An Entrepreneurial Adventure In Monaco

Geoff Smith Portrait

BY Geoff Smith

POSTED ON JUNE 15, 2014

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This blog is a slightly edited version of a message I've just sent to everyone at EllisDon. Last week, I was fortunate to be Canada's representative at EY's 'World Entrepreneur Of The Year' Competition. I have to say that EY (formerly Ernst & Young) put on the classiest and most 'global' business conference I have ever seen. In terms of first-rate execution and building client loyalty, it was unparalleled. The following paragraphs are my not-too-serious report to everyone at EllisDon on the experience:

To everyone at EllisDon: I've received a terrific amount of generous and unqualified support from everyone across EllisDon throughout this whole 'Entrepreneur Of The Year' adventure. Originally I resisted entering, because it was an 'individual' thing, but I'm certain that everyone here knows that it was an award we've earned together over many years of hard work. So thanks for your generosity. Just to give you an idea of 'how it was', I thought I'd describe some of the moments I'll likely remember best.

(This isn't a very serious blog):

The First Night Gala

They had us all lined up backstage in alphabetical order, to be 'introduced'. So I was in between Brazil and Chile. But nobody could find the Brazil guy. "Where's Brazil?" they called. "Has anyone seen Brazil?" The Chile guy leaned over and said "This is dumb, let's go get a drink." I replied "Be careful my friend, I'm very easily led astray." He said "Let's go". So we went and found a waiter in the foyer with a tray full of champagne, took it back to everyone in line, and were the local heroes. I guess you have to know when to follow. 'Brazil' had missed his flight; they couldn't find 'Ireland' either. So we all waited, swapped business cards, cracked jokes and drank champagne.

The Last Day

On Saturday, I had an interview with a US reporter that had been set up by the Canadian judge. (I didn't care too much about the interview; I cared a whole lot about the Canadian judge.) Just as I was going into that meeting, I was shown the EllisDon video, in which all sorts of people across the company had filmed their 'best wishes and good luck' and sent them to me. I had this interview, but was told "You've GOT to watch this." So I watched it, and half way through I started to cry. When Brian Blackman appeared in his Rolling Stones T-shirt, I pretty much lost it, I don't even know what he said. Only the hilarity of the Legal Department's skit saved me at all. So I walked over to where the reporter was sitting and said "I'm really sorry I'm crying, I just got a really nice video from everyone at EllisDon." She just looked at me, a bit stunned, then patiently waited another couple of minutes until I composed myself.

The African Judge

They actually give you coaches for the competition. The coaches said 'You've got to find the judges, wherever they stand', but I could never find them (judges rarely go to the bars, apparently). On Thursday night, I jumped into a transfer car with Megan and there, lo and behold, was the African judge, alone. He looked to be about thirteen years old (at least to me); his parents had been Ugandan refugees and he and his sister, amazingly, had also been Rwandan refugees; now he was buying companies across Africa. He said "You're the Canadian construction guy? Have you thought about Africa?" I said "Um". He said "Africa's the future, more natural resources than anywhere in the world, you've got to get in early, I've just bought the second largest bank in Zimbabwe!" I managed to say "A bank? In Zimbabwe? Seriously?" He repeated, patiently "You've got to get in early!" So I said I'd be in touch, which I will. Stay tuned, we may be going to Africa.

The Toast

At the 'Canadian dinner', EY asked my brother Michael to propose a toast. It must have nearly killed Michael to have to say nice things about his older brother, but he also spoke passionately about the nature of entrepreneurialism in a company, in a family, and in individuals - it was a terrific speech. He had this line: "An entrepreneur, to be successful, has to be surrounded by great entrepreneurs, and that is what has happened at EllisDon". It was such a great line that I stole it for my two minute speech to the judges the next day. Maybe I should have taken Michael in with me.

Fantasy Land

That's Monaco. Ferraris everywhere. It's not the 'One percent', it's the 'One hundredth of one percent'. The Australian delegation was being hosted by a very nice, down to earth Aussie zillionaire named Jack Cowin who, as it turns out, was from Windsor Ontario and went to Western, so Megan and I got invited to a lunch party on his 200 foot yacht. He had a totem pole from BC inside the boat. Since Jack was being so hospitable, I immediately decided to drink as much of his wine as I could, but I don't think I made much of a dent. No moral or thoughtful point here: It is what it is. What it is, of course, is an entirely different (and, to be honest, pretty fun) world.

Let's Generalize

The South Americans, especially the Columbians and the Chileans, were a blast, always dancing, out late and very friendly. The Europeans struck me as a lot like Canadians - friendly and open, less fun loving than the South Americans, but relaxed, outgoing, not taking anything too seriously, always smiling. The Irish were the best - lots of fun and generous of spirit ("I hope YOU win." "Yeah, well I hope YOU win." "Let's have a pint."). The Americans were surprisingly understated. The Asian countries were quite friendly, very polite, a bit reserved - they went to bed early. And the Canadians were more boisterous and fun loving than most people would expect - more than we expected. One Canadian in particular, Rick Maggiacomo, seemed to set a personal goal of meeting every single person in Monaco. I learned from Rick last week how to make a lot of friends in a short time, just by reaching out your hand and saying 'hi'.

The Results

OK, we lost, but we can hold our heads up. Going into the final judging meeting, there was a final list of ten (out of sixty) and we know that EllisDon was on it. The winner founded a bank in India that has offices around the world, and the second place finisher was a refugee from Communist China who started an oil company in Malaysia that is now worth several billion and has a great record of philanthropy - I'd be happy to fetch coffee for either of these two. Interestingly (to me, anyway), what was so appealing about the EllisDon story was our near bankruptcy in the nineties, followed by the move to employee ownership and profit sharing and the whole 'freedom and trust' approach - and the success that followed. Most of the questions the judges asked were focused on these values. All these years I've lamented the horrible '90's, but last week they were EllisDon's competitive edge - who ever knows?

The Bathroom Conversation

After I got back, I was in the EllisDon's 'Men's Room' with an ED employee who's been around for a while, but whom I don't know all that well. He asked "How'd you do?" I replied "I lost." He said "Good." I said (a bit surprised) "I'm with you." He said "I was just afraid that if you won, you'd become arrogant and a not-nice person." I thought that was really great for two reasons. First, I'm assuming that means he doesn't think I'm an arrogant jerk now. More importantly, how many companies are there where someone would freely tell the CEO, without a hint of irony, that they're glad he's a loser? And mean it as a compliment? It made my day.

The Upshot

It's impossible not to come back from a week-end like that and not be entirely renewed and invigorated. We met all these very interesting people from all over the world, and yet - trust me on this - they are just like us. Everyone had found opportunity wherever they could, and worked it hard. Everyone was friendly, curious and just enjoying the moment. And everyone likes the Canadians, it's almost like we get a free invitation to the global party, we just have to put on our dancing shoes and go. Lastly, perhaps we spend way too much time looking at all the problems on our computers screens and not nearly enough time out in the world, being like Rick Maggiacomo - just reaching out our hand and saying 'Hi!' - and watching for the opportunities that follow.

Have a great day.