FACILITYCalgary publisher Mark Kolke, in conversation with Paul Polson
November 24, 2015
He is hard to pin down, not because he’s elusive but because he has an airplane connected to his schedule – which he explained this way: “You can’t manage afar from afar.”
I first met Paul when he was with Stantec’s architectural practice when I returned to Calgary in 1999. Our paths cross often at industry events and social functions, but we were way overdue for catching up which we did at the Calgary head office of Stuart Olson Construction Inc. where Paul Polson’s current label is: Senior Vice President, Business Development & Community Engagement. A decade ago that might have been labeled Marketing, further back, Head Salesman. But we all know there is more to it than that.
He’s close-lipped on personal matters, but I managed to pry some things loose. Paul wanted to do more talking about Stuart Olson. I wanted to talk more about Paul. Let’s start nearer the beginning:
Born in Winnipeg, mom was homemaker and part-time makeup artist for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. Dad, an accountant in oil & gas (and also an RWB volunteer). Paul has one sibling, an older sister. Dad got transferred to Calgary. Paul met his wife-to-be Laurie in high school (Aberhart) – and they’ve been married forty-years. They have three adult sons (25,28,30). Laurie pursued a career in health care management, while Paul headed off into the buildings world – first a two-year Architectural Technologist program at SAIT, then to University of Manitoba where he earned his B.Arch. He joined Tom Laird and Don Snow at their firm Laird Snow … which, upon Snow’s retirement became Laird Polson. Paul knows about downturns and recalls their staff of thirty-eight shrinking to five in six months which led to some merging/morphing and then, in 1997, Barry Lester from Stantec came calling, merger happened – and Paul was head of Architecture for three years. Until 2001, when Paul joined Stuart Olson in a bridging role as VP Business Development. These days he is Sr. VP, part of the head office management team with a current crew of 4,800! That’s mostly western Canada, and a beachhead in Toronto growing steadily. As construction firms go, a pretty health firm doing $1.4 billion a year.
Recent adventuring – lots of travelling, navigating balance between work, home and family – it seems Paul has his bags always packed, most recently for a trip to Nairobi, Kenya, where he and Laurie and travelling friends went on safari – shooting with a camera only, four camps in twelve days …
Why are you successful?
“I’m a hard working guy. Support from my family, my wife. My volunteer involvements (Chamber of Commerce, Theatre Calgary, Calgary Stampede Board, Alberta Assoication of Architects, College of Fellows RAIC, etc.) have been great connections – and for giving back. I learned I didn’t need to be CEO to lead.”
What has held you back? “Nothing I can think of.”
How do you see your business – construction management - going forward over the next quarter?
… worrysome, scary – two ‘new’ levels of government, waiting to see what they do in terms of infrastructure, see if what they do is what they say they will do .... This marketplace is goofy – we’re still busy in oil & gas based work. Saskatoon is bumpy right now, but the rest of the country is busy, and there is lots of work in Toronto.
And over the next five years?
… lets hope the cycle has turned for Alberta …
What qualities distinguish your preferred colleagues, collaborators and suppliers?
… money is not always number one. The person, qualifications, do we line up? Are we a cultural fit? Loyalty, quality, service. We work collaboratively – architect-builder-client – trust, relationships, culture. Not everyone’s a fit for us, or we for them.
What distinguishes you that causes people to choose Paul Polson and Stuart Olson, and why do they do business with you, why have they hired you, over your competitors?
… same reasons. Everybody ‘says’ they are collaborative. We actually are. That’s huge.
How would you describe your leadership/management style?
… incredibly open-door, approachable. I have seven direct reports, seven VP’s responsible for 2200 people. You can’t manage afar from afar.
What do you lose sleep over, what do you worry about?
… Family. Health. This goofy economy! While it seems like memories of the 80’s, projects aren’t stopping. That’s different! Our industrial side is still going very strong (we still have 1,200 electricians working in Fort McMurray) because many companies are re-tooling and doing maintenance.
Who or what influenced you most – that has made a difference in your life, or that was a major turning point?
… a guidance counsellor in grade 11, a guy you could talk to – helped me figure out what to do after high school – suggested I explore engineering or architecture. Peter Hemingway who was an advisor and ‘critiqued my thesis’, fantastic character.
Work-life balance – do you have it?
… I struggle with it all the time. Tough this year.
… running, travel – Europe once a year, golfing in Palm Springs in the winter.
What do you read?
… don’t read books much – no time, some fiction on vacations. Fortune magazine, running books …
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