What Founders and CEOs learned in 2014, part two

We asked even more of Canada’s savviest business leaders what they learned in the last year. Here’s what they said

This is the second part of a two-part series in our year-end roundup. Read the first part here!

Allen Lau

CEO and co-founder, Wattpad

(Photo by Anna Chibis)

(Photo by Anna Chibis)

“When Wattpad launched in 2006, the Motorola Razr was the most popular phone on the market. Today, mobile consumers are spoiled for choice, with new devices launching every couple of months. Consumer behaviour is also shifting rapidly. In business, change is constant and fast—even more so in recent years. When you can identify, understand and leverage these shifts, you set yourself up to build a company that will stand the test of time.”

MORE: How Wattpad built an office that encourages communication

Sean Wise

Assistant professor of entrepreneurship, Ted Rogers School of Management; host, The Oprah Winfrey Network’s The Naked Entrepreneur

“I teach startups how to start up, with a focus on the lean startup methodology. In 2014, I learned that more companies should adopt this approach to agile growth. In the last six months, most requests I have received are from large companies looking to innovate like startups. While surprising, this makes sense: Startups learn to make something from nothing with few resources. More and more large companies are trying to innovate while keeping their core businesses growing.”

Mandy Farmer

President and CEO, Accent Inns Inc.

“We needed to take a ho-hum motel property in Victoria, a town that has a large amount of quality accommodation inventory, and turn it into something that will be a standout in the industry. We convinced shareholders not to renovate but to reinvent the property. Hotel Zed has bright colours, and retro and unusual amenities. So far it’s generated higher occupancy and room rates than any standard renovation would have brought.”

Albert Behr

President and CEO, Behr & Associates Inc.

“I do commercialization: I hook companies from around the world together to get things to market. My client base has inverted in the past year or so. It’s now 30% Canadian companies, 70% international. It has reminded me that you can’t get complacent in your own area. Canada is a big country, in one sense, but it’s a tiny country in another: Our GDP is two-thirds of the state of California’s. So even if you have a very successful business, get your nose above the horizon. You may find better stuff than what you’ve been working on.”

Rory Armes

CEO, Gener8 Media Corp., a 3D entertainment software developer

“As the CEO of a junior public company, learning to deal with the stock market in a country known solely for natural resources has had its challenges. What I find exciting, exhilarating and a fantastic challenge is being part of the trend that is changing the way technology is understood and supported in Canada.”

MORE: Gener8, the Vancouver 3-D company that worked on Harry Potter, is hiring like crazy 

Rob Annan

Interim CEO, Mitacs, a non-profit that links industry and academia with similar research interests

“There’s a lot of hand wringing about innovation and R&D in Canada: The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development numbers show that business R&D in Canada continues to fall relative to our peers; the list of the most innovative firms came out, and not a single Canadian firm was on that list. But we did 3,000 projects with companies across the country this year—the most we’ve ever done—and our experiences reveal it’s not as simple as the numbers suggest. There are thousands of companies in Canada that are very innovative and engaging in R&D. They’re just not big enough yet. As a country, we need to grow these companies that are at the cutting edge but are still small and plug them into the world economy.”

MORE: Interview: UBC president Arvind Gupta on academic innovation

Bob Dhillon

President and CEO, MainStreet Equity Corp., a residential landlord

“This year confirmed that our strategy in downtown Edmonton was bang on. Edmonton was where I saw the greatest opportunity, and today that’s where we have our largest number of units: 89 apartment buildings or, as I say, 89 rooftops. We had gone to the City of Edmonton planning department. We knew where the trains were going to go, where the stations were going to be. And there were all these mid-market apartments that needed some TLC in the area, which is our specialty, to add value. With the announcement of the Edmonton Arena District—a $2.5-billion development around the new home of the Edmonton Oilers—the stars lined up in every way.”

MORE: Stock pick: Mainstreet Equity Corp (MEQ) buys fixer-upper rentals for double-digit growth 

Mark O’Dea

Executive chairman, True Gold Mining

“In 2014, after more than 15 years in the [mining] industry, it became clear to us that the conventional formula for project financing was broken. Equity is more expensive than ever; we needed to get creative to secure the lowest cost, most flexible capital to build Karma, our principal mine in Burkina Faso.

We co-ordinated the first syndication in the streaming world to fully finance a mining project. We secured a cost of capital of less than 3%, while also building alignment with financiers Franco-Nevada and Sandstorm Gold to ensure we maintained flexibility to further grow and enhance our business.

Access to cost-effective capital was a universal challenge for miners in 2014. For True Gold, this forced us to innovate. It’s put us in a strong position to navigate ongoing market shifts and build significant stakeholder value in 2015, when Karma is expected to pour its first gold.”

John Ruffolo

CEO, OMERS Ventures, the venture arm of the Ontario Municipal Employee Retirement System

Black and white portrait of OMERS Ventures CEO John Ruffolo

(Raina + Wilson)

“I think what we’re witnessing right now for the first time—at least in my working career—is the rise of the entrepreneur in Canada. When I was graduating from university 25 years ago, the aspirations that were ingrained in you were to become a professional. That was the measure of success, whether it was an accountant, lawyer, banker or doctor. Really, for the first time, the measure of success now is the kids wanting to be entrepreneurs. Their parents may not agree, because they’re still part of the generation I grew up with, but you’re actually starting to see it manifest itself in the enrolment in universities. This is going to shape what Canada will look like for the next 20 to 30 years from an industrial strategy perspective, and I couldn’t be more excited about that.”

