FACILITYCalgary publisher Mark Kolke, in conversation with Jim Dinning
December 15, 2015
Birth >>> students' council president >>> Order of Canada.
Not so simple, not so quick – and he explains, not easy. Three degrees, but hey, one of them was an honorary doctorate.
Let’s go back. I first crossed paths with Jim Dinning in high school, in my ½ year at Western Canada High. I was in twelve, he was in eleven. He had all those things you hate at that age – good looks, popularity, lots of friends. Is there anything else at that age?
Our paths have crossed many times since and I’ve watched his accomplishments and accolades pile up. They called Sinatra the Chairman of the Board, but he never was. Jim is or has been chairman of many: currently Chairman at Western Financial Group, Liquor Stores NA Ltd., Russel Metals Inc. Previously Chairman at Export Development Canada and Canada West Foundation. And Chancellor at University of Calgary. Directorships: Oncolytics Biotech Inc., Parkland Fuel Corp. and more. Elected official, many times. Executive VP at TransAlta for a few years. Seems he can get and hold a job.
My request for an interview was readily accepted but scheduling turned out to be prolonged and complicated by his work travels, play travels and several jobs. When I e-mailed him on July 1st to congratulate his Order of Canada appointment he was ‘canoeing in the Northwest Territories’.
Let’s go back further. His grandfather was head of the liquor authority in Alberta. His dad was a liquor sales executive (in WWII, a bomber pilot, he was shot down and became a POW in Stalug Luft 3, scene of the Great Escape. Jim’s dad wasn’t tunneling or escaping … but he spread dirt in the yard). Post-war he returned to the family farm (now Edmonton’s Millwoods area), met and married a Melville, SK gal (both born in Melville), started a family. Mom was homemaker and business savvy marketing woman - agent for Jolly Jumpers. Jim, youngest of three boys, was a little tyke when the family moved to Calgary. Jim’s political career began in junior high and high school – President of Student’s Council in each. After high school, a commerce degree at Queen’s University (his parents believed children should go to university, AWAY FROM HOME!). He returned to Queen’s a few years later to earn a Masters in Public Administration. The zig-zag of jobs in politics (Progressive Conservative) and government is a whir of zigs and name dropping zags. From door-knocking for Fred Peacock in Calgary-Currie (Jim’s first wife Jane is Fred’s daughter), policy jobs in Lou Hyndman’s shop, in Peter Lougheed’s office, Deputy Minister to Jim Horseman at Federal and Intergovernmental Affairs. His reason for leaving government to pursue a nomination, and election as an MLA from Calgary Shaw? “I thought I could win.” He did and his political career rose, and fell, rose and fell. First as Minister of Community and Occupational Health. His tenure as Minister of Education was “4 years, 3 months, 7 days and 4 hours”. He described it as, “exhilarating, exhausting and dissatisfactory. We all have a finite amount of personal capital”.
As a supporter of his old pal Nancy Betkowski (who lost the PC leadership contest to Ralph Klein), Jim described his worst week – “on Friday I turned 40, on Saturday Nancy lost and I essentially lost my job, on Wednesday my wife asked for a divorce and on Friday I became Ralph Klein’s Minister of Finance.”
I’ve left out lots of the political storytelling – we had lots of fun recounting who was where, who worked with whom – and Jim recounting how Ralph Klein roared with laughter when Jim said, “I want to be the best Finance Minister Alberta ever had”. History would suggest he did a very admirable job, considering revenue was $13 billion and expenditures were $16.5 billion; a deficit that was eliminated and net-debt paid off during the Klein era. Jim credits Stockwell Day plenty, but most watchers would agree that the Dinning/Klein force got the ball rolling …
On the subject of his failed attempt at the PC Leadership (when Ed Stelmach won) and his current or future political ambitions, Jim explains a discussion with his wife (Evelyn Main whom he met during Klein days – she worked in Klein’s office then) that “letting the leadership go, no longer defines my life. Today defines my life!” He explains he’s living life on purpose and it feels far more authentic to him than ever. Having seen him in action over several decades, I agree. Our time was cut short by his need to rush off for a timed conference call, but not before we covered off a few more ‘standard questions’.
Why are you successful? “I always wanted to be a leader … since 1966 at Rideau Park Junior High. I could do the job, not ‘be the job’.”
What has held you back? “all the dealing you do, deals you make, trying to stay popular. Letting go of that has layers of reasons. I wasn’t as authentic as I could have been.”
And, how do you think Rachel Notley is doing so far? “She’s doing a very credible job on the climate/environment issue – we’ve been knuckle-dragging too long.”
And, on the unite the PC and Wildrose parties issue? “I’ve always believed the middle in Alberta politics is more right than the middle anywhere else. I’m not looking to get involved or run … but I’m happy to play a role of nudger – a convening role.”
How do you see your business – insurance, banking, liquor and steel - going forward over the next quarter?’
… in Alberta, it’s the shittzz! No one could have predicted 18 months ago how bad this would get, or for so long. People are survivors – the character of Albertans will shine through and the recovery is what will define us.
And over the next five years?
… we’ll still have a resilient business sector. We’ll have less swagger. We’ll still be a generous province, of five million Albertans.
What qualities distinguish your preferred colleagues, collaborators and suppliers?
… on my boards – working with people I know, like and trust. As a consumer – same reasons. In government you don’t always get to choose your colleagues though …
What distinguishes you that causes people to choose Jim Dinning, and why do they do business with you, why have they hired you, over your competitors?
… what you see is what you get. In the past I think I tried too hard to be a ‘pleaser’.
How would you describe your leadership/management style?
… somewhat Socratic, in that I ask a lot of questions. Collaborative, I get other people’s ideas …
What do you lose sleep over, what do you worry about?
… not much.
Who or what influenced you most – that has made a difference in your life, or that was a major turning point?
… parents and grandparents. We never talked partisan politics at the dinner table, but we talked government a lot. Al Morris, ninth grade math teacher. George Desson, Principal at Western Canada High. Peter Lougheed – hunger inspiration, about what you could do and the influence you could have. Getting divorced – and becoming full time parent. My kids were 3, 6, 14 and 15 at the time. We wanted to keep them together, and I did, together with a nanny.
Work-life balance – do you have it?
… Yes! More now that my wife has stopped working full time. We have more time for travel.
… golf, travel, work.
What do you read?
… fiction. I’m a Vince Flynn fan. I love the Mitch Rapp series – spy stuff, like Bond, but better.
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