FACILITYCalgary publisher Mark Kolke, in conversation with Les Gombik
April 9, 2019
Les Gombik called me up one day, told me he’d been a reader of FACILITYCalgary for a long time and suggested we might have some synergies in that we both have a large audience and we both like to connect people. That conversation led to a couple of meetings, establishment of a business relationship – Caldwell (The Caldwell Partners International) are now a sponsor of FACILITYCalgary, and this interview.
His birthplace and early life – Timmins – mining country in northern Ontario. Mom a nurse, dad an electrician at a mine. One younger brother. Les attended K-12 in Timmins and modestly describes himself as good student and active athlete. He admits to being “driven to succeed”, particularly in wrestling where he won awards in his weight class all through high school and university. He participated in all the usual team sports but wrestling became his passion. Summer jobs in the zinc plant at the Kidd Creek mine paid for school. He pursued his degree at University of Western Ontario . He earned a B.A. in Advanced Commercial Studies, did four years of wrestling and met his wife-to-be Cathy Choo.
At Western he interviewed with many firms – got recruited to join Unum (now part of RBC), a specialty risk insurance firm in Toronto. After two years, a move to Vancouver to expand Unum’s business in Western Canada – and Cathy moved to Vancouver to attend BCIT to continue her education. In those days Les found himself in Calgary on business often and found he like it plenty. He made the case to open a Unum office and moved here in 1998. He's run that operation for two years - then was recruited away to join Hewitt Associates (now part of AON), an HR consulting firm. Lots of fun and plenty of travel followed – until an opportunity came calling, one he says he couldn’t resist, joining Caldwell in 2006. At that time the Calgary Caldwell shop had closed after staff had joined another firm. Les re-opened Caldwell in Calgary and continues as Managing Partner responsible for the Calgary office. “Best thing I ever did. Our industry is a really exciting business – helping clients achieve their goals.”
As we wound up our meeting, not unlike many people I interview, Les was concerned we hadn’t covered enough material or that we’d left out something. In particular he wanted me to include his work with the Children's Wish Foundation and Caldwell’s work with Canada’s Top 40 Under 40 - both are near and dear to him – and involve a lot of his volunteer time in the community. He gives money, he gives time, and just as often he picks up the phone to get someone to do something or donate something which makes a difference in some child's life or in someone's career.
Les manages an office of eight professionals. His practice is more diversified than oil & gas – also focused on consumer and retail business, industrial, insurance, private equity and professional services. And not limited to Calgary work, he’s still piling up air miles with lots of travel. He admits Caldwell is #2 in Retained Executive Search in Calgary. As to being #1, his answer is “not yet”.
Why are you successful? “I strongly believe the harder you work, the better you get. Being in the right place at the right time helps. And drive – it’s how I’m wired.”
What has held you back? “Self-doubt. Risk tolerance, or rather being risk-averse. I didn’t believe in myself enough early-on to take the big risks.”
How do you see your business – retained executive search – going forward over the next quarter?
… we’re doing really well in our Calgary office, and I’m on the road a lot. Not as much Calgary work since the downturn but we’ve filled the pipeline with work in other markets and we have the freedom to do that.
And over the next five years?
… we’ve been leading with technology. Social media has changed the secret sauce in the industry. Everybody has access to everybody. The future will see A.I. v. privacy battles . Our industry will be altered by it for most lower level searches and placements, but at the VP level and above, for the senior executive positions – employers will need our services more than ever because the stakes are simply too high.
What qualities distinguish your preferred colleagues, collaborators and suppliers?
… it’s all about relationships. I work with people I trust who will get the job done – people and companies who take seriously what they are doing.
What distinguishes you that causes people to choose Les Gombik and Caldwell, and why do they do business with you, why have they hired you, over your competitors?
… I see it as clients say – they choose us because we are serious and service focused, we care, believe in our commitment to meet our client’s needs. We aren’t the biggest, but we try harder! And we don’t give up …
How would you describe your leadership/management style?
… I think it has changed a lot over the years. I’ve become more collaborative, inclusive and engaged. I think my team would agree they see me that way. I’ve learned a lot, and been influenced, by a lot of people I interview …
… there is none. My work is my life and my life is my work. I do lots of things for fun with clients, so it’s hard to draw a line between work and play.
What do you lose sleep over, what do you worry about?
… not too much. I worry about Calgary – too much pessimism! Finding optimistic people has been a difficult challenge lately. I counter that by associating with people who ‘get stuff done’ and hang out with like minded people …
Who or what influenced you most – that has made a difference in your life, or that was a major turning point?
… two things come to mind. The first, when I was finishing university and about to join Unum, I went to the Regional Assessment Centre – I didn’t get the job I was after even though I thought I’d nailed it. I realized I’d made a mistake, and that gave me the impetus that I had something to prove and that experience has stayed with me. The second, is my parents who said “always do your best”, they believed if I did I would be successful and that has pushed me, helped me, in everything I’ve done.
… snowboarding, golf, kite surfing. Cathy and I travel a lot – together and separately. We have a condo in Kanapali (Maui). When I’m there it’s part work/part play, my day starts on the phone and computer at 4AM. Cathy goes golfing, I go kite surfing ...
What do you read?
… I don’t read books you hold. I’m an audio-book junkie. Business and self-help books … peppered with spy novels and drama – I love audio books because I multi-task, work out and fly a lot, so having a book to listen is fantastic.
… 2011 Audi S5, though he walks to work most days.
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