Given its name, one might reasonably assume the newly-formed Business Council of Alberta (BCA) has a singular focus on business: an organization made up of, advocating on behalf of, Alberta businesses. That assumption, however, would be wrong. For while BCA is comprised of notable businesses and entrepreneurs, its purpose is far broader than that sole sphere; it encompasses the well-being of all Albertans, the province’s economy and the environment. Put simply, BCA is about shared prosperity.
Conceived in late 2018 by business titans Ron Mannix, chairman emeritus, Coril Holdings Ltd.; Hal Kvisle, board chair, Finning International; Mac Van Wielingen, president and founder, Viewpoint Group; Nancy Southern, chair and CEO, ATCO Group; and Dawn Farrell, president and CEO, TransAlta Corporation; BCA is a non-partisan policy and advocacy organization focused on making life better for Albertans. By harnessing the experience and talent of business leaders and entrepreneurs, the goal is to build a better Alberta.
“We look at prosperity in a broad sense for Albertans,” explains Kvisle, one of the five founders. “Not just looking at the well-being or the success of big corporations or any individual business, but rather how well is Alberta working for the broad base of Albertans in both economic and social terms?”
This focus, in addition to the impressive list of founders and members, sets BCA – an organization arguably long overdue in Alberta – apart. It also gives it a uniquely influential position.
“One of our core beliefs is that when the province is economically strong, we have the capability and flexibility to do a number of other things,” Kvisle explains. “We can deliver better education and better opportunities for people. We can have better investments in infrastructure and can fund social programs. When the economy is weak or when we’re operating under unusual burdens imposed upon us, all of those things become a whole lot more difficult.”
Indeed, things in this province have been much more difficult over the last five years. Far beyond the energy industry, the economic malaise has gripped everyone. It’s these challenges, and the solutions to them, that have inspired 44 BCA members to join to date.
“It’s a pivotal time in Alberta right now,” says BCA member Dave Filipchuk, president and CEO of PCL Constructors Inc. in Edmonton. “The economic prosperity enjoyed in the past is no more. I see it as a critical time for doing the right things to set us up for a bright future. We can deal with current realities as best we can, but we also want to set ourselves up for generations to come.”
“We want it to go beyond the traditional framing of a think tank or lobby organization and be more of what we call a ‘do-tank,’” explains Adam Legge, BCA’s founding president. “We need to do our best, in a public policy way, to increase the prosperity of Albertans using business as the critical vehicle to achieve that prosperity.”
The 44 BCA members are from Edmonton and Calgary, though the goal is to have approximately 150 members, from diverse sectors and geographies across the province.
“I see BCA as an opportunity to bring the ‘and,’” says member Judy Fairburn, corporate director and founder of The51. “We have at the table large firms, startups, younger and older generations. We have the core group from the traditional sectors but increasingly membership from the tech world. This bringing together to find solutions and enable our province to be successful on all fronts: economically, socially and environmentally.”
In just a short time, BCA has launched two projects. The first is the creation of an Alberta Shared Prosperity Index to measure the shared prosperity for Albertans over time and compared to other jurisdictions to see where work should be done. The second is the Task Force on Future Skills and Training. “This will help us to make sure we have an ecosystem of both business and post-secondary institutions such that people are continually adapting and evolving their skill sets to be prepared for the changing workplace,” Legge explains.
For Fairburn, a focus on digital skills and adoption is imperative. “It’s key to maintaining competitiveness, as we’ve seen in many sectors around the world. Having the skills and training to be able to adapt and to know that we are going to be well positioned, rather than poorly positioned, to evolve as the world keeps changing.”
Beyond the two projects, a major focus of BCA will be identifying what steps are needed to help get Alberta’s economy and prosperity back on track.
“It’s a really frightening world out there right now,” says Southern. “When we see inverted yield curves, slowing of demand, global trade uncertainty, geopolitical uncertainty, we need to have all the best thinking brought together in order to continue to ensure that Alberta is prosperous. That it has its best foot forward and remains competitive in a highly-competitive environment. We need to maintain advantages, work on our strengths and mitigate our weaknesses. That’s the role of BCA.”
