FACILITYCalgary publisher Mark Kolke, in conversation with Nic Blanchet
January 23, 2018
My first exposure to the park was at high school graduation – I remember falling out of a tree … there was a bonfire and beer – and it was dark.
Fast forward several decades – I’ve lived in neighbourhoods adjacent to Fish Creek Park [2nd largest urban park in Canada – 13.38 sq. km, more than three times the size of Stanley Park in Vancouver] for many years – but I’ve been a minimal user, patron of the Bow Valley Ranche restaurant … not much more.
This past summer I changed that – walking, walking my dog and cycling – and I began to appreciate that I’d previously seen so little of this jewel in our city which is literally in my own backyard. I’ve become curious and made inquiries. The park has four stakeholder groups: The Government of Alberta (it’s a Provincial Park), The City of Calgary (pathways, utility services), Friends of Fish Creek Provincial Park Society, and ‘all of us who use it’. In search of more information I checked out the society (they’re having an AGM soon). I am thinking of joining – and I set off to meet Nic Blanchet. He’s Executive Director there. And subject of this interview:
I expected a nerdy naturalist with a French accent.
A guitarist/motorcycle racing Englishman was not what I expected …
Born in Plymouth, Devon, U.K., his mother was a store clerk from Plymouth, his dad a merchant navy guy turned firefighter from Jersey [he lived there during the German occupation]; when Nic's dad went into firefighting the family moved around a lot. Nic was often the ‘new kid in school’ (London, Gloucester, Sussex, Cornwall). His childhood dream was to be a fighter pilot. He did his first solo in a glider at 16. After completing high school in Cornwall he entered the military – training as an airplane engineer. His ambitions to be a pilot, for which he met all qualifications, were dashed due to allergies. “That experience taught me coping skills …”
Following ten years in the service Nic took a year – found spending time in the natural environment was a great field to explore. “It restored me”. Off to Cornwall College for a two-year diploma in Environmental Sciences, then Oxford for a B.Sc. (anthropology and ecology). Then some travel/work/study that took him to Venezuela, Surinam, and Calgary – and involved completing his M.Sc. at Oxford for his research work with primates. Many things happened along that path – marriage, moving to Calgary, two children (one of each), finishing his degree, Mgr. of Science and Conservation Planning at Nature Conservancy of Alberta, two years to be at home with his youngest child, and a return to work life at the same time he saw his current position advertised. He interviewed, and was hired in January 2012. “The job description spoke to me, and the board liked me.”
Nic explained to me that his organization was formed – at the behest of Alberta Parks staff to play a role the government wasn’t well suited to play - in part because Calgarians connect to the park in so many ways. For some, this is ‘their backyard’, while different people care about different parts of the park that are near and dear to them – and so many Calgarians (I’m getting to understand this kind of possessiveness) find it a cherished part of their community. The relationship of city, province and Nic’s organization are not competing interests in any formal way – just different interests, priorities and funding sources. Clearly Nic is committed to making those interests of organization, citizens and wild life work better together …
Now, more about Nic Blanchet:
Why are you successful? “Because I’m both stubborn and open-minded. I know what I want and I won’t give in – but I’m always open to suggestions. Tenacity. I get on well with people. I take responsibility – if something goes wrong, I wear it. It’s OK to make mistakes. My board have been brave enough – and my staff have been supportive – to back me. I’m disruptive. If I see something that needs change, I change it.”
What has held you back? “The financial capacity of the organization – but we’re working on solving that.”
How do you see your business – non-profit park preservation/facilitator* – going forward over the next quarter? [*we wrestled with a ‘definition’ – seems the role the Friends of Fish Creek means different things to different stakeholders]
… things are great – and going according to plan. Many of our programs are in growth mode – but to increase capacity requires an increase in staff/budget so we are always looking for grants, donations and other forms of support so we can increase our community use space and programs.
And over the next five years?
… it’s going to be a very exciting time. This work is well suited to the social-enterprise model – invests in I.T., believes in expanding staff. This is a watershed moment – not-for-profit groups can do it better in bringing complicated issues to a solution because they put outcomes first …
What qualities distinguish your preferred colleagues, collaborators and suppliers?
… integrity. I try to buy Canadian. I buy organic as much as I can. It should never be ‘just about price’. Decisions should be about fit and principles. Cheap is very rarely the best choice.
What distinguishes you that causes people to choose Nic Blanchet, and why do they do business with you, why have they hired you, over your competitors?
… my qualifications, experience, I’m what they need, I represent myself well.
How would you describe your leadership/management style?
… team is very important to me. I’m part of the team. Empowerment is important.
… I don’t see there is a difference. Work is ‘part of your life’ …
What do you lose sleep over, what do you worry about?
… I don’t lose sleep.
Who or what influenced you most – that has made a difference in your life, or that was a major turning point?
… one, a very significant one taught me by the death of my father (he was 49) from work-related cancers. He was a great guy, ‘did the right thing’ always, worked hard to create a sense of community – and he died, which has inspired me to live life full-on because it’s a crap shoot …
… things kids like to do, riding motorcycles, playing music – I’ve been playing guitar since I was 12; guitar and bass guitar, hiking and back country camping in Kananaskis country.
What do you read?
… right now, Daring Greatly by Brene Brown. I’m a big fan of Barbara Kingsolver, and John Raban. and a large collection of motorcycle books my son is now working his way through.
… 2013 Dodge Grand Caravan, and a ‘small collection’ of motorcycles; 2007 Ducati Sport Class, 2001 Ducati 748 and 2000 Ducati ST2.
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