“Entrepreneurs live in the gaps created by change,” declares Phil Roberts, president and CEO of Vintri Technologies. “That’s where we see opportunities, jump in and find solutions.” A fitting perspective given his new role as chair of the Calgary Chamber of Commerce – a job he will hold for the next year. Particularly fitting given the city’s new economy.
“The last few years have been very difficult economically for our province, and for Calgary,” he says. “We’re not out of the woods yet, but we see signs that the market has settled, cost structures have aligned to commodity prices and the next couple of years will see better days.”
Roberts faces a challenging task ahead. Not only must he steer the 127-year-old Chamber through the maze of economic, political and social change that will inevitably occur, he must also guide it through its own major change: a new CEO. With the departure in December of CEO Adam Legge after seven years, the Chamber is on the hunt for a new leader.
“The Chamber is entering a new chapter in its long history and I’m excited to be a part of that,” says Roberts. “We have a great board of passionate volunteers that represents our business community, a very good team that punches far above its weight and a reputation we can continue to build on. As an organization, we’re in the best position possible.”
The search for a new CEO is being led by the governance and human resources committee of the board. Roberts chairs the search committee which is working directly with a consultant to do much of the work. “It’s going well, we’ve identified what we are looking for in our next CEO and the process is well underway,” he offers.
Legge, who oversaw a complete makeover of the Chamber, is not easily replaced. “Adam accomplished what he set out to do seven years ago, which is transform the Chamber into a strong, relevant organization that keeps making Calgary a great place to do business, work and live,” Roberts says. “The next CEO will be joining a strong organization with a lot of board support.”
He foresees a smooth leadership transition. “As 2018 chair, I’ll be the main liaison between the new CEO and the board; I’ll be available for questions, directions and continuity between the previous years and our next chapter for the Chamber.”
With many objectives for his tenure, member engagement is at the top. “Members are at the very core of the Chamber and we continue to find ways to engage with them and add value to their businesses,” he says. For example, the Chamber will launch its second year of the Ignite Innovation Accelerator program. “Ignite is designed to help growth-focused businesses outpace their competition through a rapid accelerator program that takes their innovation idea to market in a 90-day sprint,” he explains.
A third instalment of the Chamber’s signature event, ONWARD Summit, is also planned. “In a focused event, business leaders have the opportunity to hear cutting-edge ideas from some of the smartest minds in business, innovation, technology and global trends to help keep them one step ahead, and find new approaches to doing business,” Roberts enthuses.
His other priorities include expanding the Chamber’s digital strategy, continuing engagement with all levels of government and stakeholders on topics important to Chamber members and building out the next three-year plan for the Chamber (the current three-year strategy is at its end).
No stranger to the highs and lows of business, Roberts has spent most of his career in the technology sector. “I like the rapid pace of change,” he says, “but it’s not just the type of change that lowers costs or increases efficiency, it’s change that actually transforms the world around us and creates whole new markets.”
Originally from Montreal, Roberts and his wife, Samantha, moved to Calgary when CP relocated to the city in 1996. He completed a bachelor of commerce at the University of Calgary and then an MBA at Royal Roads University in Victoria. He started his career as an analyst in Telus’ telemarketing department and within a year had moved to advanced communications. “That was around 2001/2002, after the telecommunication sector had deregulated and the whole industry was in a constant state of flux following the dot-com bubble,” he reminisces. “Telus is where concepts like having the courage to innovate became deeply rooted in my way of working.”
From Telus, he joined Axia NetMedia Corp. to help build out the product portfolio on the Alberta SuperNet. There he went on a three-month secondment to Paris for COVAGE, a partnership formed between Axia and Vinci Networks.
Roberts remained at Axia for eight years, eventually becoming vice president of sales and services. He oversaw the service provider portfolio, government sector, product management, internal billing and invoicing, customer engineering and sales functions for the company. “It was a lot of fun working at Axia and I learned a lot,” he says. “I was fortunate to work there during a critical period of growth. We saw the evolution of the SuperNet, expansion into Singapore, France and the U.S. market, as well as a move into Fibre-to-the-Home in rural Alberta.”
His move to Vintri in 2014 was, he believes, predestined. “Back in university, I had a notion that working for a large company early in my career would provide resources for training and learning, and that I would eventually move to smaller companies along the way. I had accomplished what I set out to do at Axia and it was a good time for me to try something new.”
The opportunity at Vintri – which is currently building a data-capture product to help companies make their industrial asset data usable, compliant and insightful – came about through discussions with the founding president, whom Roberts already knew. “What he described fit the type of environment I was looking for where I would be able to commercialize a new technology and I found the industry was primed for disruption – I haven’t looked back since.”
Originally hired on in a business development and marketing role, Roberts became president and CEO in October of 2015. In 2016, he led the company through a complete restructuring of the business. “We saw gaps in the market created by the downturn and positioned ourselves to capitalize on them,” he explains.
“We’re just starting to realize the benefits of our efforts,” he adds. “We’re working with all the major pipeline companies in Canada right now on their asset traceability, and expanding into the U.S. market in 2018.”
He has embraced the role of CEO, calling it both challenging and rewarding. “You live and die by each decision, and other people depend on you to make those calls and get them right more often than not. Being a CEO is about many things, but it boils down to providing a vision for your team, supporting them in their objectives and standing out of their way.”
Transparency is vital to his leadership style. “We all work in one big open area so we share a lot of information,” he says. “I stop short of disclosing other people’s salaries but other than that, it’s an open book.”
Perseverance, boldness, authenticity and embracing change are other keys to his success. He credits his parents for teaching him these attributes. “My mother, who stayed home, was always advocating and supported us unconditionally, doing everything she could to make sure we had every opportunity,” he recalls fondly. “That taught me two things that still guide what I do. One: change is inevitable, look for it and embrace it. And two: perseverance. Never quit. Hard work is what creates opportunity.”
It’s these characteristics he brings to the Chamber. “We have 75,000 Calgarians still out of work, and one of the highest unemployment rates in the country,” he laments. “As we slowly come out of some of the toughest times we have faced in decades, this is the time to create a new and innovative future for Calgary moving forward.”
When he’s not busy with Vintri or the Chamber, Roberts is involved with various causes that deal with social issues and city-building projects, including Norfolk Housing Association, cSPACE and the Red Cross of Southern Alberta. With his wife and two sons, William, 16, and, Harrison, 18, he enjoys golfing, hiking, travelling and skiing. He also runs year round.
His outlook for Calgary’s future is positive. “I think the number of incubators and accelerators created in Calgary in the last couple of years (Vintri is part of Zone Startups Calgary, an accelerator program launched in 2016) is a reflection of the opportunities people are seeing. It doesn’t mean it’s easy, but it does make me optimistic to see all of this innovation.”
While 2018 will be a year of change at the Chamber, it will also be a year of opportunity. Roberts – with all that he brings to the table – will see to it.