One month into his new role as President & CEO of Edmonton Economic Development Corporation (EEDC), Brad Ferguson is still trying to get a handle on an organization that many would say is in need of change. Starting a new job is tough enough, but Brad’s new position comes with its own unique mix of history, politics, and public scrutiny. Despite that, Brad insists he is ready to tackle the challenges and bring about significant, positive changes. “I have never been so on for something in my life, since maybe when I was starting my own company,” he told me as our coffee interview got underway last week. “I’m fired up, I really am!”
Though he has lived in a number of different places, Edmonton has always been Brad’s home. He earned a B.A. in Economics and B.Comm in Finance from the University of Alberta. A job at Proctor & Gamble took him away from the city in the mid-nineties, but he soon returned to start a family and “really setup shop.” After P&G, Brad spent time at KPMG and TkMC (Sierra Systems) before starting his own management consultancy Strategy Summit Ltd. in 2002. He has made a career out of advising organizations on how to become more competitive to facilitate growth.
He was not thinking about the EEDC job at first, but a series of conversations in recent months changed Brad’s mind. A number of individuals encouraged him to throw his hat into the ring, so he did. After going through the headhunting and formal interview process, Brad started to feel as though he might be selected. “I became downright competitive about it!” He had come to realize that the opportunity was too important to pass up, and he wanted the job.
At just 43 years of age, Brad will bring a perspective to EEDC that the organization has not had in fifteen years. His two most recent predecessors, Ron Gilbertson and Allan Scott, were both 55 when they took the job. Before them, Jim Edwards was 61 when he took over from Rick LeLacheur, the organization’s first president and CEO who was about six months older when he started than Brad is today. EEDC is often criticized as an “old boys club”, so the board’s decision to move ahead with Brad as the new leader reflects a willingness to change.
Established in 1993, EEDC is wholly owned by the City of Edmonton. The organization’s mandate includes the promotion of economic development and tourism, as well as the management and development of the Shaw Conference Centre and Edmonton Research Park. Or as Brad put it, the organization is made up of four very different business units. “We have a major facility and caterer, real estate, tourism, and economic development.” With 130 full-time employees, 650 part-time employees, and a $36 million annual budget, EEDC is a major force in our city yet many Edmontonians wonder what the organization does. Brad wants to change that.
“It’s about being externally focused,” he said. “It’s about demonstrating value to the community.” He acknowledges that structural changes are necessary, not only to change EEDC’s image, but to enable it to deliver on its mandate. “The structure has to mesh with strategy and be aligned to organizational outcomes.” He admits to feeling some public pressure to make changes as well.
That process will take time, but it starts this fall when Brad will take a series of directional statements to the board in an effort to get authorization to further explore the options. He hopes to present a set of recommendations by the end of the year. “I have three phases,” he explained. “Focusing the organization, building leadership capacity, and bringing about a cultural shift.” He’s not sure exactly what that change will look like, but he knows where he wants the organization to end up. “Our structure needs to build confidence and clarity in the marketplace.”
One of the first people Brad called after starting work was Richard Andersen, President and CEO at Northlands. “I want to bring resolution and clarity to the question of Shaw versus Expo,” Brad told me. Competition between the Shaw Conference Centre and Edmonton Expo Centre can sometimes be unhealthy, as each focuses on winning the client instead of ensuring the client comes to Edmonton and has the best experience possible. Like EEDC, Northlands has also struggled in recent years to defend its existence, a problem that only got worse when they were left out of discussions on the downtown arena. Under Andersen’s leadership however, there are signs that things are beginning to change for the better, and Brad certainly holds his counterpart in high esteem. “Richard is an incredible operator and leader in this community.”
The open approach to collaboration will be important as Brad charts a new course for EEDC. “No one organization is responsible for economic development,” he told me. “It’s a system, and it’s important to be supportive of other organizations.” While the amalgamation of the various economic entities in the nineties helped to bring clarity and efficiency to Edmonton’s economic development efforts, perhaps the time has come to reassess that structure. Perhaps EEDC doesn’t need to be in four different businesses.
Even if a breakup is not in the cards for EEDC, there is certainly room for greater coordination with other organizations. Just days after Edmonton Tourism’s joint initiative with Travel Alberta to bring former Bachelorette star Ashley Hebert and her fiance J.P. to Edmonton made headlines, Brad admitted that he learned a lot from the experience. “I have learned who they are,” he quipped. Then, becoming more serious, “I have made it known internally that I want to understand the ROI on this.” Brad was quick to support his staff however, explaining that experimentation and creativity are needed and should be cultivated. As for the collaboration with Travel Alberta, Brad was happy the two organizations were able to work together on a project. Still, he recognizes there is work to do. “There should be a joint context, a joint set of priorities.”