MORE: Canada’s 50 Most Powerful Business People 2014: OMERS Ventures CEO John Ruffolo 

Mark Pacinda

President and CEO, Boston Pizza International Inc.

“We learned that a small thank you really goes a long way with your customers. On Aug. 12, we celebrated Boston Pizza’s 50th anniversary, and we invited Canadians to celebrate with us by offering $5 Indy pizzas all day. The response from our guests was remarkable, and we served more than 85,000 pizzas to BP fans from coast to coast, as part of our biggest sales day in company history.”

Janet Kennedy

CEO, Microsoft Canada

Microsoft Canada president Janet Kennedy working at a computer

(Anya Chibis)

“My biggest business-related lesson of 2014 was actually more like a confirmation of something I had already suspected, and that was the degree to which Canadian small- and mid-sized businesses have yet to embrace the benefits offered by the cloud. The tools, infrastructure, scalability and security that cloud-based solutions offer smaller operations is unparalleled—to the point that the cloud enables startups to access state-of-the-art tools which were, until quite recently, only available to Fortune 500 enterprises.”

MORE: Office Space: Microsoft Canada president Janet Kennedy

Kelsey Ramsden

Founder, Barefoot Boardroom Society, SparkPlay and Belvedere Place Development; Canada’s Top Female Entrepreneur (2012 and 2013)

“This year, I have learned the power of a pivot, and that courage and trust underlie every success. I’ve gone from construction to kids’ toys to now serving as a ‘wingman’ in helping corporates and creatives start up the businesses they want to live the lives they want. No matter where I travel around the globe in this new venture, every entrepreneur I meet speaks about keeping themselves ahead of the competition by having the ability to adapt, embrace and execute; using courage; and trusting that what they are doing is the right thing. I have found this very true in 2014 and will continue to show up with trust and authenticity in 2015.”

MORE: The Time-Management Secrets of Canada’s Top Female Entrepreneur

Joseph Ottorino

Managing director, Virgin Mobile Canada

“I joined the Virgin Mobile Canada team in late 2013. So for me, 2014 began with listening, asking a lot of questions and thoughtfully challenging some answers. Early on, I found value in helping the team identify bumps or gaps in our process that we could address to deliver irresistible experiences for our members at every turn. For example, dialing up our brand was a priority. What it came down to was truly listening before implementing and never enforcing anything. When I came into this role, I wanted to ensure I was respecting the existing culture, and I was determined to create an environment where my team felt comfortable asking why we were shifting strategies. This wasn’t about me pushing my vision but empowering the team to put in play some of the changes they had wanted to make for a while.”

Bruce Poon Tip

Founder, G Adventures

“One of the things that was reaffirmed for me in 2014 was the value of taking risks and trusting your instincts. G Adventures was approached by the Inter-American Development Bank [IDB] to assess Haiti’s tourism potential. We had previously considered offering tours in Haiti following the earthquake, but had visited the country and deemed it unready for tourism due to the lack of infrastructure and accessibility. My gut told me it was the right thing to do this time. As a social enterprise with more than 24 years of experience, we recognize the positive impact and economic benefit tourism can bring to local communities. So we sent a team to Haiti to make the assessment on behalf of the IDB and discovered a unique culture with a huge voodoo scene, a modern art community, delicious Creole food and stunning natural highlights. This motivated us to be among the first to offer a culturally focused experience in Haiti, and I’m glad we did. The risk has paid off. Our first departure in February is basically sold out.”

Harley Finkelstein

Chief platform officer, Shopify

Shopify chief product officer Harley Finkelstein


“I’ve learned that everything changes. Always. We’ve all heard the business maxim, ‘What got you here won’t get you there’—but there’s more to it than that. Every industry is constantly changing, whether it’s retail (something I think a lot about), transport, health or finance. Technology is improving so rapidly that the rate of change is drastically increasing. The best businesses and the most thoughtful entrepreneurs are constantly challenging their own past assumptions. They are in a perpetual state of change.”

MORE: Why Canada has a serious e-commerce problem, in one infographic

Peter Aceto

President and CEO, Tangerine Bank

President and CEO of Tangerine Bank Peter Aceto

(Portrait by Thomas Dagg)

“This year marked one of the most transformational in our 17-year history as we carried out our rebrand from ING Direct to Tangerine. One of the most important lessons I’ll take away is how important trust and flexibility within your team is during periods of change and uncertainty. You can have an ironclad business strategy in place, but when it comes time to meet the immediate needs of the business and get the job done, these are the traits that need to shine through.”

MORE: How Tangerine Bank CEO Peter Aceto gets his whole company to pitch in 

Randy Smallwood

President and CEO, Silver Wheaton Corp., a precious metals streaming company

“The mining industry as a whole has had a lot of struggles this year, because of low commodity prices and increases in costs—there’s been real inflation in the industry itself. For me, 2014 was a time to reaffirm the fact that we have to invest in high-quality assets that have good margins. We’ve seen a lot of companies with third- and fourth-quartile assets that are not successful at this time. If one of our [operating] partners can’t make money and shuts down, we have no cash flow and no recourse. It confirms the business model in terms of investing in operations that have healthy business margins and trying to focus on those assets that are in the bottom half of the cost curve.”