Shoul­der to Shoul­der

At global phe­nom­e­non Her­schel Sup­ply, broth­ers Jamie and Lyn­don Cor­mack guide the busi­ness to­gether while giv­ing their team free­dom to ex­cel

BC Business Magazine - - Leadership - —R.L.

So, this is where my kids’ back­packs got their start. At Her­schel Sup­ply Co. head­quar­ters in East Van­cou­ver’s rough-hewn Rail­town neigh­bour­hood, the at­mos­phere on a sunny Au­gust morn­ing is brisk. About 130 of the com­pany’s 170 em­ploy­ees work here, along­side founders Lyn­don and Jamie Cor­mack, who are chat­ting with staff. The ground floor of the 28,500-square-foot digs is open space, nat­u­ral light and dark wood, off­set by a many­headed chan­de­lier whose ten­drils could rep­re­sent Her­schel’s rapid world­wide ex­pan­sion. The com­pany the Cor­ma­cks es­tab­lished in 2009, named af­ter the Saskatchewan town that is their an­ces­tral fam­ily home, now sells its retro-in­spired, fash­ion-for­ward bags, ap­parel and ac­ces­sories in 72 coun­tries.

In a few days, Lyn­don is head­ing to Shang­hai, where Her­schel has one of its four satel­lite of­fices. For the busi­ness, which man­u­fac­tures in China, be­ing a hit with style­and bud­get-con­scious young con­sumers from Tokyo to Paris to New York also means bat­tling a ris­ing tide of Asian-made knock­offs. “We spend out of our ears to pro­tect our brand not only here at home but glob­ally, and the tap’s never go­ing to get turned off,” Lyn­don, who would win most star­ing con­tests, says from the edge of his seat in the staff lounge. “It’s a con­stant fight, but we take it ex­tremely se­ri­ously.”

He shares that in­ten­sity with Jamie, the se­nior Her­schel co-founder by two years, whom I meet in his sparsely dec­o­rated of­fice. The Cor­mack broth­ers are friendly peo­ple who show a gen­uine in­ter­est in oth­ers, but they didn’t get where they are by be­ing timid. If Lyn­don comes off as a fire­brand who can rally the troops, Jamie is a smoul­der­ing pres­ence with an edge of his own. On the win­dowsill be­hind his desk sits a

sculp­ture of a hand with its mid­dle fin­ger raised. Right now, Jamie is most ex­cited about Her­schel’s new travel and rain­wear jacket lines. “It’s good and bad,” he says of lead­ing a busi­ness with his brother. “It’s good that I know we’re both fight­ing for the same goal, and that’s for this brand.”

Be­fore Calgary-raised Lyn­don and Jamie launched Her­schel, they were sales reps for U.S. ap­parel icon Vans and Seat­tle-based sport­ing goods re­tailer K2 Corp., re­spec­tively. Lyn­don ad­mits that early on, their par­ents wor­ried that the sib­lings would have a fall­ing-out. But they’ve made it work, he says, point­ing out that their older brother, Ja­son, is also in­volved in the com­pany. “I run the ben­e­fit of Jamie be­ing my best friend well be­fore we started the busi­ness to­gether, and we’re equal part­ners, so there’s no hi­er­ar­chy,” Lyn­don notes. “We make de­ci­sions to­gether. We’re each other’s best sound­ing boards. We have dis­agree­ments, but they’re short-lived. There’s the beauty that there’s no candy-coat­ing in our con­ver­sa­tions, so things can move re­ally quickly.”

Jamie re­calls how thrilled they were to start the com­pany. “We saw that there was a hole in the bag mar­ket and the ac­ces­sory mar­ket,” he re­mem­bers. “But glob­ally, I don’t think we had a clue how big that open mar­ket share was.” Back then they were prob­a­bly closer col­leagues, Jamie ob­serves; today, with the busi­ness grow­ing so quickly, they try not to step on each other’s toes. He han­dles de­sign and pro­duc­tion, while Lyn­don takes care of sales, mar­ket­ing and other tasks. “Al­though we talk a lot about it and re­ally get aligned on it, we work less closely,” Jamie says.

