Peter Arm­strong Keeps Rocky Moun­taineer on Track

Rocky Moun­taineer founder Peter Arm­strong stayed true to him­self as he built North Amer­ica's big­gest pri­vate rail ser­vice

BC Business Magazine - - Front Page - By Lucy Hys­lop

From us­ing a photo of Win­ston Churchill on his own Linkedin pro­file to of­ten re­fer­ring to him dur­ing lunch, Peter Arm­strong has a pas­sion for the for­mi­da­ble Bri­tish leader.

But Arm­strong's ad­mi­ra­tion is less fo­cused on Churchill's Sec­ond World War prow­ess than on his fail­ings. The founder and CEO of Arm­strong Hos­pi­tal­ity Group Ltd., Van­cou­ver-based owner and op­er­a­tor of the Rocky Moun­taineer lux­ury train tourism com­pany (along with in­ter­ests in a real es­tate de­vel­op­ment firm and a pri­vate eq­uity house), cites the politi­cian's at­tempt at a school Latin exam. Of writ­ing only “the date, his name and a few smudges”—a fact gleaned from attending myr­iad con­fer­ences on Churchill—arm­strong says, “I thought, `If you can do that and be­come the prime min­is­ter of the U.K., then any­thing is pos­si­ble.' I was never a great stu­dent, so that has al­ways in­spired me.”

In­deed, we're sit­ting in Hawksworth Restau­rant, kitty-cor­ner to the down­town Ho­tel Van­cou­ver, where the 65-year-old be­gan his ca­reer on the hos­pi­tal­ity front line as a door­man and bell­hop. Over Pa­cific cod curry, the new in­ductee to the Busi­ness Lau­re­ates of Bri­tish Columbia Hall of Fame ex­plains why he chose BCIT'S ho­tel man­age­ment pro­gram over the le­gal or ac­coun­tancy train­ing favoured by his peers.

“I just knew I couldn't com­pete—all those pro­fes­sions are fab­u­lous, but it comes back to know­ing who you are,” Arm­strong says. “I was al­ways go­ing to be in the scrum be­cause I'm a big, lum­ber­ing guy,” adds the six-foot-four New Brunswick na­tive, who moved to Van­cou­ver in his teens. “There's still a lot of glory even if you don't get as many tries; you are part of a team.”

Such nods are as con­stant as his Churchillian ones. Arm­strong com­bines his ear­lier love of sports such as rugby and row­ing with the man­age­ment phi­los­o­phy he's cre­ated dur­ing his trans­port-heavy ca­reer.

Af­ter leav­ing Ho­tel Van­cou­ver, he bought two buses to form Spot­light Tours Ltd. in 1974 (fill­ing a gap where there were more tourists than avail­able seats), then ac­quired air­port coach group Trail­ways of BC two years later be­fore be­com­ing a mi­nor­ity part­ner in Gray Line's re­gional bus fleet in 1979. When part of a VIA Rail Canada ser­vice to the Rock­ies was pri­va­tized nearly 30 years ago, he launched the Rocky Moun­taineer, now the largest pri­vately owned pas­sen­ger rail ser­vice in North Amer­ica, with 280 full-time em­ploy­ees.

“For me, it's al­ways been about hav­ing the con­fi­dence in pass­ing the ball to the right per­son at the right time and not wor­ry­ing,” Arm­strong pro­claims, not­ing that to date, the com­pany has fer­ried more than two mil­lion pas­sen­gers— mostly Amer­i­can, Bri­tish and Aus­tralian, though he says it's now tar­get­ing the Chi­nese mar­ket—in its 30-plus domed trains. “Thou­sands of peo­ple have their fin­ger­prints all over the Rocky Moun­taineer and its suc­cess.” (It hasn't al­ways been a smooth jour­ney: in a union dis­pute, the com­pany locked out its staff for more than a year be­fore a set­tle­ment in 2012.)

To­day Arm­strong is “pass­ing the ball” in part to his three adult chil­dren (Ashley, Chelsea and Tris­tan), who nearly 18 months ago joined long-time chair John Fur­long, for­mer CEO of Van­cou­ver's 2010 Olympic and Par­a­lympic Win­ter Games, with him on the Rocky Moun­taineer board. Not that he wants them to sim­ply fall in line with his way of think­ing, says the res­i­dent of the West End, where he lives with his part­ner, Suvina Mah.

“I'm never afraid of a good ar­gu­ment,” as­serts Arm­strong, who is also for­mer pres­i­dent of the Non-par­ti­san As­so­ci­a­tion, Van­cou­ver's cen­tre-right mu­nic­i­pal po­lit­i­cal party. “It's al­ways a growth pos­si­bil­ity. I'm amazed at how many stupid ques­tions I get to ask in my life, and I never get stupid an­swers.” ■

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