Barry Heck’s career aspirations were two-fold.
He wanted to be a lawyer and he wanted to be a business executive.
And the 42-year-old native of Strathmore has done just that, enjoying the best of both worlds during an intriguing career.
Heck started out practising corporate law for Edmonton firm Bryan & Co. early in his career and now utilizes that experience at the helm of one of Canada’s most diverse technology companies.
|Dave Olecko photo, Business Edge|
|Westaim CEO Barry Heck’s company is focused on flat-panel TV display technology and health-care nanotechnology.|
Heck is chief executive of Westaim, a Calgary-based holding company that operates IFire Technology, which is developing a flat-panel display for the television market, and Nucryst Pharmaceuticals, a biotech division that is part of the hot emerging nanotechnology market.
1. What were your career aspirations as a youngster?
“Like any young Canadian boy, I wanted to be a hockey player but I realized very early that it wasn’t going to happen. So then I wanted to go to university and pursue a career in law. I always believed being a lawyer would provide me with a background to vault into some type of business setting. I’ve been fortunate enough that that’s exactly how things unfolded.”
2. What initially prompted you to move from practising law to the management team at Westaim?
“I wasn’t out actively seeking a job. I had a successful law practice with a great firm and great partners. But this opportunity was very, very attractive and very challenging to get in on the ground floor of the business, in a commercial sense. It was a large organization that was very well financed with a strong board of directors.”
3. Was becoming a CEO a goal of yours?
“I didn’t join Westaim saying I was going to be the CEO some day, but certainly I had always wanted to pursue a business career and the pinnacle of that was to lead an organization. I was looking for an opportunity to assume a leadership role at some point.”
4. How have you been able to put your stamp on the company since becoming CEO?
“Last year, I saw a need to really simplify the Westaim story by getting down to our two core businesses, the pharmaceutical company (Nucryst Pharmaceuticals) and our flat-panel display technology (IFire). I wanted to really focus on those two businesses and make sure we had a strong balance sheet. I have a very open door, hands-on policy where I’m happy to get down in the trenches and do whatever is necessary to get anything done. I get involved wherever I think I can add value. I think it’s important at the stage we’re now at that the CEO is directly involved in a number of the high-value initiatives.”
5. What’s your vision for the IFire division?
“Our vision is to become the world’s first consumer-priced, flat-panel, hang-on-the-wall television. Our technology is very simple, it’s robust and we’ll be able to manufacture it at a significant cost advantage to the incumbent technologies. We are now working with our development partners, Sanyo and Dai Nippon, a Japanese printing company, and several other partners to develop product prototypes. We’ve already proven the technology in the 17-inch size. Over the next eight months, my expectation is that we’ll scale the technology up to the actual product size, validate the cost model and that will then allow us to secure the necessary partners and financing to move into commercialization and a mass-manufacturing type of model.”
6. What are the chances IFire will be acquired before the commercialization stage?
“That’s always a possibility because we’re not a TV company. We’re a materials company. So I don’t ever envision a television that would say IFire on it. The best way to frame it would be what you think of with Intel, which has the technology inside. Could we ever be acquired? Sure, I guess that’s always a possibility. Make no mistake that my job here is to maximize the value for our shareholders.”
7. How significant is the fact that your company’s other division, Nucryst, is positioned in the hot nanotechnology market?
“It’s very significant. We’re playing right in the heart of this nanotechnology segment of the market that is now receiving a lot of attention (Westaim is part of Merrill Lynch’s index of nanotechnology companies). A drug we’re developing, which is in Phase II clinical trials, is intended to treat (chronic skin disease) atopic dermatitis.”
8. When do you expect results from Nucryst’s current Phase II clinical trial?
“We will know the results in the third quarter or fourth quarter of this year. At that time, we will assess what our options are. Most likely, we would look at potential partnering options with one of the major pharmaceutical companies to proceed with the next stage of the drug development. Drug development is a high-stakes game. It’s a high-risk, high-reward process to take a drug through the approval process.”
9. How does Nucryst’s wound-care business complement the drug development part of the business?
“The wound-care side of the business is profitable and that helps provide a large part of the funding needed for the drug development work. We’re now moving our wound-care business beyond burn wounds into the serious wound-care market, which is nasty wounds that do not heal.”
10. Are you considering spinning off one of your businesses as an IPO (initial public offering)?
“We’re not currently working on any transaction like that, but we have looked at that in the past. We’ve always come to the conclusion, together with our financial advisers, that it’s still too early to do that. There are some advantages that these two divisions enjoy in being under the Westaim umbrella in that they’re really able to better focus on their core tasks on hand. So they have some of the benefits of a private company coupled with the benefits of a public company. There will likely be a time when it makes sense to spin one or both of these companies out. When and if the time is right, we’ll do it.”
11. Which company would lend itself the best to an IPO in the current marketplace?
“If I was forced to guess today, I’d say Nucryst because it is further along its commercialization path and it has a revenue stream building. The market right now for biotech stocks is picking up a bit. But that can all change literally overnight at the whim of the market.”
12. How long can Westaim continue to sustain major losses (the company lost $34.5 million in its last year)?
“We’re well financed for the foreseeable future. There’s no doubt that as we continue on with these projects we’re going to have to access new financing. But that can come in a number of forms. That can come through partners as we’ve done already, it can come from potential spinouts or we can go back to the public markets if we have to. We’ve always had the luxury of a strong balance sheet and we’ve always paid it a lot of attention.
“That has held us in very good stead, in 2002 and 2003 in particular when the public markets for technology were not receptive to technology stocks. We’ve seen lots of companies, including several in Calgary, that had potentially great technologies but ran out of runway. We will not put ourselves in that position.”
