Values, standards and ethics important to uphold

How does one follow in the footsteps of one of Alberta’s most distinguished and wealthiest business and community leaders?

For John R. McDougall, great-grandson of the famous Edmonton pioneer John A. McDougall, the answer was simple enough.

You don’t. You carve out your own niche.

In that respect, it seems that John R. McDougall has done a pretty fair job of it.

Jack Dagley photos, for Business Edge
Alberta Research Council CEO John R. McDougall says Canada needs to be more proficient in converting ideas into marketable products and services.

While John R. McDougall continues to head McDougall & Secord, the company his great- grandfather founded, he has won renown as one of Alberta’s most respected business and community leaders with a career that has spanned a broad spectrum of roles.

The 58-year-old Edmonton native has toiled as an engineer with Imperial Oil, operated his own company, Dalcor, for 19 years, taught at the University of Alberta and sat on the boards of numerous companies and organizations.

But John R. McDougall’s passion these days is on making a difference in Alberta as president and CEO of the Alberta Research Council. 1. What did you learn from your great-grandfather, John A. McDougall (a former mayor of Edmonton)?

“He was what I would call a visionary, but also a person who really believed that there was more to business than just a business. He believed that business was a community endeavour and that, when you build a business, you’re just as much building a community. I think I share much of that kind of thing, so it was one of the attributes that he passed down to me. When he was mayor, he turned the finances around, he put the first automatic dial telephone system in North America in place, he got the streetcars running. It was just amazing.”

2. That’s a tough act to follow. Has that been difficult in some respects?

“In some ways, it is difficult. You realize you just can’t. It’s not a contest. You’re both individuals and what’s important is to realize that while you want to feel good about how you do in business, the community (service) aspect is also very important.”

3. Who are the other people who have influenced you?

“My dad (John F. McDougall, former president of McDougall & Secord) was a remarkable man as well. He was a very quiet and a remarkably thoughtful man. He was very creative, very well read. He had an amazing amount of integrity. The combination of all those things was quite inspiring to me.”

4. What’s your vision for the Alberta Research Council?

“Our role, as we’ve defined it in the past few years, is to develop and commercialize technology. What we do is try to identify the problems that we’re going to face as an industry, as a government, as sectors of the economy or whatever, and find the technology that can solve those problems by trying to move it from a relatively early-market stage to a near-market-ready stage. So our vision is to be the best in Canada and one of the best in the world at doing that. If you actually look at Canada today, that’s the big hole in our system. We do a great job of generating fundamental knowledge with a lot of basic research and we’re very sophisticated users of technologically intensive products and services, but historically we’ve done a very poor job of converting ideas into marketable products and services. That’s the big gap in the system and the space we occupy.”

5. What is the Alberta Research Council doing that may affect the energy industry in the future?

“We’re very interested in clean energy. The system we’re working on really relates on how to integrate our various energy activities, systems and resources together in ways that are quite unique and have huge synergies by playing one off against another. Given the fact that we have a third of the oil in the world in the oilsands and more energy in the form of coal, we can find ways to put the two together in an environmentally benign form and we’ve got something that is incredibly powerful in decades to come.”

6. Will that process come to fruition and, if so, when?

“If I had to guess, I think it will, or at least parts of it will. Maybe in five to 10 years, parts of (the technology) may be available. If you’re talking about the whole system, maybe it’ll be 20 to 25 years.”

7. In your opinion, is the oil and gas industry doing enough in terms of environmental responsibility and sustainable development?

“I think that Alberta, amazingly enough, has a very high level of awareness about the needs, but I don’t think we totally understand all the issues yet. Actually, one of the new programs that we’ve put in place is called integrated resource management. The idea is to be able to look in a very highly credible, scientific way at the interaction between the different uses of air, water and land resources. That program is getting tremendous support, not just from government but also from industry, because the concept is very much appreciated and they really want a third party to give them a credible, but independent, synthesized view of what the needs are and what the standards ought to be and how we should behave.”

8. How would you describe your leadership style?

“I try to be fairly open, but I see the job really as an opportunity to show people what’s possible and get them excited about trying to make those possibilities a reality. For example, when I started in 1997, we set what appeared at first glance to many people to be an impossible goal, which was to double the size of the place without getting any more money from the government. Well, we’ve actually done that pretty much. We did it by working with our people.”

9. Ideally, how long would you want to remain CEO of ARC?

“I think, given where we are with the restructuring of the organization, maybe three or four years would be about right for me. Quite frankly, if we can leave the ARC as Canada’s leading innovation engine, I think we can say as a team here that we’ve had a tremendous impact.”

10. What do you think your great-grandfather would think of the visionary work of the ARC?

“The irony is that I don’t think he’d be the least surprised by what has happened. Maybe there’d be little tweaks because the technology is different but, in essence, the kind of development that has occurred in agriculture, forestry, oil and gas and so on, I don’t think would have surprised him in the least.”

11. How do you reflect on your career in business?

“I think I’ve been incredibly fortunate because I’ve been able to travel all over the world and Canada and I’ve been able to get involved with really innovative things and, in effect, to be kind of a pioneer in many aspects. If you ever tried to set out to do all these things, I don’t think I could ever have imagined it. What you realize is that what it all comes down to is people working together to try and make life better for others.”

