To those familiar with Leslie O’Donoghue, Q.C., it comes as no surprise she is this year’s recipient of the Distinguished Business Leader Award (DBLA). The list of reasons is long: a successful 29-year career, first as a commercial litigator and then as an executive at Agrium Inc.; a champion for women in law and business; years spent giving back to the community; and a leadership style grounded in optimism.
To O’Donoghue, however, it came as a complete surprise.
“It took me a couple of days to get over the shock,” recalls the executive vice president, corporate development and strategy, and chief risk officer at Agrium. “I know the list of past recipients well. These are incredible pillars – within their own businesses and also in the community – who have made meaningful impacts. It is very humbling to be even considered on that list.”
Indeed, to receive the DBLA is a true honour. In its 25th year, the award is co-presented by the Haskayne School of Business and the Calgary Chamber of Commerce as both a celebration of ethical leadership, community engagement and a legacy to support future leaders. O’Donoghue is the third woman to receive the award.
“It is unique to have the shared commitment of a business school and chamber of commerce working together,” says Jim Dewald, dean of the Haskayne School of Business. “And it is unique to target ethical leadership wherein business leaders are assessed based on their contributions to the enterprise, industry and community.”
For O’Donoghue – who is no stranger to receiving awards including Top Deal Maker of the Year by the Canadian General Counsel Awards (2009), one of the Top 100 Most Powerful Women in Canada by the Women’s Executive Network (2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013), one of Alberta’s 50 Most Influential People by Alberta Venture Magazine (2013), and the Queen’s Law Distinguished Alumni Award (2016) – this makes the DBLA special. “It’s an amazing recognition because of the purpose and mission behind the award – inspiring the next generation not only through educational excellence, but integrating that as a foundation for ethical leadership and community engagement.”
Of her ethical leadership and community engagement, there is no question. Since joining Agrium in 1999, O’Donoghue has led the organization in a variety of legal, operational and business strategy roles. The company has grown during her time from a regional agricultural player valued at approximately $2.4 (US$1.6) billion into a global leader in agricultural products, services and solutions valued at close to $24 (US$18) billion. Agrium’s merger with PotashCorp, expected to close subject to regulatory approval this year, will put the combined enterprise value close to $50 (US$37) billion.
She has also fiercely promoted women at Agrium. In 2006, she established the Agrium Women’s Leadership Group (now the Women’s Inclusion Network), whose aim is to drive great mentors and development opportunities for women within Agrium.
“It seems so obvious now, but it was a big step at the time,” she reminisces. “It’s one of the things I’m most proud of because it really has provided a common network for the women here.” The initiative has worked: currently 30 per cent of Agrium’s board of directors are female. In addition, they are working towards a target of at least 15 per cent women in senior roles by 2019.
O’Donoghue’s efforts go far beyond Agrium too. Since 2013 she has been on the board of the United Way of Calgary and Area, having co-chaired the charitable organization’s 2012 annual campaign. She is a member of the YWCA YWhisper chair advisory committee, and is the only Canadian sitting on the leadership council of the United Nation’s SDSN (Sustainable Development Solutions Network). She has participated in the Women’s Executive Network for years as an advisory committee member, public speaker and mentor. She has been a member of the Queen’s Law Dean’s Council and currently sits on the QLAAC (Queen’s Law Alberta Alumni Council).
And – as if that weren’t enough – she has been a director of Pembina Pipeline Corporation since 2008.
“People always say it’s ‘giving back to the community’ but while I’m giving back I get a lot in return, especially as a leader,” says the born-and-raised Calgarian. “You get much better perspective, better balance, more empathy and gratitude. And I think that’s what a leader ultimately needs to bring to the table, especially in a time of crisis.”
“Leslie O’Donoghue was an excellent choice for the 2017 DBLA Award and was selected by the panel of experts after a thorough consideration process,” says Adam Legge, president and CEO of the Calgary Chamber. “An accomplished leader in one of Alberta’s top industries, Leslie is passionate about moving the dial in helping the next generation of leaders, and a tireless advocate for the community.”
On June 22, 2017 at a gala awards dinner, O’Donoghue will receive the DBLA. Proceeds from the gala will fund scholarships for Haskayne students and new entrepreneurs in the Calgary Chamber’s Emerging Entrepreneurs Program.
A graduate of the University of Calgary herself (she completed a BA in economics in 1984), O’Donoghue’s path to the present was far from given. “From pretty early days I wanted to be a lawyer,” she says of her young self, the second eldest of four siblings. “I had aspirations to be a litigator.”
