In its 18th year, the Alberta Business Hall of Fame is set to celebrate the lifetime achievements of five of the province’s esteemed business leaders. Successful in different fields in different ways, they have all demonstrated superior business acumen, entrepreneurialism and a generosity of spirit that makes them deserving of induction into the Business Hall of Fame.
“Each year, inductees are honoured with our gratitude and admiration for their contributions to the economic development and prosperity of Alberta,” says Melissa From, president and CEO of Junior Achievement Southern Alberta (JASA), which presents the Induction Ceremony and Celebration. “As leading examples of achievement in business and in life, these individuals have demonstrated the qualities necessary to ensure the success and competitiveness of our province, our country and in a global marketplace.”
The Induction Ceremony and Celebration, which takes place on October 6 at the Hyatt Regency in Calgary, is the signature fundraising initiative in support of JASA.
This year’s inductees include three women, three engineers and two accountants. They are Dr. Elizabeth M. Cannon, an internationally celebrated geomatics engineer and president emerita of the University of Calgary; Wayne and Eleanor Chiu, founders of Trico Homes and the Trico Charitable Foundation; Nancy Knowlton, founder of SMART Technologies and Nureva Inc.; and Charlie Fischer, past president and CEO of Nexen.
JASA is a non-profit organization which delivers a wide selection of educational programs focusing on financial literacy, work readiness and entrepreneurship. Through partnerships with educators and volunteers from local businesses, JASA offers important interactive, hands-on learning experiences to students in all communities across southern Alberta.
“During the 2021-2022 school year, JASA taught financial literacy, work readiness and entrepreneurship skills to over 40,000 students,” From explains. “All programs align with Alberta’s new curriculum and are provided free of charge to schools thanks to the generosity of donors and sponsors. JASA is a member of JA Canada and JA Worldwide and has been a leader in youth business education programs for over 60 years.”
The work that JASA does has been particularly important coming out of two years of pandemic. “Self-efficacy is the idea that people who believe they will succeed are far more likely than others to actually succeed,” From notes. “This is a crucial characteristic to develop in today’s youth. The good news is research shows that self-efficacy can be taught in two primary ways – mastering skills through hands-on learning and experiences (JA programming) and through observing the success of others who have high levels of self-efficacy (JA volunteers in the classroom).
As Alberta continues to lead the country in economic recovery, traditional sectors will flourish while incredible growth will continue in the start-up and tech sectors. Alberta’s attractiveness as a place to live and work, particularly to its younger residents, will rise. “There is so much opportunity in Alberta right now, and an ecosystem that is really enabling young people to create their own opportunity,” From marvels. “I hope that all of these great things will result in more of our young people realizing that they can do really cool stuff here in their home province.”
Dr. Elizabeth Cannon
There are few people who can build a career from student to president of the same university, but Dr. Elizabeth Cannon is one of them. Her 36-year journey – which began as a geomatics engineering student at the University of Calgary in 1982 – culminated in an eight-year tenure as president and vice chancellor of her alma matter from 2010 to 2018. It’s an unusual path, one she considers herself extremely fortunate to have travelled.
“My journey wasn’t particularly pre-planned,” she admits, “but like in many organizations, you start with small leadership responsibilities. And if you do a good job, people ask you do to other things. And before you know it, you’re being encouraged to take on major academic leadership roles.”
And while she loved being an undergraduate, graduate and PhD student (1982 – 1991), a geomatics engineering professor (1991 – 2006), and the dean of the Schulich School of Engineering (2006 – 2010), president was a whole different ball game. “It’s really about building capacity, building the university’s reputation,” she explains. “The job is to empower others. It’s helping students reach their potential. Helping faculty reach their potential. Helping connect the university to the community and serve it better. So you’re having an impact but using very different levers in different ways.”
A native of Charlottetown, P.E.I., Dr. Cannon grew up in a home where education, particularly in math and science, was encouraged. Her mother was a science graduate from McGill University at a time when very few women were and taught high school math and science. Her father was a research scientist with Agriculture Canada.
“I always liked math, physics and science overall,” she recalls, “so engineering seemed like a good fit. It’s using those as building blocks to create things, solve problems and have an impact.”
And a major impact she had, specifically in the field of global positioning system (GPS). Starting as a summer student at a Calgary tech company in 1983, Dr. Cannon’s career was at the forefront of the novel technology’s growth.
“It intrigued me,” she reflects on her younger self. “I jumped into doing research and teaching, and it was at the time when GPS was emerging as a technology, its capabilities becoming more impactful and useful in everything from agriculture to the U.S. Navy. All of these applications made the technology ubiquitous today.” She and her colleagues from the university (including Gerard Lachapelle, Cannon’s husband) commercialized their algorithms and software to more than 200 agencies worldwide.
