FACILITYCalgary publisher Mark Kolke, in conversation with Richard Pootmans
May 31, 2016
We live in a large city and most of us rarely meet or know our elected representatives.
Having met, known and interviewed a few politicians along the way I’ve formed some opinions about what is normal, what is not, and what seems to distinguish some from so many others. I’d heard about Richard Pootmans, but our paths never crossed. I don’t live anywhere near his Ward (Ward 6) and though it seems we travel in some similar circles - we'd never met. It was time. He’s a bit eccentric. Maybe a lot. But in a fun way …
His name is in the paper plenty – but his story isn’t, so I set out to get my curiosity satisfied. Booking quality one-on-one time with elected officials is a daunting scheduling task …
We met in his office at City Hall – caught him between meetings about ‘inland port’ and ‘remote parking issues’ with staff stepping in intermittently – it’s a busy place but his office became a ‘phones off now’ zone, for me, for a short while.
He got elected, notwithstanding a ‘campaign sign defacing’ that wasn’t pretty. A sign saying ‘Richard Pootmans’ was spray-paint altered to say ‘ hard Poo man ’ , his photo adorned with a large blob on his head. It seemed to make the rounds in his Ward (.. he jokes about it now ) that people should vote for the HARD POO MAN. Who says name recognition isn’t important in politics?
OK, let’s start at the beginning – his beginning. Born in Toronto, moved with family to Montreal and Ottawa where he grew up. He has a younger brother. His parents met when they were attending McGill. Both became career civil servants. His dad got fired several times (and rehired) along the way. His mother, as Richard describes, “was a superstar” who worked in the PMO. Richard loved his sports – cross-country skiing and tennis, was a good stucent - but he didn’t have a clear direction in mind for his future. He attended Carlton University in Ottawa, obtained a B.A. in Economics, and upon graduation got a gift from his dad – a one-way ticket to Calgary. Upon arrival in Calgary, job hunting and looking to make friends – he got involved in a political campaign, albeit it an unsuccessful (George Ho Lem running for Liberals) one. But that involvement strongly influenced his future. He met two people of importance, a landman from Texaco who helped him land a job. And Frances Wright, who has been his wife for 36 years. They have no children, but share a fondness for old SAABs and this intrepid interviewer it seems ...
His career reads like a history of oil companies that don’t exist any longer: Texaco, HBOAG, Dome … and then, a ten year stint in retail. His wife had established a women’s clothing business – Ports. Richard opened a Ports menswear store. After they sold those businesses Richard explored commercial real estate (Dixon, then Royal LePage) – then back to school to start an MBA at the University of Calgary, analyst/VP at SMED, finished the MBA, then a job at Calgary Economic Development – Sr. Business Development Manager. Then Ward 6 Councillor Joe Connelly decided to run for Mayor. It was a ten person race, and the HARD POO MAN won the day. He was re-elected and his current term runs till our next election, October 2017.
Why are you successful? “I’d like to let the people I serve be the judge of that. I try to stay healthy. Maybe because I worked 80-hours a week in my first term. There is a challenge to find balance between spending too much time on my Ward vs. too much time on city wide matters – and everybody critiques that, including me. Chairing the Audit committee is a sign of trust and success I suppose.”
What has held you back? “I don’t know. Maybe if I wasn’t doing this I would return to school. I don’t have any regrets.”
P.S. : I also asked him about Uber, about the Mayor’s recent viral-video. I got a kind but firm ‘no comment’. On the subject of whether Mayor Nenshi will run again in 2017 vs. pursue other ambitions, Richard says, “I think he’ll still be here …”
How do you see your business – municipal politician – going forward over the next quarter?
… the economy is doing poorly – a lot of people are in distress, AND the city is growing, so we have an increased demand for services and we have to do it with less money. Residents of my Ward want more services. Reconciling these needs and values is difficult.
And over the next five years?
… I don’t think there will be radical change. This city is ‘where it's at’ for economies! We’ll recover and diversify more – agrifood, transportation/logistics. There will be more/better multi-government stakeholders driving policy …
What qualities distinguish your preferred colleagues, collaborators and suppliers?
… careful, thinking. People who figure out the need – and have a high level of optimism – and pick the best. Skill sets, attitude, motivation – we need all sorts. In terms of price, cost cutting often proves it costs a lot more in the long run. It’s value that is important.
What distinguishes you that causes people to choose Richard Pootmans, and why do they do business with you, why have they hired you, over your competitors?
… I’d like to think I represent values, work ethic – act on things, being effective.
How would you describe your leadership/management style?
… I have three staff here. I would say collaborative, laissez-faire. I believe in putting good people in place and getting out of their way, to let them do their jobs.
… NONE! Lots of invitations – every day of the year. It comes with the territory.
What do you lose sleep over, what do you worry about?
… I’m a worrier! The issues of the day, city budgets, getting the West Ring Road project moving …
Who or what influenced you most – that has made a difference in your life, or that was a major turning point?
… Ms. King, a grade five teacher in Ottawa, took me under her wing, tutorials. My mother – her success, her good-naturedness. She was always ‘on’, really engaging. My wife – she is a tremendous inspiration for me.
… walks, biking, time with my wife, taking yoga classes together, reading council minutes (yes, he says he enjoys that), taking the I.C.D. program
What do you read?
… thousands of pages of reports and data, constantly, never-ending.! I liked The Innovators by Walter Isaacson, the Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho.
… ’98 SAAB Wagon, a beater. It replaced the 27-yr. old SAAB that perished in the flood …
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