Lyn­don, who reck­ons the Her­schel crew would be friends even if they didn’t work to­gether, re­gards his em­ploy­ees as fam­ily, too. With that in mind, the com­pany gath­ers its lo­cal and in­ter­na­tional staff, along with its dis­trib­u­tors, in Van­cou­ver a cou­ple of times a year for prod­uct launches. “We’re very trans­par­ent, es­pe­cially within these walls, about how busi­ness is go­ing and how we can get bet­ter,” he says.

As a leader, Jamie adapts to the sit­u­a­tion. For ex­am­ple, he says, he talks dif­fer­ently to a de­signer than to a prod­uct man­ager. His over­all style? “I’m hands-on. I spend prob­a­bly 10 per cent of my day in my of­fice in front of my com­puter, and 90 per cent is walk­ing from sec­tion to sec­tion.” But hav­ing made his ex­pec­ta­tions clear, he lets peo­ple own their roles: “I think they have more own­er­ship of the brand be­cause they have that free­dom to run their sec­tion.”

To that end, Her­schel be­gan hir­ing depart­ment leads early on, Lyn­don ex­plains. “Rather than al­low­ing peo­ple to grad­u­ate into a po­si­tion, we went to the top first and also al­lowed those peo­ple to hire their own teams.” Her­schel is a brand that lis­tens—and keeps an open mind about how it can im­prove, he adds. “We’ve had ridicu­lous suc­cess,” Lyn­don says. “And it cer­tainly has not been from a cou­ple guys’ idea. It’s been from a whole bunch of peo­ple buy­ing into that we can do this dif­fer­ently and bet­ter and smarter.”

Lyn­don calls his lead­er­ship style in­clu­sive. “We sur­round our­selves with peo­ple who are ex­cep­tion­ally good at their jobs,” he says. “I would de­scribe my­self as a proud gen­er­al­ist, some­body who likes to have a light touch on ev­ery­thing but al­lows the peo­ple around me to get the job done and cel­e­brate their own wins.”

He also strives to mat­ter as a leader. His test: if you put the team be­hind a one-way glass and asked them, would they care if he showed up at work to­mor­row? “My goal per­son­ally is to make sure I mat­ter to the busi­ness,” Lyn­don says. “Be­cause if I don’t, then I think should prob­a­bly just go.”

Jamie, who says his par­ents gave him a lot of con­fi­dence, al­ways knew what his goals were when he launched his first busi­ness—a sales agency in 2003—and worked in pre­vi­ous roles. At Her­schel, he aims to steer man­agers in the same di­rec­tion: “You want to lead with con­fi­dence, but more than any­thing, you want to know what you’re try­ing to achieve be­fore you get into any­thing.”

Al­though Lyn­don says he al­ways had a knack for clearly defin­ing that out­come, he used to be more stub­born about how to get there. He now knows there can be many paths to the same re­sult. Some­thing Lyn­don isn’t very good at: be­ing com­fort­able in the face of suc­cess. “I find com­fort is, as a brand, a sign of weak­ness, and po­ten­tially an op­por­tu­nity for peo­ple to come and smash you over,” he ex­plains. “I like get­ting on my toes a lot more than I like dig­ging in my heels, and so I think that at­ti­tude is prob­a­bly a lit­tle con­ta­gious.”

How do you lead a com­pany in an in­dus­try where tastes can change overnight? For Jamie, it means strik­ing a bal­ance be­tween the com­mer­cial—prod­ucts that cus­tomers keep com­ing back to—and the pro­gres­sive. “We’re big on core items here, but [we] also have enough where we’re push­ing the mar­ket in an ex­cit­ing way.” To make that hap­pen, Jamie pushes his de­sign­ers and cre­atives. “I’m go­ing to call a spade a spade,” he warns. “I’m go­ing to tell you if I think some­thing is ter­ri­ble, and I’m also go­ing to tell you if some­thing is great.”

If there’s one thing that gets Lyn­don ex­cited about the fu­ture, it’s Her­schel’s con­tin­ued growth. That ex­pan­sion doesn’t just equal more rev­enue to in­vest in new sys­tems; it also lets him and Jamie hire more col­lab­o­ra­tors so they can strengthen the brand. “It’s an overused quote around here,” Lyn­don says, “but the wind­shield for us is a hell of a lot big­ger than the rear-view mir­ror.” —N.R.

