Brad Ferguson is ‘all in’ as EEDC’s new President & CEO

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!”

Brad Ferguson

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.

Capital Ideas Edmonton Mixer

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.”

Homeless Connect Edmonton 6

Edmonton’s sixth Homeless Connect took place today the Shaw Conference Centre. The biannual event brings together service agencies, businesses, and volunteers to provide a range of free services to homeless people or people at risk of becoming homeless. Guests can get a haircut, pick up a pair of work boots, learn how to get identification, eat lunch, and much, much more. Today was the fifth time that Sharon and I have volunteered at the event. Preliminary numbers for today put the number of volunteers at more than 300 and the number of guests served at 1409.

Homeless Connect Edmonton 6

Homeless Connect Edmonton 6

This year I was assigned the task of being a guide (I’ve done registration the last few times). Guides are responsible for taking a guest from registration to their first service. Along the way I tried to point out where all of the major services were located, suggesting that they check out clothing, dental, and haircuts first (as they are always the busiest). I found that being a guide was a great way to see all of the services, but it wasn’t quite as enjoyable for connecting with guests. The conversation you have at the registration table is much better for that.

Homeless Connect Edmonton 6
Every guest receives a kit filled with essential items like socks, toothpaste, and deodorant.

Homeless Connect Edmonton 6
Work boots are always a popular item at Homeless Connect. They go quickly!

Homeless Connect Edmonton 6
The biggest line-ups today seemed to be for haircuts, always a popular service.

I was a little surprised to hear that more than 1400 people went through the doors today. That’s higher than it has been at previous Homeless Connect events, and is especially high for a spring event (the fall event tends to be busier because it is cold outside). Given that the number of homeless people decreased last year (at least according to the count) I would have expected a corresponding drop in attendance at Homeless Connect. Maybe there were more people at risk of being homeless there today.

Homeless Connect Edmonton 6
I’m always struck by the social aspect of Homeless Connect. It’s an important opportunity for old friends to reconnect.

If you’d like to volunteer for the next Homeless Connect, scheduled for October, you can learn more here. Stay tuned to Homeless Connect Edmonton on Twitter for updates. You can see the rest of my photos from today here.

Expanding the Shaw Conference Centre (again)

The Shaw Conference Centre is once again in the news. City Council’s Executive Committee will receive a report tomorrow that suggests the facility needs to be expanded. That recommendation should not be a surprise. On July 22, 2009, City Council passed this motion:

That Edmonton Economic Development Corporation prepare for Council’s approval a long-term (30 – 40 year) development plan to address the needs of the convention market in Edmonton.

If you ask EEDC what should happen with the convention market, of course they’re going to focus on the facility that they operate.

Shaw Conference Centre

The Edmonton Journal’s editorial board published a piece on the issue today. Here’s the key paragraph, in my opinion:

But there are plenty of reasons for caution. Taxpayers have just spent $150 million to expand Northlands’ rival convention and trade show facility, the new Expo Centre. Is there really an economic case to be made for two competing super-facilities, each publicly funded, run by two competing civic agencies?

Competition is a generally a good thing, but increasingly I find myself wondering why we have both Northlands and EEDC. Two organizations, both largely funded by taxpayers. If they weren’t competing, would things have turned out differently? Would the above recommendation have been different? Would we still have gone ahead with the Edmonton Expo Centre when we did? The success of that facility, which is still being paid off, has been questioned by many. Though as the City’s Chief Economist told me, that skepticism might be a little unfair. “It was developed and then we ran into a sour economy. You need to give them a full business cycle.”

Here’s what the current breakdown of rentable convention space looks like in Edmonton, according to the report:

There’s no denying that the amount of space at the Shaw Conference Centre (SCC) is significantly less than at the Expo Centre. But that alone is not reason enough to expand the facility. Here are the most up-to-date statistics on SCC usage, provided to me by EEDC:

  • In an average year, SCC receives 330,230 visitors (based on the last five years). A visitor is a person who has attended a function at SCC.
  • The split in visitors is roughly 70% regional versus 30% non-regional.
  • There are 20 to 25 days per year where SCC has no or the least number of bookings.
  • Using 2006 as a typical year and defining 75% occupancy as full, SCC was fully booked 115 days out of the year.

