FACILITYCalgary publisher Mark Kolke, in conversation with Kent Brown
December 20, 2016
Is he a tree-hugger? Probably, but he doesn’t come across that way. Is he passionate about green energy on this blue planet? Absolutely. His accomplishments are considerable, deserving of bravado, but he doesn't present that way. We had lunch, we talked, I made notes - and I might have made a friend, because it felt that way ...
He is one of those rare folk; born and raised in Calgary, raising his family in Calgary and has spent his entire working life in Calgary – and he’s not in the oil business! Well he was, and while energy remains his focus he’s on the renewable side of things. Think green, think blue … think Kent Brown.
And he’s still pretty young, so surely we’ve got much yet to see from this guy. He describes his path as “Each thing led to the next thing …”.
Born in Calgary, youngest of three brothers – mom, an interior designer, dad, an accountant (his parents also founded and developed the Kensington Inn, which they sold. They’ve since established ‘Open to Grow’, a micro-credit development program for poor people in Guatemala.) Must have been an interesting family to grow up in. He skied, played rugby and was an early-adopter-mountain-bike guy.
Following high school at Western Canada High, Kent went to University of Western Ontario where he earned double-honours degrees: B.A. in Philosophy and Political Science. And he met his future wife there (Catherine Bell Partner/Co-Founder of BluEra). They have two sons, 11 and 13.
Following university he got a job at KPMG (he’d worked their two summers). While accounting was “the last thing I wanted to do”, that job involved work in audit and insolvency files – worked with a number of partners there. "It was Phil Sherman who helped me in my decision to do my CA. He did his coursework at U of C and Athabasca University, then articled to get his C.A. designation there, working mostly on energy industry files. During the 1998 downturn, working as Controller at Venture Seismic – then a sale to Ron Mathison … his view became, “this is a tough business”. After two years as VP Finance at Arcis Corp. he opted to “deliberately move to get away from oil & gas – and I wanted to make a difference”. Relationships with Mac Van Wielingen at ARC Resources, reconnecting with Al Fowler … led him to interview with Canadian Hydro Developers Inc. for the CFO job. They were involved with run-of-river power, wind and biomass – he loved it, and bought stock in the company that day – before the job offer came. It came that night. He was there nine years until TransAlta duked it out with them, and acquired the company in a hostile takeover. After nine months off he assembled five key people (they are still there!) and started BluEarth Renewables, as a private company. And grew it – in Sept. 2010 valued at $1.4 billion. Finance partner Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan bought the company in July 2015 – and Kent stayed on as a Director and Advisor. Along the way Venture Magazine named him one of Alberta’s Top 50 under 50 Influencers. Not bad for a guy who didn’t want to be an accountant like his dad.
Why are you successful? “A combination of hard work and good fortune. Wanting to make a difference, to tweak the world a little. Not doing things the way they’ve always been done – that’s how I’m wired. When I have a vision of something – I’m like a dog with a bone until I make it work. I’ve always known I can’t do it alone – maybe stemming from my degree in philosophy, ‘it’s not me, it’s we’ …”
What has held you back? “Nothing.”
He’s done a lot – but I get the sense he’s just getting started …
How do you see your business – renewable energy business – going forward over the next quarter?
… it’s great. Lots of opportunities. We take a ‘portfolio approach’ – Canada, U.S. and South America (Chile). Helping to build better companies.
And over the next five years?
… renewables will continue to be the primary source of new power generation. Solar will become the cheapest thing in the market through better technology.
What qualities distinguish your preferred colleagues, collaborators and suppliers?
… I look for values alignment. Mine or the company’s. I like dealing with people who are plain-dealers, who do what they say they are going to do.
What distinguishes you that causes people to choose Kent Brown, and why do they do business with you, why have they hired you, over your competitors?
… integrity. Plain-dealer. And I know what I’m doing.
How would you describe your leadership/management style?
… collaborative – taking the reins when I need to. I’ve always held the view that I should ‘hire someone who can take my job’. And I did! Instilling that mindset – so people grow and develop. I have very high expectations of people and performance.
… awesome! I prefer the term work-life integration. I work, coach my kids’ ski team, work. I like Patagonia founder Yvon Choinard’s book – Let My People Go Surfing – and his philosophy.
What do you lose sleep over, what do you worry about?
… the sustainability of Alberta. People’s memories are short. We have so much expertise here – the best in the world. There is much room for improvement.
Who or what influenced you most – that has made a difference in your life, or that was a major turning point?
… my wife helped me build a team ‘to make a difference’, not accepting the status quo [Kent gave me a copy of her book titled The Awakened Company – so it is appropriate I plug it here; she is founder and author of The Awakened Company], John Keating who was a great boss – and one day when I was working late, ‘he turned off my computer, walked me to the door and said “you need to go home”, and that changed my life’. I learned I was able to be far more effective with more rest, more family time. Al Fowler was an influencer and remains a friend today.
… spending time with my family – travel, sports, watching my kids’ sports (lots of that).
What do you read?
… I alternate between business books and trashy novels.
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