There is no per­fect lead­er­ship style—no pre­scrip­tion that will work for ev­ery CEO, or ev­ery wannabe, in ev­ery en­ter­prise. Check the back is­sues of the Har­vard Busi­ness Re­view, and you’ll find a long his­tory of lead­er­ship fads, many of which still have merit. But for Re­nee Wa­sy­lyk, founder and CEO of large-foot­print prop­erty de­vel­op­ment and con­struc­tion firm Troika De­vel­op­ments, the time of the over­bear­ing, my-way-or-the­high­way boss is long gone.

There are two rea­sons for the change. First, ev­ery new hire from the past 10 years has a box in their closet over­flow­ing with par­tic­i­pa­tion medals and tro­phies; mil­len­ni­als have been told their whole lives that their con­tri­bu­tions would al­ways be val­ued. As a re­sult, “Mil­len­ni­als are more de­mand­ing,” Wa­sy­lyk says. “They want a trans­ac­tional boss.”

Se­cond, those new hires have en­tered the work­force at a time when the in­flu­ence of women has soft­ened the edges of tra­di­tional lead­er­ship prac­tice. That’s both no­tice­able and sur­pris­ing in the de­vel­op­ment in­dus­try, which is well known for its tough­ness and is still heav­ily male-dom­i­nated. But it’s the world that Wa­sy­lyk chose, and al­though she says, “I don’t think about be­ing a girl,” she also knows that she is, by na­ture, “more re­la­tional, more col­lab­o­ra­tive.”

All this came into clearer re­lief re­cently when Wa­sy­lyk was hav­ing lunch with a new­comer to the 70-per­son team at Kelown­abased Troika, which spe­cial­izes in res­i­den­tial and com­mer­cial projects. “I asked him how it was go­ing, and he said that he’d been watch­ing me. He said, ‘I think I could do what you do. But I’d be a lot more sav­age.’” Wa­sy­lyk’s re­sponse re­veals her self­im­age and her own tough­ness. She told him, “Then you couldn’t do what I do.”

Troika’s de­vel­op­ments, in

Kelowna, Ed­mon­ton, Regina and Winnipeg, and its more than $60 mil­lion in an­nual rev­enue, sug­gest that Wa­sy­lyk’s mentee—and ev­ery­one else—needs to keep watch­ing.

Re­nee Wa­sy­lyk was born in Drumheller, Al­berta, in 1976, but moved al­most im­me­di­ately to south­ern Cal­i­for­nia, where she grew up in Or­ange County. Af­ter high school, she was drawn, mys­te­ri­ously if ir­re­sistibly, back to Al­berta—to Ed­mon­ton, where she did a BA in re­li­gious stud­ies and a master’s in the­ol­ogy at Tay­lor Uni­ver­sity Col­lege and Sem­i­nary (then af­fil­i­ated with the Uni­ver­sity of Al­berta). She met and mar­ried an­other Al­ber­tan, and when she got preg­nant with the first of their three chil­dren, they moved to Kelowna—“for a year.” That was in 1998.

There be­ing no jobs to her lik­ing, Wa­sy­lyk cre­ated one. She’d been fas­ci­nated by real es­tate de­vel­op­ment since high school, when she job­shad­owed a pro­ject man­ager at Irvine Co., which, dat­ing from 1864, is one of the old­est and most suc­cess­ful de­vel­op­ment firms in western North Amer­ica. Yet when she bit off her first ven­ture, a small mixed-use build­ing, Wa­sy­lyk says, “I knew enough to know what I didn’t know.”

So she went look­ing for ad­vice from some of B.C.’S best devel­op­ers: Joe Se­gal, David Pod­more (Con­cert Prop­er­ties Ltd.) and Peeter We­sik (Wes­group Prop­er­ties and Park­lane Ven­tures). She asked each of them three ques­tions: What would you do all over? What would you never do? What would you tell your younger self?

“These guys were so kind in giv­ing me time,” Wa­sy­lyk re­calls. “It was like I was young and fe­male and didn’t pose a threat.”