Since leaving the role of university president, Dr. Cannon has taken positions on a number of corporate and non-profit boards and has been a keen investor in several tech startups – particularly those lead by women – in the Calgary ecosystem.
Indeed, women in STEM has been a dominant theme of her life. “I encourage more women to think about engineering,” she says. “Not that they should all be engineers but think about what’s possible. Whether it was classroom mentoring, being dean or president, I wanted to create the conditions for women to succeed. And now I continue that passion through supporting and investing in female-founded companies.”
To the younger generation, her advice is to immerse oneself in entrepreneurial thinking: “It doesn’t mean you have to start a company. But be entrepreneurial. Take risks, be proactive, be accountable. Whether you’re a student or working at a company, have an entrepreneurial mindset. Have the energy and the passion to build things, solve problems and be creative. That mindset is going to help carry you in life, career and community, regardless of what you do.”
Wayne & Eleanor Chiu
There are very few corners of Calgary that Wayne and Eleanor Chiu have not had a remarkable impact on. Their company, Trico Homes, has built more than 11,000 houses over the past 30 years, and their philanthropic efforts have impacted nearly every post-secondary institution in the city. From the Chiu School of Business at Bow Valley College to the Trico Changemakers Studio at Mount Royal University to the Trico Foundation Social Entrepreneurship Centre at the University of Calgary – the influence they have had on their home city is vast and deep.
The hardworking couple, whose offices are located next to each other at Trico’s headquarters, are simply happy to be able to give back and provide an example for other immigrants to model.
“As immigrants and entrepreneurs, it’s important to us that we let other people of similar backgrounds know that if they work hard, they can accomplish the same things we have, or better,” says Eleanor. “We’re happy to show everyone who are immigrants that they can do it too.”
Wayne first moved to Winnipeg from Hong Kong in 1976, to take mechanical engineering at the University of Manitoba. After returning home and marrying Eleanor in 1982 (they met at church), the couple moved to Calgary that same year. Wayne got his first job in Cremona, while Eleanor completed her finance and accounting degree at the University of Calgary.
“I had to commute two hours every day while Eleanor walked to university,” recalls Wayne. “It was interesting on really cold winter days. It was a challenging first year or so, like all new couples go through, but we persevered.”
Eleanor went on to become a chartered accountant and it was the security of her job that allowed Wayne to take the risk on his own renovation business. “I thought that given my engineering background, and my skills and expertise in construction, that I would start this company,” he says. “We never, ever, in our wildest dreams, thought it would grow into what it is today.”
“Being an accountant, I’ve always been a little bit more conservative when it comes to risk,” Eleanor adds. “Things are always changing, and you really have to be on top of what’s going on in the world and be able to react quickly.”
For Wayne, the highlights are always trying to figure out how to provide better customer service to the client and enhancing the corporate culture and brand.
“We really believe in building strong communities,” Wayne explains. “In 2008, we established the Trico Charitable Foundation and developed a social enterprise model for it. Now it has evolved to focus more on social entrepreneurship.”
Their giving has been heavily focused on continuing education and training for immigrants – Eleanor is one of the founding board members of Windmill Microlending, which provides micro loans to immigrants and refugees seeking local licensing and training. “Early on, a lot of our donations went to helping people get back on their feet,” Eleanor explains. “We both really believe in education. To me, it’s not just learning practical skills. It’s also learning how to solve problems, how to think, how to contribute and how to be a good person.”
A power couple if there ever was one, they are happy to share the spotlight together: “It’s exciting to be recognized together. It’s very special for us being husband and wife.”
The co-founder of SMART Technologies Inc., Nancy Knowlton is a pioneer of Calgary’s now-bourgeoning tech sector. Since launching her first company with husband David Martin in 1987, she has been at the forefront of the industry in Canada: her SMART Board interactive whiteboard has transformed the way millions of people learn in meeting rooms and classrooms around the world.
“One of the biggest accomplishments was introducing a new product concept and seeing it become indispensable in so many classrooms around the world and hearing from so many people about what a difference the SMART Board made to them when they were in school,” Knowlton reflects. “It is also gratifying to see the next generation of tech company execs who got their start and learned their business lessons at SMART.”
Growing up in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, Knowlton was an optimistic child with a sense she could do anything. Her entrepreneurial spirit was evident from an early age when she and her brother (aged 8 and 10) worked to make and sell maple syrup. “It was a lot of hard work that we did before and after school,” she recalls. “The lesson learned was that nothing happened until we sold something.”