13. What’s the key to earning the confidence of a marketplace where many tech investors have been burned?
“The key is establishing a level of credibility and trust and just delivering without over-promising. We’re building a company here and we believe the story will take care of itself. It’s important that our shareholders are informed about what’s going on and what our plans are, but we’re not going out there and hyping this just to try and enjoy some short-term gain in our stock price. We believe that as we build the company, the story will build with it. There are times when you have to deliver bad news.
But I think many business leaders underestimate the understanding and the intelligence of some of the market and they don’t have the ability to always be completely forthright with shareholders.”
14. What’s the most crucial lesson you’ve learned in business?
“If you look at business as it integrates into your whole life, I think managing the various demands are very important. Those demands have to be properly managed with your family, your marriage, your friendships and your community service. My children understand that Daddy travels a lot and works very hard, but that allows us to enjoy certain other things. Balance and prioritization of time is very important. As far as business skill, I think that integrity is at the root of all business success.”
15. What style of leadership has worked for you?
“I tend to be a very forthright person. I tend to get to the point very quickly and focus on the important issues. I really tried to conduct myself that way when I was practising law. It’s important to focus on the important things and not spend a lot of time with the hundreds of other issues that don’t matter that much. I like to be very involved and I’m happy to roll up my sleeves. I don’t sit up at the top and think that because I’m CEO I can’t do this or I can’t do that. By the same token, I’m not a micro manager. I have a wonderful team here at Westaim, including two senior vice-presidents (Drew Fitch and Tony Johnston) whom I trust implicitly. I believe empowering them and letting them do their jobs.”
16. If you could trade places with one other CEO for a day, with whom would it be?
“I guess if I had to pick someone, it would probably be a really big company and a totally different company, so it would be Jeff Immelt at General Electric. I think it would be most interesting to sit in his chair for a day or a week as head of one of the largest and most diverse companies in the world. I love business and I love doing deals.”
17. What do you love about the deal-making?
“I like the thrill of the pursuit and the intellectual challenge of structuring deals. I enjoy the negotiation game. I enjoy very much the competitive aspect of sitting across the table with someone and trying to hammer out a deal that works for you and works for him. I also like the fact that when you’re doing a deal, you’re against someone, but you’re working towards a common goal. When I practised law, I never did litigation.”
18. Why not?
“I didn’t like the confrontation of win versus lose. I very much liked the fact that in a commercial transaction it’s not win versus lose in your best deals. There are two winners. I hate to use this cliche, but it very much is a win-win situation. I like that. That doesn’t mean you don’t do the best you can. Of course you do. But it’s not a game where I have to score more goals than them. It’s how you can both get to a mutual endpoint where you’re happy and the other person is happy. I also like getting engaged in a deal, going in, blitzing it, working very hard for however long it takes and then getting it done and moving in.”
19. How do you see your career evolving over the next few years?
“Obviously, for the foreseeable future I’m focused entirely on Westaim. Yet, I don’t view Westaim as the endgame. I guess a lot of that will depend on what happens after we do realize the value of our two technologies. Let’s assume that we do realize the value, we sell them in some fashion and Westaim is sitting on a whole bunch of money.
I guess at that point it’s up to the shareholders whether they want to take the money back or give us some money to go and do it again. I don’t have a definitive plan mapped out.”
20. Do you entertain thoughts of early retirement?
“No, I don’t think so. I’m relatively young at 42 and certainly retirement isn’t in my thought process right now. Pursuing other board opportunities is something that would definitely interest me in the future at the right time with the right company. I’ve been invigorated by change and I’m certainly not afraid of change. I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about what my future is. I believe that whatever comes along, I’ll just remain very flexible and open. I don’t believe you can just shut it off. I can’t play golf all day. I’m a bad golfer.”
THE COMPANY: WESTAIM CORP.
* Brass: Barry Heck, president/CEO; Drew Finch, senior vice-president, chief financial officer; Anthony Johnston, senior VP/president, IFire; Scott Gillis, president, Nucryst Pharmaceuticals.
* Profile: Westaim is a technology investment company focused on two divisions – IFire Technology, which is developing a revolutionary low-cost flat-panel display for the television market, and Nucryst Pharmaceuticals, which has developed a nanocrystalline silver technology for use in the treatment of burns and other serious wounds.
* Recent Stock Quote (WED-TSX): $3.40 (52-week range, $2-$4.98).
* Head Office: Suite 1010, 144 4 Ave. S.W., Calgary, Alta. T2P 3N4.
* Contact Info: firstname.lastname@example.org, phone/fax 403-237-7272, 237-6565.
IN PROFILE: BARRY HECK
* Title: President/CEO, Westaim Corp.; chairman, IFire Technology Inc.
* Born/raised/age: Strathmore, 42.
* Education: University of Alberta, law degree (first class standing with distinction), commerce degree.
* Family: Wife Beth Reimer-Heck, two children.
* Career: Heck joined Westaim in 1997 as part of the original management team in the role of senior vice-president and has also been president of the IFire Technology division. Prior to that, he had a brief stint as VP, general counsel and corporate secretary of Viridian Inc., where he was responsible for that company’s merger with Agrium. He began his career in law practice with Bryan & Co. of Edmonton. He was with the firm for 11 years and was a partner from 1991-96.
* Moonlighting: Heck is a member of the Canadian Council of Chief Executive Officers and member of the board of the Alberta Economic Development Authority. He coaches minor hockey and is involved in a charitable home-building project in Mexico.
* Passions: Coaching minor hockey, golf, skiing.