Vancouver to start a career in the hospitality industry.
True to his new-found surfer image, Mr. Jaffray even slept in his car at the beach for the first few months, but in no time he was working at an Earl's restaurant under the tutelage of company founder and restaurant legend Bus Fuller. It was here that the vision for Cactus Club's take on casual but upscale dining took place.
The first restaurant opened in North Vancouver, B.C., in 1988 and was an immediate success. In the coming years, new locations opened throughout British Columbia, then Alberta and Saskatchewan. The Toronto location will be the chain's 28th.
Notwithstanding the steadily growing workload, Mr. Jaffray always made sure there was time for surfing. "In a busy year I'll spend about 30 days in the water, but I've gotten as high as 50," he says.
While at first blush it seems like surfing is just a sweet perk for a successful businessman, Mr. Jaffray sees it differently. "One of the great parts about surfing is that I can't think about business when I'm doing it. It requires me to be very concentrated and focused on surfing itself, and it clears my head of anything superfluous to that."
The chilly water off Tofino, on the West Coast of Vancouver Island (where even midsummer surfing is done in a full wetsuit), is the 50-year-old's home break, but he admits he finds himself heading to the warmer waves of California more frequently these days, and he hits Hawaii every year for an extended surfing trip as well.
That guy who got up on the board the first time without any lessons all those years ago now sees the value in some focused instruction.
"It was actually 15 years before I took my first surf lesson but now I make sure I take one every year. One of the reasons it's such a great sport is that I'm always learning something new."
He also likes the balancing act that comes with the sport. "There is a very competitive part to surfing in that every surfer competes for a wave, but it is also about learning to share and alternate waves," he says of surfing, although he could also be talking about the co-operative way Cactus Club, which is frequently named one of best places for young people to work, approaches its business with staff.
Another area where Mr. Jaffray's love of the water is having an impact on the company is the chain-wide adoption of the Vancouver Aquarium's Ocean Wise program. The conservation system endorses seafood selections that are ecologically sustainable in an effort to steer consumers away from overfished species (you'll find no Chilean sea bass here) and toward options from healthy populations that are not at risk.
Cactus Club is one of the largest companies to sign on to the protocol and the Ocean Wise symbol appears on all the company's menus.
Mr. Jaffray doesn't keep his interests to himself – he shares them with his staff. The entire executive team now loves paddling into the ocean and catching waves, as do a number of the general managers and chefs.
"We have joked that in order to be an executive with Cactus you need to surf … and it kind of just happened that way. We seem to plan our executive meetings once a year near the water – and there usually happens to be good surf."
They've even been known to reorganize the meeting schedules if a good set rolls in because, in business and in surfing, a successful CEO has to be ready to adapt to the changing conditions.