Law was in her Irish blood: her father, Walter O’Donoghue, Q.C., was a prominent corporate lawyer in town. O’Donoghue was wooed. She attended law school at Queen’s University and returned to Calgary to article at Duncan Collins LLP (later Blake, Cassels & Graydon LLP) in 1988. “My early experience was quite different than some,” she recounts fondly, “because it was fun. We worked hard, but it was such a talented group who really enjoyed what they were doing.”
Working with other women at Blakes shaped a lasting perspective. “We had a group of women who really looked out for each other. My early experience of working with women, working for women, was so positive.”
O’Donoghue made her way from associate to partner in due course. She also married her husband, Hugh Ross (currently president and CEO at Prairie Storm Energy Corp.), and had two sons. “I was happy practicing,” she professes. “Leaving Blakes was something I never imagined I’d do.”
But leave she eventually did when, in 1999, as outside counsel to Agrium, the opportunity presented itself. “They were looking for a new general counsel. I think I was at the right place at the right time – and I recognized it.”
An ostensibly good move, O’Donoghue remained as general counsel for nine years, her legal portfolio ever expanding to include environment, health and safety, internal audit and government relations. During this time, Agrium embarked on a strategy to expand both its wholesale and retail businesses. “We were focused on being able to grow and consolidate our business at the bottom of the cycle – where the opportunity was.”
Integral to this strategy, O’Donoghue oversaw a series of large acquisitions valued at over $4.1 (US$3.9) billion including Royster-Clark in 2006, United Agri Products in 2008, and Australian firm AWB Limited in 2010.
Agrium’s retail business grew over tenfold. “We were really well positioned by 2012,” she says. “Our stock had a premium valuation because our integrated strategy [Agrium has both a wholesale and retail business, each of which comprise approximately half of the business] allowed us to weather the ups and downs of the commodity cycle.”
At the same time, in 2009, she moved fully to the business side as chief legal officer and senior vice president, business development. In 2011, she became executive vice president of operations and in 2012 assumed her current role.
“It’s been a pretty progressive shift,” she acknowledges of the past 18 years. “The organization itself has changed and grown so much. Agrium’s growth has provided me with so many opportunities that wouldn’t have been possible without so many great mentors along the way and the talented team I work with. This has kept me challenged and inspired.”
One notable challenge: a 10-month proxy battle with U.S. hedge fund investor JANA Partners LLC, whose aim was to separate Agrium’s retail and wholesale businesses. O’Donoghue was in the thick of the fight. “It forced us to have the integrity and conviction that our integrated strategy would deliver longer-term value,” she says.
Agrium eventually won the contest on April 9, 2013. “One of the things I’m most proud of is that many of the large pension funds – like AIMCo and the British Columbia Investment Management Corporation – publicly endorsed our integrated strategy.”
With the JANA saga over, Agrium remained well positioned. “We’d convinced the market that the integrated strategy would deliver long-term value,” O’Donoghue says. “We ultimately had to deliver.”
Thus the merger with PotashCorp, approved by both companies’ shareholders last year. “It’s a transformational company event,” O’Donoghue extols. “It will create a pre-eminent company that can compete on the global scale, with lots of leverage to the upside of the cycle.” Significant synergies will provide value.
These days, O’Donoghue spends much of her time planning Agrium’s integration with PotashCorp. She’s still M&A focused, and deals with Agrium’s health, safety and risk metrics.
What free time she has is spent with family, particularly her recently widowed mother, her husband, Hugh, and her sons, Brendan and Connor (now aged 21 and 23), and many siblings, nieces and nephews.
Though being a mother, wife and business and community leader hasn’t always been easy, she’s proof it can be done. “You have to get the balance right and be absolutely true to yourself.” For O’Donoghue that involves a culture of support at home, work and in the community. “If you get the balance right and have a culture of support, you’re prepared to have some times that are harder than others,” she advises.
Integral to her support is Hugh, with whom she celebrates 25 years of marriage this year. “I’m really lucky in that Hugh is my biggest supporter; my biggest fan. He will move his schedule around to accommodate me and I’m expected to do the same – though I’m probably less accommodating,” she chuckles.
Her advice to a younger generation of aspiring business leaders? “Attack challenges with a sense of optimism,” she encourages. “A more optimistic, problem-solving, future-oriented perspective leads to more opportunities personally, but also for your organization and the people within it.”
And don’t be too cautious. “Take more risk than you otherwise would. My business success has been, in part, due to great mentors who encouraged me to take more risk than I otherwise would have.”
Wise words from a distinguished leader. Though she has many hats – business leader, lawyer, community worker, mentor, daughter, wife and mother, among others – O’Donoghue wears them all exceptionally well. It’s no wonder she is this year’s DBLA recipient.