Compared to a few other Canadian conference venues, SCC’s visitor stats stack up quite nicely:

I’m not sure exactly which facilities they were comparing with, but clearly SCC is being used. EEDC says that over the last two and half years, it has turned away approximately 40 conventions and trade shows for future years. And apparently none of those have decided to go with the Expo Centre instead, which should have had the necessary space, presumably because they wanted to be downtown.

If we’re going to add more convention space, I think downtown is the place to do it. But I agree with the Journal’s position, “it’s also important that we not simply assume that if we build it, they will come.” So I guess I am left with a few key questions:

  • Why was the Hall D expansion so limited? If we got the forecasting wrong then, are we going to get it right this time? Are we really looking ahead 30 years?
  • Is expanding SCC really the best way to add more convention space downtown?
  • Despite the lip service paid to cooperation in the report, can Northlands and EEDC really work together to grow Edmonton’s convention market?

The next steps outlined in the report include finalizing the business case for the expansion. According to EEDC’s own backgrounder, the earliest an expansion would be completed is at least seven years from now.

Aside #1: Think back to 2004 and consider all of the technology that didn’t exist. Will large conventions as we think of them today still happen in 2018?

Aside #2: The report contains what might just be my least favorite phrase ever: “Festival City in a Box”.

Aside #3: It turns out I have an Edmonton Journal article on my desk from September 12, 1963 (I’ll explain later). Apparently we held just 42 conventions in 1962, far behind Toronto’s 657, Calgary’s 172, or even Regina’s 57. Even Moncton had more conventions than we did at 48. Our conventions in 1962 attracted 17,932 visitors who spent a total of $1,869,000, or $104 per person.

Everyone for Edmonton

volunteer edmonton There’s a really cool event happening on Saturday that unfortunately I’m going to miss (as I’ll be in Vancouver). Everyone for Edmonton is the largest event of the year for volunteers, donors, and non-profit organizations.

The event takes place on August 23rd from 9:00am until 4:30pm at the Shaw Conference Centre downtown. Debbie Riopel, a founding member of the World Kindness Movement, will deliver a keynote to start things off. Her presentation is called Heroes for a Better World!

If you’re interested in volunteering, or if you just want to learn more about the various non-profits that exist in Edmonton, you should definitely take some time on Saturday to check out this event. One of the things we talked about at ALT.NET in Calgary last weekend was how to find out about potential projects – this event is a great way to do just that.

Admission to Everyone for Edmonton is free. If you’d like more information, you can contact EEDC or email everyoneforedmonton@edmonton.com.

Shaw Conference Centre Hall D

Dickson and I went to the new Hall D at the Shaw Conference Centre this afternoon to meet with the VenturePrize people and do a sound check, so we got our first glimpse at the new addition. We were escorted in by the construction foreman who eyed my camera nervously. He didn’t ask me to leave it or anything though, so once inside, I snapped a few photos.

The place is gigantic! My first impression upon walking in was, wow, this is big. The windows are floor to ceiling, and they have massive drapes that can be mechanically raised or lowered. The ceiling itself is entirely black, with beams running the full length of the hall. There appears to be a “control room” at the back of the hall, and just outside the main room are a bunch of smaller rooms. We didn’t get to see these though as most of the construction was happening back there. Actually, that was the second thing I noticed – there is much to be done.

I have no idea what the entrance is going to look like, because we were led through a small hallway that appeared to exist only for construction purposes. There were small teams of construction workers all over the place, doing various things. Apparently the giant media screens are not part of the Hall D, but were instead “flown in” especially for VenturePrize (this is what they told me). In addition to the construction workers there were lots of people just milling about, so I’m not sure what they were doing. I wouldn’t be surprised if some people are putting in a lot of hours to get things ready for Wednesday though.

Speaking of, we’re less than two days away now. Don’t forget to follow along at our VenturePrize Experience blog!

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