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