Live & Learn: Tony Franceschini

The departing CEO of engineering consultancy Stantec talks about the immigrant experience and explains the vision behind the company's strategy.

Tony Franceschini • Born Jan. 25, 1951 in Abruzzo, Italy • Outgoing CEO of Stantec Inc. • Aspiring chef • Amateur golfer

All a leader can do is lay out the plan and get people committed and excited about it. The most important skill is the ability to get the rest of the organization to embrace the plan and make it their own, and work toward making it happen. If you do that, anything is achievable.

As much as you plan everything that you do in your business life, I’ve probably been one of those executives who hasn’t done as good a job planning their personal life. I’ve never really had a personal plan.

I grew up in Toronto, which was a little bit like growing up in Italy at the time, because there were a lot of Italians around. There weren’t any English-as-a-second-language programs or anything like that. You’re just sort of thrown into the classroom. It was a bit of a challenge, but maybe it builds character to fend for yourself.

I knew about three words of English when I started school, and that was it. In a way, maybe that’s how I developed my early interest in math and science, because you don’t need language for math and science. It’s a universal language.

My dad was a construction labourer; my mom was a factory worker. She worked in the old Primo factory in west Toronto, where they made pasta and other things. To them, it was really important that someone in our family graduate from university.

Most immigrant families want a better life for their children. It feels like a debt to me. It’s really something you can never thank your parents for, because they really sacrificed for their children.

I wanted a paper route as a kid, because that was the big thing then. The kids who had money to spend all had a paper route. Of course, because of that, people willed them down to their younger brothers and sisters. It was a very competitive business. I couldn’t get a paper route, so I started my own TV guide delivery route.

I thought about going into medicine, but then I gave blood once and I fainted. I thought I probably wouldn’t do so well in medicine.

My actual technical background was in transportation planning, and everything we did was in 30-year plans. I never lost sight of the importance of taking the long-term view so that I could always see things down the road. I’d always try to make decisions on the basis of what’s likely to happen in 10 or 15 years. That’s really where, in my mind, engineering was a useful education for being the leader of an organization.

The one thing I didn’t fully realize was the amount of travel that’s required in this role, especially from where our head office is. I think I spend at least 300 hours flying a year, and that’s just a lot of time.

I know I travel too much, because there’s nothing left to watch from the movie selections. I’ve seen them all at least once, some twice.

I wouldn’t necessarily make a good CEO of another company if I couldn’t be passionate about the work we did. It’s not the business or the deal or the transaction that gets me excited. It’s seeing the designs that our staff work on. In many ways, I live vicariously through the designs of our staff.

We worked on the Confederation Bridge. The proponents of the bridge made these buttons that said, “I worked on the bridge.” It didn’t matter what you did, whether you were a design engineer, or in an administrative role, or like me. There’s a sense of shared accomplishment, and that’s really important. It’s not about any one individual.

I’ve taken a few cooking courses with the chef at our golf club the past couple of years. I’m a little beyond being able to boil water, but I’m not at the stage where I would consider myself ready for prime time yet.

I love anything to do with pasta. There are 100 different ways I could make pasta dishes.

People thought Stantec was being too conservative the last five to eight years. I always kept saying our model is based on mitigating risk.

It’s important to understand the driver that made us evolve to have that balance. It was the fear of having gone through the recession of 1981–83. I had only been in the organization three years or so, but I saw the impact of what a major reduction in staff does.

We’re not betting the farm on any one sector. When the telecom era was on, we resisted the temptation to become 50% telecom. When everybody said you have to go to China, we thought maybe it wasn’t necessarily the best place. What we’ve done is smooth out the peaks and the valleys.