The most mem­o­rable coun­sel came from Pod­more, who told her that if she wanted to suc­ceed in de­vel­op­ment, she should also start a con­struc­tion com­pany. Oth­er­wise, when the mar­ket is hot, it’s a con­stant—and in­cred­i­bly ex­pen­sive—has­sle try­ing to get your projects done.

Wa­sy­lyk took the ad­vice and built an em­pire, an in­te­grated de­vel­op­ment and con­struc­tion firm with a full com­ple­ment of trades­peo­ple: framers, elec­tri­cians, plumbers, dry­wallers, cab­i­net­mak­ers—the works. By the mid-2000s, when one of her chil­dren asked her what she did for a liv­ing, she said, “I feed 180 fam­i­lies.”

When the econ­omy tanked in 2008, that turned out to be about 100 too many. Troika was sit­ting on qual­ity projects, but it couldn’t get past the cash crunch. “In the 1980s, money cost 18 per cent, but peo­ple would still lend it to you,” Wa­sy­lyk ex­plains. “In 2008, no one would lend you money at any rate. It was cat­a­strophic.” She says she could have de­clared bank­ruptcy or just cut loose all the trades­peo­ple and sup­pli­ers. “Or I could sell my as­sets at pen­nies on the dol­lar and make sure ev­ery­body got paid.”

That’s what she did. Wa­sy­lyk thinned out the or­ga­ni­za­tion, ul­ti­mately drop­ping from 180 to 70 full-time em­ploy­ees, but she did it slowly enough that ev­ery­one had a soft land­ing. “I didn’t want to be a de­vel­oper who chased the mar­ket,” she says. “I wanted to be a com­mu­nity leader and builder who was here for the long term.”

Wa­sy­lyk’s lead­er­ship ad­vice now? Go ask some­one in your busi­ness her three ques­tions. The an­swers may be com­pli­cated, but there is wis­dom in lis­ten­ing.

And does she rec­om­mend her own in­dus­try? “Ab­so­lutely. If you like roller coast­ers, you’ll like de­vel­op­ment. Just close your eyes, put your arms in the air, and en­joy the ride.”

At age nine, Jim Light­body found him­self thrust into a lead­er­ship role. In his na­tive Vic­to­ria, Light­body be­longed to a tal­ented soc­cer team, some of whose mem­bers went on to play in the Na­tional Hockey League (ex–van­cou­ver Canuck Ge­off Court­nall) and rep­re­sent Canada in soc­cer and rugby. The squad had no per­ma­nent cap­tain, and they never lost a game—un­til one day they did. “It was like the world had ended,” says the pres­i­dent and CEO of Bri­tish Columbia Lot­tery Corp. ( BCLC).

What hap­pened next changed Light­body’s life. “Af­ter that game, our coach said, ‘Jimmy Light­body is go­ing to be your cap­tain from now on,’ be­cause he saw some­thing in me on the field that he knew his team needed,” he re­calls in his grav­elly bari­tone. “He gave me an op­por­tu­nity, and what it gave me was the in­sight that I re­ally en­joyed be­ing a leader. I get a lot of en­ergy from in­spir­ing oth­ers and align­ing peo­ple to­gether to­ward a com­mon goal.”

The two-time Se­nior A box lacrosse na­tional cham­pion—he won the Mann Cup with the Vic­to­ria Sham­rocks in 1983 and the New West­min­ster Sal­monbel­lies in 1986—flashes a broad smile that tele­graphs grit and com­pas­sion. Asked to de­scribe his man­age­ment style, he says he’s a ser­vant leader who cares about how he shows up in front of his col­leagues. “I place my­self at the bot­tom of the pyra­mid in­stead of the top,” ex­plains Light­body, who rode the el­e­va­tor down to greet me in the lobby of BCLC’S Van­cou­ver of­fices. “I look at how do I serve peo­ple’s needs, and how do I make sure that I’m lead­ing them in a way that is go­ing to in­spire and get them to be en­gaged in what they’re do­ing for our or­ga­ni­za­tion.”

