FACILITYCalgary publisher Mark Kolke, in conversation with Peter Wallis
February 23, 2016
His simplest statement about it all … “something is moving”. His widest smile, “c-suite consciousness about supply chains”.
And excitement about a comprehensive new report he can’t talk about yet will soon be released – so keep watch at: http://www.vanhorne.info/
Supply chain logistics, teaching, research, U of C affiliation, multi-modal – and a primer in the history of Mr. Van Horne, creator of the CPR and telegraph services, a trip around the world reminiscent of Dr. Zhivago-like train rides across the Trans-Siberian Railway and you have a taste of how I was entertained by Peter Wallis, Pres. & CEO at The Van Horne Institute. We had enough time, and we ran out! Peter Wallis is a consummate story teller – and we travelled the world for a couple of hours that was both entertaining and instructive.
The short version: career lawyer/academic, transportation wizard, enthusiastic, smart, funny.
The longer version:
Peter’s family had a history in the retail sporting goods business (Wallis Sporting Goods) in England. His grandfather brought most of his children to Toronto to establish the firm there: Wallis Brothers & Co. Peter is the second of three children. His mother worked in retail, and raised children. His father was a merchant who rose in the family business and became its President. He was a busy guy – but seemed to find time on weekends to take Peter to the airport to watch planes … a connection with aviation and transportation was born.
Through school he was a bit of a jock - football was his game. He worked on theYearbook. And theatre – not acting, but very involved in the lighting and logistics ...
University for Peter began at the University of Western Ontario, then York University where he earned a B.A., then went on to get his law degree at Osgoode Hall – articled at McCarthy & McCarthy, was called to the bar, and still is a member of the Ontario bar. But England was calling – a Masters degree in law from the University of London. Throughout his school days in Toronto and in London, he worked for Coca-Cola. Travelling around the world seemed appropriate, so he went from London to Tokyo via Helsinki, Leningrad, Lake Bakail, the Soviet Academy of Sciences, a Canadian embassy, a hot-tub meeting with fellow travelers and Yokohama by rail (OK, his story was much longer than that and very entertaining – including friends he met, places he saw and influences that were powerful and long lasting) and home by plane to Vancouver!
His career – each time he had a choice it involved multiple options – began in Ottawa doing legal work for Canadian Transport Commission – then a series of fortuitous moves (with increasing focus on aviation), working for federal ministers, then back again. He worked with Pacific Western Airlines on mergers with Air Canada and Ward Air, then found his way to Calgary – spent time with his own consulting firm, working with Joe Clark’s firm – and running the Calgary Chamber of Commerce. I’ve got the sequence twisted a little methinks, but you get the picture. And then the U of C and The Van Horne Institute came knocking. He’s been there as President. & CEO since 1996. Along the way, two daughters in his first marriage, a divorce. Married to Terry (she too came from an aviation industry background) - they connected in Calgary.
Why are you successful? “I stick to my tasks. I’m stubborn, results driven – moving forward to get results.”.
What has held you back? “Not much. I never aspired to be ‘the head’ of a corporation. Financial acumen I suppose. I didn’t aspire to have an MBA in finance.”
A prediction for Alberta: “High speed rail, will happen.”
I had a final question – his opinion on the prospects of the CP-Norfolk Southern merger being pursued by Hunter Harrison. I got a carefully worded response: “I think it will be a good merger for shippers. The U.S. lobbyists may be insurmountable before the regulatory folks get involved …”.
I came away from our meeting with a pile of reading material (thanks Peter), some laughs and a desire to watch a rerun of Dr. Zhivago to better appreciate the train ride …
How do you see your business – a not-for-profit research organization - going forward over the next quarter?
… not bad. We have some conferences coming up, we are active with lots on the go. In terms of financial challenges, a lot of our members are having to cut back on expenses. In terms of the downturn in the oil patch, I see a lot of people with highly transferable skills which bodes well for the transportation industry …
And over the next five years?
… we will grow, furthering our membership values – building on our industries and their response to change, to new technologies … automated vehicles, trends in materials handling, our continued involvement in courses at the Haskayne School (B.Comm. program with concentration in supply chain and logistics).
What qualities distinguish your preferred colleagues, collaborators and suppliers?
… I have my ‘go-to’ people, knowledge of how they work. Quality. Pride in their work is always important. Try to be as frugal as we can – value for money.
What distinguishes you that causes people to choose Peter Wallis, and why do they do business with you, why have they hired you, over your competitors?
… people trust me, trust my judgement. I always attempt to do ‘the right things’. I deliver.
How would you describe your leadership/management style?
… quite flexible, but I expect tasks to be completed. A more ‘coaching’ than ‘demanding’ approach.
What do you lose sleep over, what do you worry about?
... about The Van Horne Institute! Funding. Programs …
Who or what influenced you most – that has made a difference in your life, or that was a major turning point?
… it was pivotal for me, to work for two successive Ministers of Transport (Otto Laing and Don Mazankowski) – opened my eyes to the world community. Choosing a career move to Calgary over Montreal. Rhys Eyton has been a great influence, and a friend.
What do you read?
… a lot! I like fiction. My latest likes – J.K.Rowling’s adult fiction, her destructive books …
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