One of Brad’s earliest memories of Edmonton was a walk through the river valley when he was about eight years old. “I remember the green and gold of the leaves,” he recalled. “It felt like a new phase for me.” That same spot, near the Royal Glenora, had an impact on him later too when a conversation about the negative economic situation in Edmonton weighed heavily. In the latest phase of his career, Brad finds himself in a much healthier city, faced with the opportunity to have a major impact.
There are many Edmontonians that have shaped the leader Brad is today, and many that he admires greatly, but two stand out. “Sandy Mactaggart recognized there was opportunity here,” Brad said. “He was a city builder and is still a great philanthropist.” The other is Rod Fraser, perhaps best known as the former President of the University of Alberta. “He is one of the great communicators,” Brad said. “He talked about the university being indisputably recognized internationally as one of a handful of the best organizations.”
EEDC has been vocal about its vision to make Edmonton one of the world’s top five mid-sized cities by 2030, but Brad is not sold on that. “Visions are never achievable,” he told me. “They have to be long-lasting.” The implication is that being a top five mid-sized city is completely reasonable and achievable. “Let’s declare ourselves there, up the bar, and figure out what’s next.” He would rather see us really stretch. After all, as the saying goes, no one gives you power, you just take it.
So what would a stronger vision sound like? “The vision should be to consistently outperform every economic jurisdiction in North America for the next twenty years.” An audacious and yet very measurable statement. “That means when the price of oil fluctuates, we still need to outperform, so that’s resiliency.” The focus on North America rather than simply the world is important, because Brad says the “continental approach is where we want to perform.”
Whenever Edmonton’s aspirations are discussed, two words seem to get thrown around more than any other: world class. “I don’t subscribe to those words a lot,” Brad declared. When pushed for a definition, he said the first thing is we need to be proud of whatever we’re calling world class. And secondly, “it has to be relevant and respected by people outside of our borders.” He did have praise for the downtown arena, perhaps the project most often associated with the term. “I think the arena is a bold, dynamic project, that has the ability to spark the creativity and interest of whole lot of other developers,” he said. “I want to compliment the City for having the courage to really entertain this and to be involved as a partner.”
One word that Brad has been using very consistently and deliberately since taking over as CEO is “complacency.” To him, it perfectly captures one of Edmonton’s biggest challenges. “It’s our number one enemy,” he said. “Right now the economy feels strong, but there are some dark clouds looming.” It’s clear that Brad has thought a lot about the subject, and has strong feelings about how to avoid becoming complacent. “We need to change to a culture of competitiveness,” he told me. “We need to have a hunger to compete.” Despite his cautions about complacency, Brad does feel that Edmonton is more resilient and diversified today than ever before. And he notes that significant opportunities lay ahead for the city. “A number of the things Edmonton has – education, food, water – are things the world wants,” Brad said.
Ensuring we can articulate Edmonton’s story to the world is going to be an important piece in making the most of those opportunities. “There’s a real need to tell our city’s story better,” Brad declared. “I compliment the mayor for his leadership on this.” Noting that everyone has an opinion on the topic, he doesn’t think any one group can fully articulate what Edmonton’s story is. “I think a common language will emerge,” he said. “Something to do with the opportunity to contribute.” Whatever the story is, Brad hopes it has an impact on the way Edmontonians feel about Edmonton. “We have to build a little more pride in how we talk about our city,” he said.
While Brad will absolutely need to lead the way as a retooled EEDC works to make Edmonton the economic jurisdiction to beat, he recognizes that he won’t be alone in that quest. “There are so many great people that want to help build this city,” he said. “Part of my job is to help them make something happen.” He stresses that his door is open, and that he’ll be both accessible and proactive. “Everyone can expect my call!”
Despite the economic turmoil taking place around the globe, Edmonton’s economy has remained strong and healthy growth is forecasted for the years ahead. Of course EEDC has a role to play in that, but it’s an indirect one that requires clear direction and strong collaboration. Ensuring EEDC has the right people, strategies, and relationships to play a significant role in that growth is absolutely something Brad must tackle. He’s ready to do just that.
“I want to fundamentally up the value of the organization to the community and to the City of Edmonton.”