FACILITYCalgary publisher Mark Kolke, in conversation with Ross Glen
Oct 6, 2015
He only has 3 contacts on his LinkedIn profile. Who is Ross Glen, and how did he get to be so successful?
I didn’t expect Ross and I would have a lot in common – but it turned out we both attended Western Canada High, both have clear memories of legendary principal Ward Steckle. Ross remembers, particularly, being kicked out of school in the 11th grade – and taking two weeks to tell his dad. His dad wanted him to be a lawyer. Cutting class and hockey, not focusing on school – didn’t bode well. Dad said he had to get to work, and he did in typewriter maintenance. Ross didn’t want to be a lawyer. “I wanted to make money. Dad said I’d never make money without an education!”
How does a 16 yr.-old high school drop out in a typewriter maintenance entry level job, at Underwood make it? Olivetti bought Underwood, all the staff were older and didn’t show an interest in new technology. Ross did. He took the training, wanted to get into sales and did. He thought about selling real estate. The Steelcase dealer in Calgary was in trouble. A big customer, BA Oil, were consulted – and Don Neilsen recommended Ross. Partnered initially with Donn Larson from Edmonton and Gordon Oliver, RGO was born. A few years later, partners dispatched and loans to Ross Alger, Al Belinsky and his dad repaid, Ross Glen was on his own – and building his business. Now he’s soon celebrating 50 years in business.
Ross Glen, born in Calgary – Sunalta School, Western Canada High for a while, followed by quite a life and lots of success.
His parents met and married in Winnipeg. His mother’s dad was a Dominion Life Executive. Dad married the boss’s daughter, got transferred to Calgary where dad was regional manager. Ross has an older sister. Two marriages, one divorce. Two children and quite a few accomplished grandchildren … Ross bragged on, showed pictures. He met his second wife Shirley (the first one was also a Shirley) at a party at the Calgary Tennis Club (neither played tennis). He can't remember exactly how many years they've been married. "We've been hanging out for about 50 years now."
“I’ve had many interesting friends”, says the man who drops names and metaphors like dandruff. Part of the Ralph Klein watering-holes entourage for many years, saying Ross Glen has made a career and a life out of being well connected is understatement. “I met Ralph when he was in the media – before he entered politics. We got along really well.”
He wears his ego, his friends and his deeds on his sleeve – perhaps like an old-school hard driving, hard-selling egomaniac. But older, gentler. But not much diminished, or slower. With no sign of slowing down. I corralled him recently for an afternoon meeting at his offices over bottles-of-water …
He’s proud of his involvement with the Calgary Chamber of Commerce, Calgary Stampede, Junior Acheivement, Mount Royal University (that Ross Glen Hall is no naming accident) – he is a generous writer of cheques and supporter of causes.
He's plain-spoken. Blunt spoken. Colourful. A character - larger of heart than you might first think. I was entertained!
How do you see your business – office furniture and supplies, and real estate investments - going forward over the next quarter?
… not as good as last year! It’s not all that bad because we are diversified. Some things are up, others are down. Our real estate holdings are doing well …
And over the next five years?
… In terms of oil, Alberta shouldn’t be dependent on one customer for 80% of our revenue. In terms of our products, more flexible. Technology change will continue to steer the industry. It’s not the cost of furniture and office build-outs that matter so much to companies as the cost of people. When I sign lease renewals on my properties I wonder if I’ll still be around when they renew again. I’m 78. Five years is a long time. My daughter will be taking over.
What qualities distinguish your preferred colleagues, collaborators and suppliers?
… buying, finding suppliers is not so important – we have good lines and can get any product we want if we want it. Service. Diversification. We fix what we sell. Steelcase is our big line. I like to do business with large companies. We like to buy from people who buy from us.
What distinguishes you that causes people to choose Ross Glen and RGO, and why do they do business with you, why have they hired you, over your competitors?
… we answer our phones. We have very few service problems – we do it right the first time, we care that it is right. Because of our presence and involvement in the community – that has something to do with it. I like people with a strong work ethic. Integrity. I’m not keen on hiring people who’ve had ten jobs in ten years.
How would you describe your leadership/management style?
… I have 300 or so employees – so I don’t know if they’d all agree with me … I’m pretty close to my staff. I know a lot of them very well. I still think our service people see me as one of them.
What do you lose sleep over, what do you worry about?
… that my kids will be healthy.
Who or what influenced you most – that has made a difference in your life, or that was a major turning point?
… nothing stands out. I always thought I would be successful. Being friends with Ralph Klein never hurt me. Influence of many good friends, successful people, like Don Taylor for example. I don’t like losing much – I like to win. When you get into your own business, you work. I didn’t hang out with people who didn’t make money – I made friends with and liked people who were successful.
Work-life balance – do you have it?
… I’m more to the work end of the spectrum. I don’t think I’m too balanced at anything!
… golf. I used to ski a lot but I don’t like the cold. I’ve been going to Hawaii for the last 10 years. Functions in the community. Our philanthropy. Being involved in Resolve – that’s a lot of fun.
What do you read?
… mostly business periodicals. Financial statements. Not much of a book reader. I was good at math in school, not so good at English.
… 2014 Lexus 570. I didn’t like the price, but I like the service.
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