Founders and CEOs tell us what they learned in 2014

We asked some of Canada’s biggest CEOs and entrepreneurs what the last year taught them. Here’s what they said

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

Isabelle Hudon, executive chair, Sun Life Financial Quebec

Isabelle Hudon, executive chair, Sun Life Financial Quebec (Sun Life Financial)

Isabelle Hudon

Executive Chair of Sun Life Financial Quebec

“This was the year I truly understood the meaning of resilience. We all know what resilience in nature is, but I prefer this definition of the word: The amount of potential energy required to stretch beyond the probable and seize opportunities.

“That, to me, is resilience. If you set very ambitious goals to a highly skilled team and ask them to stretch themselves and reach higher than before, believe me, the impossible is possible.”

PREVIOUSLY: Isabelle Hudon says it’s lonely at the top and it’s worth it

Anthony Lacavera, chairman and CEO of Globalive and Wind Mobile

Anthony Lacavera, chairman and CEO of Globalive and Wind Mobile (KC Armstrong)

Anthony Lacavera

Chairman and CEO of Globalive Capital and Wind Mobile

“It’s a lesson I should have learned in 2009. I should have learned it in 2011, I should have learned it in 2012, and I should have learned it in 2013. If you’re going to be in a regulated business, you gotta be preparing and adjusting for regulatory risk.

“I always thought the regulatory pendulum would be balanced and, something you could generally predict. The reality is that anything could happen. So we’re going to plan in a way that gives contin­gency for regulatory decisions that are not favourable.”

PREVIOUSLY: Wind Mobile CEO Tony Lacavera on never throwing in the towel

Onboardly Co-founder and President Heather Carson

Onboardly Co-founder and President Heather Carson (Caro Photo)

Heather Carson

Co-founder and president, Onboardly Media

“I’ve learned to embrace the word ‘no.’ As a busy demand marketing agency, having a growing portfolio of clients is, of course, part of our strategic plan at Onboardly. But we’ve learned that it’s absolutely imperative that we say no to potential clients and partners that we don’t immediately connect with—even if it means forgoing a sales opportunity.”

Robert Herjavec, founder and CEO of Herjavec

Robert Herjavec, founder and CEO of Herjavec Group (JB Lacroix/WireImage/Getty)

Robert Herjavec

Founder and CEO of Herjavec Group and star of ABC’s Shark Tank

“I learned that I need to think bigger and believe more in our ability to compete on a global level. They say ‘success’ makes you complacent. Our company has become the largest infor­mation security provider in Canada, and we were proud of that—perhaps too proud.

“This year was all about looking beyond our borders and expand­­ing to the rest of the world, notably the U.S. and U.K. As I always say: Sometimes the key to winning is to show up. We can’t be global if we are not there.”

Mario Grauso

President, Joe Fresh

“We opened our first stores outside North America this year, including multiple locations in South Korea and Saudi Arabia. In some respects, there are important differences between these markets: variable climates, advertising nuances in the Middle East, and the power of pop and film stars in South Korea.

“In other ways, there are powerful parallels between these new markets: Consumers everywhere use style as a meaningful way to express their personalities. So I’ve learned that brands that tap into universal desires with a globally resonant message, combined with smart local strategies, can win customers anywhere.”

Charles Chang, founder and president of Vega

Charles Chang, founder and president of Vega (Vega)

Charles Chang

Founder and President of Vega

“My biggest lesson in 2014 was that my business no longer needs me. I spent eight weeks this summer in Whistler, B.C., with my family. I stayed in touch with the business daily via email and had several phone meetings, but I only spent four days in the office. It used to be that nothing happened without me.

“Today, I am often surprised at what’s created without my knowledge. I feel like a parent seeing his child leave home to go to univer­sity: joyous, proud, sad and bitter­sweet at the same time.”

PREVIOUSLY: Charles Chang on the smart way to sell a movement

John Stanton

CEO and founder, The Running Room

“Our customers’ major purchases are quickly gravitating to their mobile devices. It has been a key factor in our online sales growth. This has underlined to me how important it is to never, ever grow complacent about your customers. They change constantly and the business has to, too.”

PREVIOUSLY: Ask the Legends: John Stanton

Mike Serbinis

Founder, Kobo, and new health and wellness startup League

“I was reminded of the importance of resilience. Startups are hard, and the odds are stacked against you from the start. It’s all too easy to give up in a large corporate environment. But in a startup, if you waiver for a moment, you’re dead. Every single one of those moments counts, and it takes incredible resilience as CEO to succeed.”