Southern highlights the vilification of the oil and gas industry as one issue at the forefront. “That has to be one of our priorities,” she says. “We need a measured, well-thought-out approach to improving our oil and gas image.”
The issue is top-of-mind for member Russ Girling, president and CEO of TC Energy, and fourth-generation Albertan. Having spent 35 years in Alberta’s energy industry, he’s experienced many ups and downs but is more concerned today than he’s ever been about the future.
“This is a great place to work, live, raise families and invest,” he says. “Never have I seen the opportunity so great. But at the same time, never have the challenges been so daunting. Misinformation and activist movements have been focused on a keeping-it-in-the-ground strategy, while we have failed to ensure that the facts are out there for people to make informed decisions.”
Those facts, he continues, include that Alberta and Canada have one of the largest resources bases in the world. “Our environmental standards, employment standards and the way we conduct our business is the most responsible on earth,” he says proudly. “That message has been drowned out by those with a clear objective of shutting down our business here. It’s been a huge challenge in terms of public policy and ensuring we have a sound foundation for future growth.”
Access to markets, within and outside Canada, is another key issue. “We need to have open borders within this country,” says Filipchuk. “We need access to tidewater for Alberta’s resources.”
“Access to market is a problem for the energy sector, and also for the forestry sector and the agricultural sector,” Kvisle adds. “It has been the single-biggest challenge Western Canada has faced for 400 years, going back to the fur traders. It’s a big deal in agriculture and certainly in the pipeline space today.”
Member Aroon Sequeira, chairman of Sequeira Partners in Edmonton, echoes his support for the province’s energy sector while encouraging the promotion of a diverse province. “We must attract businesses of all types to Alberta and create a generally good business climate, emphasizing that we are a diverse economy beyond energy,” he says. “We have some of North America’s largest and most respected engineering and construction firms, one of the two major Canadian airlines and one of the two major railroads based here. We have some of the best health care in the country. We top the charts for philanthropic giving. We’re a beautiful part of the country. I would like to see that message – of what Alberta really is – get out to the rest of Canada and the world.”
“Alberta can and should be known for our depth beyond the energy industry,” agrees Filipchuk. “Our company, PCL, is the largest general contractor in Canada, headquartered here in Edmonton. That’s something that locals know and are proud of, but I’m not sure that’s broadly known in the rest of Canada. Frankly, it’s been a wonderful place to be headquartered.”
Another area Southern hopes BCA will make headway on is the streamlining of policy and standards across provincial boundaries. “It’s so inefficient in Canada to have a regulatory body in each and every province that act in different ways,” she says. “That in itself creates protectionism for each of the provinces, and we can’t be that insular. We have to think about how we make Canada better, not just each province. What we can do from each province that brings strength and allow the country to capitalize on the strengths of each province.”
Tax policy is another area BCA aims to make progress in. “Specific high taxes that have been introduced are a real disincentive to people,” Kvisle laments. “And we’ve already seen the tax reductions implemented in Alberta have stimulated economic activity. The federal government needs to give some serious thought as to whether their tax policies have been going in the right direction.”
For all BCA founders and members, recapturing the public trust and improving public sentiment towards businesses in general is a priority. “There’s a conversation happening, across North America, about the role of business,” Girling says. “About the role of free enterprise and markets. They are the cornerstones of this prosperous society that we have, that provides opportunities for education, investment, job creation and meaningful work for people. We need to be in the conversation.”
A focus on attracting and retaining younger Albertans in the province is also needed. “We need to ensure that our younger generation is choosing Alberta as a place of opportunity,” Fairburn says. “Let’s make sure we’re taking the steps to enable our province to be future-relevant, offering meaningful work, a digital sustainable foundation, diverse sectors with diverse leadership. Look at it through their eyes, because talent is so mobile.”
With sights set on significant goals and the best possible people working to achieve them, BCA plans to have a major impact, in Alberta, Canada and the world. “I have not, in all my career, seen an initiative like this with so many influential, passionate people coming together in a non-partisan fashion,” Sequeira marvels. “It’s very ambitious goals with an anything-is-possible attitude. That excites me. Will there be frustration along the way? Probably. Will there be diverse points of view and lots of arm-wrestling on things? Absolutely. But I believe ultimately, we will see results.”