To that end, Light­body is big on com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Since he took his cur­rent post in 2014 af­ter serv­ing as vi­cepres­i­dent in charge of casino and com­mu­nity gam­ing, he’s emailed a weekly let­ter to em­ploy­ees, out­lin­ing what’s hap­pen­ing in his own life and at BCLC, and rec­og­niz­ing peo­ple’s achieve­ments. Be­sides reg­u­lar town-hall meet­ings, he holds an­nual staff gath­er­ings in Van­cou­ver and Kam­loops, home of the com­pany’s head of­fice.

At BCLC, Light­body over­sees some 900 staff and three busi­ness lines: lot­ter­ies, casi­nos and e-gam­ing. Be­fore he ar­rived at the Crown cor­po­ra­tion in 2001, he spent more than 25 years in the con­sumer goods in­dus­try in B.C., Al­berta and Toronto, work­ing in sales and mar­ket­ing for com­pa­nies such as Proc­ter & Gam­ble Co. and Nabob Foods Ltd. In those or­ga­ni­za­tions, he no­ticed that some peo­ple thought a leader should have all the an­swers and tell oth­ers what to do. But one boss at Nabob was open to feedback and in­put, Light­body re­mem­bers. He “would lis­ten to ev­ery­body’s per­spec­tives and then say, ‘OK, here’s where we’re go­ing to go, and here’s why we’re go­ing to get there.’ And then peo­ple would spring to ac­tion and work to­gether to­ward that goal, even if it maybe wasn’t where they thought they should go the first time.”

The take­away for Light­body: “You can’t dic­tate if you re­ally want to be suc­cess­ful. You’ve got to align and get peo­ple feel­ing like they have an own­er­ship po­si­tion in that vi­sion.”

That didn’t save him from learn­ing a hard les­son when he started at BCLC as VP head­ing the lot­tery divi­sion. Asked to trans­form the busi­ness, he went away and crafted a onepage doc­u­ment. “I go to my lead­er­ship team, and I say, ‘Here’s our vi­sion,’ and they all go, ‘This is great, Jim,’ and all these nod­ding heads.” The rest of the divi­sion nod­ded du­ti­fully, too. But then noth­ing hap­pened. “It just fell like a wet noo­dle on the floor,” Light­body says. “They didn’t feel like they were part of it be­cause it was foisted on them.”

Next time, he got the whole lead­er­ship team in­volved. “It was an un­der­stand­ing that our peo­ple, you al­most have to treat them like they’re cus­tomers,” Light­body says. “With cus­tomers, you try to learn what their needs are, you try to com­mu­ni­cate what the ben­e­fits and fea­tures of your or­ga­ni­za­tion or prod­uct

are, and then you try to earn their loy­alty.”

Through­out his ca­reer, Light­body says, he’s been an en­gaged em­ployee when given a chal­lenge—and the au­ton­omy to solve it. “That’s what we try to do here, is give our peo­ple chal­lenges to over­come, and to work in teams and to re­ally col­lab­o­rate to solve prob­lems or cap­i­tal­ize on op­por­tu­ni­ties.” BCLC also sup­ports fu­ture and cur­rent lead­ers through two ef­forts: its Emerg­ing Lead­ers pro­gram and an­other it de­vel­oped with UBC’S Sauder School of Busi­ness. In the lat­ter pro­gram, a co­hort of about 20 spends 18 months learn­ing about ev­ery­thing from fi­nance and mar­ket­ing to in­no­va­tion and prod­uct de­vel­op­ment.

At BCLC, Light­body wants lead­ers to make the busi­ness nim­bler by push­ing as much de­ci­sion-mak­ing as pos­si­ble down to the ap­pro­pri­ate level. “It’s what a lot of en­tre­pre­neur­ial or­ga­ni­za­tions do ev­ery day,” he notes. “We are re­ally try­ing to push that agility around this or­ga­ni­za­tion by say­ing, ‘Don’t have email chains go­ing around. Get the ap­pro­pri­ate peo­ple in the room, solve the prob­lems, and then move on.’”

Jamie (left) and Lyn­don Cor­mack, in the lounge at Her­schel's Van­cou­ver HQ, think of their em­ploy­ees as fam­ily

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