12. How do you view the high-profile scandals in corporate governance, accounting and investment in recent years?

“It’s incredibly discouraging in some ways. Unfortunately, there are always people that are going to take advantage of situations if they possibly can. So I try to put it into context like that. On the other hand, I also know that if you don’t expose a problem now and then, they don’t get dealt with. The tragedy when these things happen is that it’s usually the people who are least able who get the worst end of the stick. I think that’s tragic.”

13. What is your view of the recent disciplinary action by the U.S. Securities & Exchange Commission against the investment banks and research analysts?

“I think there are a lot of people who are very sensitive today about issues and ethics. They’re asking the kinds of questions that need to be asked. I think there has been a very healthy reassessment of behaviour patterns, and ethics have become much more real.

“So the challenge is to make things part of the way we think, act and behave. We have created, in my view, an incredibly greedy society, and I think what we have seen is some of the worst blemishes of that kind of society. Some of us do not begin to realize that there is a lot more to life, the success of our communities and ongoing social well-being, than just how many bucks you can put in your pocket. We’ll have further problems ahead but, from that sense, I hope this is kind of a wake-up call.”

14. What are you personally investing in these days?

“I do have some money in the stock market and in real estate. Beyond that, I’m not a very active investor because of the kind of business I’m in. In the market, I stay with what I call fairly tried-and-true large public companies. I’d love to play with some technology companies but, given the nature of what I do here, I really cannot do that.”

15. What’s your outlook for the future of Alberta?

“I think this is a dream place. Having travelled as much as I have, every time you come back to Alberta you just can’t believe what a great place we live in.”

16. Who are the entrepreneurs you admire today?

“I’m very impressed with Eric Newell (CEO of Syncrude Canada). I’m incredibly impressed with Bob Stollery (former CEO of PCL Construction). There are some really good people around, and unfortunately, in times like this, there’s a tendency for everyone to be painted with the same brush.”

17. What’s the best advice you can offer your sons in the business world?

“We talk about values, and that we’re in a time when a lot of standards and ethics and values are probably being challenged and questioned in a lot of places. I tell them it can be a lonely place when you’re trying to uphold them, but it’s very important that there be places where they are upheld.”

18. Would you like to see your sons eventually run the historical family business McDougall & Secord?

“My son Jordy sits on the board and we’ll see how it goes. They have to want to do it. In my own case, I left school, went to work and then set up my own business before becoming involved with the (family business).”

19. What are your plans after you leave the ARC?

“You have to think that you have to learn to retire gracefully, go golf and maybe do some social things. I suspect I will always be involved in some way as a director of an organization or two, or perhaps help out some small emerging company, because I can’t imagine ever fully retiring. But on the other hand, I’d like to have a little more control over my time.”

20. What are your personal goals for the future?

“My wife and I have this list of things that we’d like to do before we pass on and we’re slowly ticking them off. We thought it’d be kind of neat to do a Concorde trip and fortunately we did that, because they’re going out of business. We went to Antarctica. We like going to unusual places and seeing unusual things. To me, travel is one of the most educational things you can do. Also, I’d love to break 100 on the golf course.”

THE COMPANY: Alberta Research Council
* Brass: John R. McDougall, president/CEO; Peter Matthewman, vice-president, life sciences; Phil Murray, vice-president, energy; Paul Layte, vice-president, advanced materials, sensors and intelligent systems.
* Profile: Established in 1921, the ARC, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Alberta Science and Research Authority (ASRA), develops and commercializes technologies to give clients a competitive advantage. A Canadian leader in innovation, the ARC provides solutions globally to the energy, life sciences, agriculture, environment, forestry and manufacturing
sectors. It has 600 employees.
* Key projects: Tire recycling, chemical technologies, fuel-cell technology, aviation safety standards, heavy oil extraction technology, pest management, pulp and
paper manufacturing, nutraceutical and pharmaceutical chemistry.
* 2003 budget: $80 million.
* Website:
* Phone/Fax: 780-450-5145; 780-436-4236.
* Address: 250 Karl Clark Road, Edmonton, T6N 1E4.

IN PROFILE: John R. McDougall
* Born/raised/age: Edmonton, 58.
* Title: President/CEO, Alberta Research Council; president/general manager, McDougall & Secord (the one-time fur trading company that has since spanned a diverse range of business activities).
* Education: Bachelor of Science (civil engineering), University of Alberta.
* Family: Wife Irene, sons John, Jordan, Michael and stepson Kyle.
* Career: Prior to becoming CEO of the ARC in 1997, McDougall operated his own company, Dalcor. He has been a professor at the U of A and spent nine years as an engineer with Imperial Oil.
* Moonlighting: McDougall is chairman of CFER Technologies, a director of PFB Corporation, a member of the management board of the Alberta Science and Research Authority, director of the Canadian Academy of Engineers, director of St. John Ambulance, ast-president of the Canadian Council of Engineers and past-president of the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce.
* Passions: Travel, golf, photography, model railroads.