A stream of bafflegab is flowing from Mary Moran's mouth, and I feel myself begin to get seriously annoyed. "We're taking a holistic view…of development," says the new CEO of Calgary's Economic Development agency.
"We're after…prosperity." After a minute or so, I snap, "What does that mean?"
And then she shows why, after a nationwide search, she was promoted from within the agency to the top post, at what is a critical period for Canada's energy capital. At once, she sets about illustrating these generalities with specifics, using on-point statistics and observations. She rapidly paints a vivid picture of Calgary at an economic and political crossroads, giving an insider's view of a town that is down, but by no means out.
"An economic storm" is what she's called the situation facing Calgary—one she, like everyone else, attributes to the languishing price of crude. "But we have to remember that not so long ago, people were elated about $60 oil." Her industry contacts are trying, she says, to cut costs and not lay off too many. And unemployment hasn't soared—yet. It's hovering around 6%, a rate many cities long for, but high for here. "In part," she says, "that rate reflects the number of people still coming here from elsewhere." She contrasts this downturn with the last one, which began with the 2008 financial crisis. "That was a 'V'—the price bounced back more quickly than people thought it would, while this seems more likely to be a 'U' with a longer trough."
In the thick of these doldrums, the industry did not greet the recent election of the NDP with any great rejoicing. "The reality is there's going to be pain," Moran says, a flat departure from her customary effervescent tone. "Premier Notley came to the Investment Forum we gave at Stampede and said she is committed to defending Alberta's position as a world energy producer. People needed to hear that." But the real test will come, Moran says, in how the NDP addresses three issues of concern to the industry: climate change; proposed pipelines; and the upcoming review of royalty rates levied on companies for the right to extract.
Although the oil and gas industry is still the biggest game in town, nowadays it produces 30% of the city's GDP, not half of it, as it did two decades ago. Asked to give an example of the "purposeful diversification" her office admires, she cites the growth of the transportation and warehousing industries—"We have great access to distribute throughout the West, via highways and railroads, the longest airport runway..." She's also hoping, with her boss, Mayor Naheed Nenshi, that big players in the construction sector, many of them international, can be persuaded to wait out the downturn.
The falling oil price isn't the only challenge that's been thrown at Calgary in the last few years. Nenshi gives Moran a lot of the credit for her agency's response to the historic 2013 flood. "After the waters receded, she helped set in place a program to draw attention to small and large businesses, to get customers going back to them."
With Notley as premier and Nenshi the first Muslim mayor of a major North American city, I ask Moran what some in the Rest of Canada are wondering: What happened to the province we thought we knew?
"It's a young province—demographically—with all that entails. Calgarians weren't surprised when Nenshi came to office [in 2010]: He is a highly educated, smart, passionate Calgarian," she says. "A quarter of the population are visible minorities, 120 languages are spoken here, 50% of the people are from abroad."
An import herself (from Aurora, Ontario, originally), she has worked all over Canada, at progressively more responsible posts at companies like Wardair ("the best job I ever had"), Canadian Airlines, Delta Hotels and Telus. The conspicuously fit Moran has one of those core-strengthening big balls to sit on, instead of a chair. Her desk features photos of her and her partner, Bruce, hiking with their dogs, and one of her with Oprah.
She seems, all in all, a radical departure from the old Calgary business hand, with his cowboy boots under pinstripes, his shoot-from-the-hip swagger.
I ask her to speak about how women can reach the top echelons of the still-male-dominated business world, how she's made her way thus far. "I grew up with four competitive older brothers, trying to keep up with them on the ski hill—so that helped," she says. "At the family dinner table, I had to figure out how to be heard—same in the boardrooms."
Is anything she learned in these private-sector boardrooms coming in handy now? She meanders through some specific memories toward a general approach.
"I was often the marketing lead in some integrations, when my companies merged with others or were acquired. Telus and Clearnet…and BC Tel. Tough. They were tough." Her tone turns philosophic: "The situation we have in Calgary is worrisome, but change is something you learn about as you go along. Survival is the key thing. You have to reflect, adapt, refocus."