Richard Currie: "People support what they help to create. You can't take your point of view and ram it down people's throats."

"People support what they help to create. You can't take your point of view and ram it down people's throats."

“I grew up in the south end of Saint John. My father was a machinist, my mother a homemaker. I was the only boy–my sisters were quite a bit older. My father was ecstatic to finally have a son.

My father would have worked his hands up to his elbows to make sure I got a university education. Fortunately, he didn't have to, because I won scholarships. I graduated in chemical engineering from the Technical University of Nova Scotia. As time went on, I became less interested in engineering as engineering and more interested in the management part of industrial enterprises.

I ended up at Atlantic [now Lantic] Sugar. There had been an enlargement to the refinery that would allow it to move from processing one million pounds a day to 2.5 million pounds a day. And it didn't work. I got tapped to try to make it go. I made it go.

The thing about a process plant is that once you make it go, it's like pushing a great big green button on Sunday night to start it and pushing a great big red button on Friday night to stop it. It eventually loses its challenge.

I decided if I was going to do something, I should go to business school. I went to Harvard. I wanted to meet the Americans head-on.

From that experience, I have no fear of competing with Americans. Americans really don't care who your father was, or what school you went to, or how you part your hair. It's “Can you do the job?” They are merciless in terms of competitiveness.

After Harvard, I went to work for McKinsey as a consultant. When you work for McKinsey, most of the people you talk to are presidents, division heads, and I wanted to make my own assessment as to how good I was in comparison to them.

The two things I learned were: Don't move too fast, and no one is as smart as all of us. And that worked for me my entire career.

I left McKinsey in 1972 for Loblaw. It was so far in the bottom it was almost through the bottom. It was either going to be a home run or a strikeout. If I had a strikeout, I'd still have time in my career to recover. If I hit a home run, it was going to be great fun.

When I got the Loblaw job, the late Garfield Weston–the Old Man, as we called him, not with disrespect–said, “Here are the rules: If you want to buy something, we want to know; if you want to sell something, we want to know; if you have to borrow money, we want to know. Otherwise, run the business as if you owned it.” The Westons lived up to that.

Today in business, people are looking for revenue growth. That is an outgrowth of the consolidations that have taken place for years. However, when you do that you usually strip out much of your selling capability. That's the most false of all economies.

Most of the issues that have arisen in the last 10 years have arisen because of this intense pressure for quarter-by-quarter increases in earnings. It's inconsistent with reality. But if the rewards systems are set on that, then people begin to march to that drummer. That's when you get corruption of the process.

I decided to retire because it got to be close to becoming the red-button-green-button syndrome. For those that are still there, what they are doing at Loblaw is very exciting. For me to continue would have been a variation on the same theme.

Jean Monty threw in the towel at BCE in April 2002, so the board decided to split the role of chairman and CEO. I was asked to become the non-executive chairman. It was important to split the roles in recognition that the CEO has to be responsible to a board. No man can be his own judge.

When I am no longer on this plane of existence, I want my children and grandchildren to have enough means that they can do whatever they want, but not so much that they can do nothing. I don't want to deprive them of some of the things I went through.

If I had been born a rich man's son, I probably would have been a history professor. But I wasn't born a rich man's son.”

Timeline: Richard Currie
Toronto, ON
Born Oct. 4, 1937, in Saint John, NB
Outstanding business leader, retailing genius

1960: After graduating in chemical engineering, gets job at Atlantic Sugar Refineries; eventually takes over running plant.

1968: Leaves Atlantic Sugar to get Harvard MBA. Joins McKinsey & Co. in 1970 as consultant, then moves to Loblaw Cos. Ltd. in 1972.

1976: Becomes Loblaw president; helps turn grocer around with innovations like No Name products and No Frills banner.

1996: Named head of George Weston Ltd., majority shareholder of Loblaw. Boosts bakery returns, sells resource divisions.

2002: Takes position of non-executive chairman of BCE Inc. Installed as chancellor at University of New Brunswick in 2003.