PREVIOUSLY: Kobo CEO Mike Serbinis talks tablets, Rakutan and more

Amber MacArthur, co-founder and president of Konnekt Digital Engagement

Amber MacArthur, co-founder and president of Konnekt Digital Engagement (Amber MacArthur)

Amber MacArthur

Co-founder and President of Konnekt Digital Engagement

“I learned it’s time to return to the core of what made our company unique when we launched seven years ago. Back then, we were users first, consultants second. As founders of a digital agency, we were early adopters—and we only hired early adopters. As the years flew by, we forgot to keep innovating internally.

“Today, I’m proud to say we’re practising what we preach. Micro-video is the hot, new thing in digital marketing, and Konnekt just launched a 15-second daily tech show on Instagram.”

PREVIOUSLY: Amber Mac’s new rules of engagement

Seymour Schulich

Mining and energy investor

“I’ve made some big bets this year on gold, and I’m obviously not winning and I’m getting very annoyed. But in my opinion, gold is the most undervalued commodity I know. You couldn’t tear those investments away from my cold, dead hands.”

PREVIOUSLY: Seymour’s Way

Julien Billot

CEO, Yellow Media

“The greatest business lesson for us in 2014 was that leveraging and evolving your existing assets is often more effective and fruitful than creating new ones. For example, there’s been a long-standing debate both externally and internally on the name of the company and whether it should change with our transformation. However, brand history, credibility and recognition cannot be easily built overnight.

“So we chose instead to tackle perceptions around the Yellow Pages brand, investing in our transformation at the brand level as well. We’ve seen success to date in these efforts. We would have had a much steeper hill to climb had we chosen to rebrand the company completely.”

PREVIOUSLY: Yellow Media CEO Julien Billot on managing the print-to-digital transition

Lisa Delorme

Co-founder and CEO, Rent Frock Repeat

“Money can be an innovation and creativity killer. We thought the problem was we didn’t have enough money to buy more inventory, but the real problem was that we didn’t have inventory. Believe it or not, you don’t always need money to get inventory.

“Now we challenge ourselves to always look at a situation and solve the issue without dollars. You’d be amazed at the solutions you come up with.”

PREVIOUSLY: What it Takes to Land Your Dream Investors

John Chen, CEO of BlackBerry

John Chen, CEO of BlackBerry (Getty)

John Chen

CEO, BlackBerry

“It would have been easier culturally for BlackBerry to maintain a device-only focus. An ingrained culture is hard to change. But we know we’re unparalleled in security so our market is devices plus enterprise software. And we’re sticking to it.”

PREVIOUSLY: BlackBerry CEO John Chen on the progress of his turnaround

Scott Larson

CEO, UrtheCast Corp.

“‘Always expect curveballs’ is something of a motto for us now. This year, we learned that adapting to challenges is a key aptitude when dealing with space technology. Many variables are out of our control—everything from geopolitics to technological hiccups. We made a real concerted effort to try to think strategically, and to slowly and surely remove the barriers in our business and inch things forward.”

PREVIOUSLY: The 5 most interesting companies at the Cantech Investment Conference

Bruce Croxon

Founder, Round 13 Capital, and former Dragons’ Den star

“This year, we’ve done five deals. Miraculously, all five look like they’ll be good investments. But raising funds to do bigger deals has been slower than I thought. I preach to entrepreneurs that when you want to get something achieved, you have to be prepared to grind and grind, and to hang in there. The theory of mine that nothing comes easy as an entrepreneur has been put to the test this year, and I’ve had to walk my own talk.”

PREVIOUSLY: Killer Advice from Two Entrepreneurial Legends

Annette Verschuren, Chair and CEO, NRStor

Annette Verschuren, Chair and CEO, NRStor (NRStor)

Annette Verschuren

Chair and CEO, NRStor Inc.

“When you are commercial­izing new technologies, there are all kinds of surprises. You have to react quickly and sometimes pivot and adjust strategy as you are running. Keeping the budget tight and surrounding yourself with a team that can work creatively in that environment is critical.”

PREVIOUSLY: How Annette Verschuren built Home Depot Canada into a $6 billion behemoth

Gerry Schwartz

CEO, Onex Corp.

“The principles of value investing don’t change. The environment may, and so patience remains a virtue.”

PREVIOUSLY: After losing its biggest customer, Celestica is reinventing itself yet again

TD Bank President and CEO Bharat Masrani

TD Bank President and CEO Bharat Masrani (Adrian Wyld/CP)

Bharat Masrani

President and CEO, TD Bank

“Something I learned a long time ago, but has recently been reinforced, is that a company’s success is largely driven by two underlying traits: adaptability and a focus on people.

“Great companies are nimble and adapt to changing circumstances—and they invest in their people, giving them the right training and tools so they can innovate, add value and become leaders of the future.”

PREVIOUSLY: CEO of the Year: Ed Clark, Toronto-Dominion Bank