After growing SMART Technologies into a global company with revenues of US $800 million by 2012, Knowlton (who is a chartered accountant by trade) and Martin walked away for a much-needed break. “We only realized after we left how stressed and exhausted we were,” she says. “It was good for us personally to walk away but hard to disengage from the mission that drove us for so long.”
Two years of downtime – playing golf, travelling and attending conferences – later, the couple were ready for the next challenge. In 2014 they founded Nureva Inc., a company that provides audio conferencing solutions to support hybrid working and learning. Today, some of the world’s largest companies and most prestigious universities are using Nureva’s products.
In 2020, Knowlton and Martin also founded Nialli, which is focused on collaboration software solutions and tools. One of the company’s applications – Visual Planner – brings the Last Planner methodology for construction to life in the digital realm. “We worked closely with a construction company to make sure that we kept all of the benefits of the paper-based system while adding in all the benefits of being digital,” she explains. “Right here at home, PCL has used our software to manage the day-to-day activities at the Calgary Cancer Centre.”
Despite a full schedule, Knowlton nonetheless makes time to give back to the community. In 2002-2003 she served on Alberta’s Education Commission, which made recommendations to the provincial government that would help guide the system strategies and priorities, most of which were accepted and implemented. In 2003 she founded the SMARTer Kids Foundation, which contributes to teachers and students around the world.
“A hand up is all that so many young people need to find their way in the world,” she reasons. “Their enthusiasm and optimism are boundless and infectious. Building up young people is the best way I know how to secure the future for all.”
She’s also bullish on Calgary: “There are so many great ideas being brought to life right here. It feels like we have a strong critical mass of people with the requisite skills, perspective and experience to accomplish a lot on a global stage.”
Charlie Fischer was an enabling leader, a man who always made time for those who needed it. He enjoyed interesting, technical work, eagerly rising to the next big challenge. A passionate supporter of several causes, he was a devoted family man who saved every spare moment for his wife and two daughters. To the many who knew him, he was a great man.
Born in Saskatoon, Fischer grew up in Calgary, a typical 1950s upbringing. He graduated from Viscount Bennett High School and went on to study chemical engineering at the University of Calgary. An interest in finance also lead to an MBA in 1982.
Like many of his generation, Alberta’s oilpatch was a logical place of employment. “Charlie worked because he needed to support himself, he wanted a decent quality of life,” says his wife Joanne Cuthbertson. “He liked doing interesting work. He liked doing work he believed would improve the business.”
He worked at a number of different companies – Dome Petroleum, Hudson’s Bay Oil and Gas, Bow Valley Industries, TransCanada Pipelines, Encor, Canadian Occidental Petroleum – in increasingly senior roles. In 1994, he joined Nexen as senior vice president, Exploration and Production, North America. On June 1, 2001, he was appointed president and chief executive officer, a position he held until his retirement at the end of 2008.
“Charlie was really proud of what they accomplished at Nexen – how they became a major Canadian company responsible for a large contribution to the Canadian economy,” Cuthbertson recalls. “They showed up well, when compared with other international companies. It was really rewarding for Charlie. And he loved that people really loved working at Nexen. They always told him so.”
“Charlie was also a model of corporate citizenship in Canada and elsewhere,” says Brian Felesky, founder and chair of InterGen. “Nexen’s work in Yemen on health services and education was a significant benefit for the Yemenis people and also for Nexen’s goodwill.”
“He was a master of humble leadership,” Felesky continues. “Charlie empowered everyone. His ‘magic touch’ was being so genuinely interested in all people in and about the organization – from the board members, the executive group, to the staff in the copy room and in the coffee room.”
Fischer also gave his time to many industry and non-profit boards, including as co-chair of Climate Change Central for 10 years until 2011. “On the environment side he knew he could bring an expert view and be influential because he was speaking on behalf a large Canadian company,” Cuthbertson says. “It was very challenging, especially coming from the oilpatch, but it was important to Charlie to be involved.”
He was also a patient advocate and co-founded IMAGINE: Citizens Collaborating for Health, an organization focused on improving patient experience and patient outcomes. “Both of us went through our parents’ aging and failing health,” Cuthbertson explains. “And then Charlie experienced his own shocking threat to his health first in 2014 with cancer, and then in 2019 with the return of cancer. Being close up and in the system, you learn a lot, and you see there are things that really should be better.”
The Alberta Children’s Hospital was another cause very dear to Fischer. He served on the Alberta Children’s Hospital Foundation Board and co-chaired a successful campaign that raised over $50 million to support building the new hospital. “It was a lifelong commitment for Charlie,” Cuthbertson says. “It was very, very important to him. He was very close to it and stayed close right until the end of his life.”