FACILITYCalgary publisher Mark Kolke, in conversation with Mike O'Connor
March 20, 2018
He’s always been ambitious - felt he could do anything he wanted to do – giving credit to his mother who told him he could be Prime Minister if he wanted to. That sounds like a good way to start out in life.
When we scheduled this interview I thought I would be interviewing him – but the three-hour lunch appointment was as much about him interviewing me about writing as it was me interviewing him about his distinguished career, his science, his businesses and his ‘bucket-list adventurer’ life. My opinion of him grew as much as it changed – I came away informed, entertained and feeling like I’d made a new friend.
I first met Mike O’Connor a little more than a year ago – we were in the same ‘middle-aged guys losing weight group’ but we didn’t really get acquainted at those monthly weigh-in events. Quiet guy, didn’t look like he needed to lose weight – affable, intriguing. We exchanged a few emails and I learned he was recently retired, traveled lots and had an interesting history in business in Calgary. And anybody with two Doctorates gets my attention …
Born in Ottawa, his mom was a secretary, dad was a mechanic in the air force – then a gas station owner who built houses on the side. One younger sister. Dad’s business adventures took the family to Cornwall where Mike excelled in school life – Vice President of Student Council, 2nd top student in grade 13, played 8-man football, basketball and … socializing! He was involved in cadets – Lieutenant-Colonel, and was destined and determined to attend Royal Military College in Kingston. His plans were dashed when a friend told him there were no women students at RMC. His attention turned to Queen’s or Carlton.
Mike chose Queen's – enrolling in Engineering because he was told it was the hardest. On his first day, while picking up papers at the Admin. building, he was ‘smitten’ by Mary Agar. His story of finding out her name, meeting and dating her tells like a romance novel – they were married in 1968. Two children (and now four grandchildren) followed in a story-book rags to riches tale, the love story ended in 2004 when Mary died of cancer. Mike established the Mary O’Connor Foundation – which produces an annual palliative care conference. Mike has remarried, to Jana Kristin, previously his company’s CFO. They travel a lot - to take pictures, site-see and for family adventures too – but mostly to take pictures. Jana built him a blog as a Valentine’s present – click here to check it out. - really great photos.
Now … back to Mike’s career/business path – summarized for brevity, but not for heft, which is substantial. His first year at Queen’s was general – and he didn’t do well due to partying, joining clubs and pursuing Mary. His 2nd year required him to choose a specialty. His choice of Physics was not a good one – “I scraped by” – so he opted for Geology. He hitch-hiked a ride with a chemistry prof who liked him and coached him back to getting on track to earn his B.Sc. in Engineering in 1968. Along the way a Sadie Hawkins day dance connected him with Mary and he had to work hard at that too but he won the girl! After graduation he got a job in Calgary with Pan American Petroleum (which became Amoco). In those days talk of ‘we are running out of oil’ was abundant but Mike wasn’t discouraged – though he left because he didn’t see a path to the top. In his spare time he earned his M.Sc. degree from the University of Calgary.
The decision to sell their first house and return to Queen’s didn’t sit well with Mary (“she didn’t speak to me for six months!”) – funded by profit on their house sale, scholarships, a teaching assistantship, a research assistantship - and Mike finished his Ph.D in record time .. returned to Calgary to work for R.M. Hardy & Associates doing research supporting an arctic pipeline project, then to EBA Engineering’s small Calgary office, working up north each summer to map the continental shelf off under the Beaufort Sea. Then came a call one day from Gulf Oil in fall of 1977 – Gulf needed help cleaning up an old refinery site in Calgary (where the Inglewood Bird Sanctuary is today). Mike and his colleague were very busy – so they flipped a coin. Mike went to the meeting, and the project became his job. In those days ‘how to’ was still being invented in terms of environmental clean-up. In short, they recovered three million litres of hydro carbons from the site. EBA was in the process of selling shares to employees – and Mike elected not to buy-in, to resign and start his own firm – M.J. O’Connor and Associates which flourished for 33 years until selling out to Parsons. What started as a 1-man shop, funded by a loan from his neighbour, then two colleagues joined him – his brother-in-law, and his Queen’s roommate – they grew their business to a staff of 200 operating in Canada and several other countries. Also, three initial partners (O'Connor, Agar, King - OAK) set up an equipment rental company OAK Environmental which continues doing well; they sold it to Terry McNeill who has taken on partners and expanded the business.
Mike is a great story teller – I had lots notes, and I’ve left a lot out for this piece – he’s done a great deal. And, in 1992 he got another degree from Queen’s, an honorary one – Doctor of Science. So, when you meet Mike it appropriate to call him Doctor Doctor O’Connor.
His mantra, the company’s Mission Statement was impressive:
Do Good Work
Earn a Living
Never ever change the order.
When he was debating whether to stay at EBA or leave, he was asked what kind of company he would like to work for. His answer: “I’d like to work for a company where I can have fun, do good work and earn a living.”
Why are you successful? “I’ve been fortunate. I was brought up to believe that if you are honest and straightforward, good things happen. I have a wonderful life. I’ve had two wonderful women in my life and a great family. And I lived our mission statement. We had no titles, no org chart, only responsibilities – unlimited responsibilities.”
What has held you back? “I don’t know of anything I wanted to do that I can’t do.”
How do you see your business – geo-environmental engineering – going forward over the next quarter?
… it’s hurting. The business has become mature. Many firms are shrinking, but none seem to be going out of business, because there is always a need for services. Companies with a niche market and providing extraordinary service – there will always be room for them.
And over the next five years?
… it’s a mature industry now. It’s becoming less of a relationship business and more of a commodity business. Trust will always play an important part.
What qualities distinguish your preferred colleagues, collaborators and suppliers?
… I don’t spend a lot of time deciding or researching. I buy the right equipment to do the job. Quality – in people or equipment – can’t do good work without that. In terms of people … loyalty. And if I like you.
What distinguishes you that caused people to choose Mike O’Connor/O’Connor & Associates, and why did they do business with you, why did they hire you over your competitors?
… we never had a business development program or sales people. People who liked our work told people about us …
How would you describe your leadership/management style?
… both bold and persuasive. Bold in the sense I have never flinched from making moves that seemed outrageous or risky to others. Persuasive in the sense that we never felt our organization needed titles or bosses.
… It was all work for over twenty years, Mary carried the load with the family. Yes, I was the first guy to map the Beaufort Sea, but I was missing a lot of family time. That changed – I was driving kids to riding lessons and then decided to ride as well. We all rode …
What do you lose sleep over, what do you worry about?
Who or what influenced you most – that has made a difference in your life, or that was a major turning point?
… Dr. Breck, the chemistry prof at Queen’s – his advice and help kept me on track with courses when I was sidelined with mono; Colin Lawson, my neighbour, who helped me with a loan to start my own firm when I left EBA – he taught me to ‘take a chance’; a geology prof when I was doing my Masters – called me out on an error of a misplaced decimal place … taught me the importance of accuracy; Bob Mitchell, a prof from Queen’s and a friend – he gave me a whole new sense of who I am.
… ‘passionate photographer’, just finished nine years on the Calgary Stampede Board, travel a lot – Africa and Europe so far this year. Heading out soon to Israel, Jordan and Turkey.
What do you read?
… adventure novels, detective stories. Earlier in my career I read a lot of motivational business books – learning how to win friends and influence people.
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