FACILITYCalgary publisher Mark Kolke, in conversation with David Pickersgill
January 5, 2016
Before we all went into tryptophan-induced relax mode over the holidays I corralled David Pickersgill for a long overdue ‘catching up’ and to glean what it is that keeps him going, and going, and going. We met at the offices of the Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Calgary where David was winding up a stint as Interim-CEO (until a new one was in place). He’s a long standing volunteer, board member … and retired, he says he has enjoyed filling that role. His capsule summary of a small organization doing a big job: 40 staff, 2,000 volunteers serving 2,000 kids.
He fit me into a very busy day …
He says, of his wishes in his reclining years, “I’d rather spend time on experiences than on goals”, and it seems he does. Lots. And that’s nothing new for him. Where, when, how did David Pickersgill happen, how did he happen upon Calgary and what has he done?
From humble beginnings … born in Regina, one older sister. Mom was a bookkeeper who rose to be CFO in a construction company. Dad was away in WWII, in the navy, and left the family. David stayed in intermittent contact, but essentially grew up in a single-parent working-mom home. For which he has high praise, but formed his early feelings about unmet needs of kids that has been so prominent in his life. Back to his youth – Arts, then Engineering at McGill. B.Civil Engineering. In those days, graduation included an automatic P.Eng. designation too. Early work with National Research Council on perma-frost impact on infrastructure in the north was followed by a job in South Africa in 1962 (a classmate sent a postcard about an opportunity) during apartheid days. He spent some time there in hospital with a shoulder surgery. His nurse Pam offered, “my mother takes in borders”. They married (now 50+ years, 3 sons, 7 grandchildren) and she made the trip with their son to meet David in Montreal three years later. First, however, he wanted to finish his trekking around the world which took him, sooner, back to Regina. He worked temporarily in rural Saskatchewan. He joined Con-force and then had moves/promotions to Winnipeg (GM, Manitoba), Calgary (Pres). Ownership shuffles between CBR Cement and Genstar resulted in his being Pres. & Chairman in 1988 (150 employees, $100 million/year business with divisions in Vancouver, Edmonton, Regina and Winnipeg – and memories of big projects he remembers well (ie: Saddledome) until he sold his interest to partners in 1995 and retired. He describes those times as wonderful before embarking on a “tortuous process of self-discovery”. His Eureka-moment came at the hands of Doug Bouey (they met through TEC – a support group for CEO’s) who corralled him at a ‘retreat place at Pincher Creek’. “There were other helpers too. The help helped!” That led to his realization that helping kids who’ve been shortchanged was his calling. He took some courses at U of C, continued mentoring work with the YMCA.
His retirement years have been full and public – on community and charity boards, Calgary Board of Education Trustee, and ‘doing things in the community’ but not without difficulty. David recounts times of ... perhaps mid-life crises, beating himself up for being less than perfect in many ways, in short – not happy. He looked for help, and found some. Friends showed up. Friends intervened, admitting vulnerability followed …
Seems’ like David’s life is a very full, very rounded, circle …
On his involvement of BBBS, Women’s Shelter and other community organizations, “it was fun and I was good at it”.
Why are you successful? “stick-to-it-iveness. I want to see things finished and I learned to ask for help”.
What has held you back? “not learning soon enough to ask for help!”.
How do you see your business – a child and youth services organization – going forward over the next quarter?’
… challenging – we have more kids needing service that we can serve. We’ve got volunteers waiting too, but there is a lot of work in ‘matching’ that requires quality staffing (wish we had the budget for more) to handle screening, training and monitoring. That whole process is slowed by a lack of funds, so we are not meeting the demand. We are making a better society by helping kids reach their full potential through the power of mentoring …
And over the next five years?
… we’ll see a lot more collaboration among agencies – sharing more backroom services, we’ll be employing partnerships of many new kinds.
What qualities distinguish your preferred colleagues, collaborators and suppliers?
… integrity and passion. Competence. The key is trust – if they’ve earned it, I’m loyal. Value isn’t merely price. I am willing to pay for value.
What distinguishes you that causes people to choose David Pickersgill, and why do they do business with you, why have they hired you, over your competitors?
… passion, integrity, value.
How would you describe your leadership/management style?
… I’ve found that most of the time, people know the right answer – so if you find a way to ask the right question, support them to have confidence in themselves.
What do you lose sleep over, what do you worry about?
… these days, getting enough cash to help the kids we are mentoring here (Big Brothers and Big Sisters). Our ratio of social workers to mentees is 1-80.
Who or what influenced you most – that has made a difference in your life, or that was a major turning point?
... my introduction to the YMCA at age nine, and the mentors I had there. I had my happiest times there, for many years. I’m grateful for my mom getting me there …
Work-life balance – do you have it?
… I didn’t have it for quite some time. But have had for the last 20 years …
… cycling. I play squash. I make wine. Travel. I’ve done lots. Mountain gorilla trek last year in Rwanda. Climbed Kilimanjaro 50 years ago. Volunteer-travel, visiting and helping with projects helping kids – Salvador, Brazil, Ghana, Dominican. Volunteering here, with the ALEX.
What do you read?
… mostly fiction. I like Canadian authors. I like books set in places I’m familiar with …
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