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The Ampersand May 2019 – The Virtues of Small Ball

May 1, 2019

Dear Friends and Colleagues,


Inspiration arrives unannounced.  Sitting at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum over the long weekend in mid-April, watching an uninspired early season tilt between the Toronto Blue Jays (quick, name 5) and Oakland A’s (quick, name 1) during a mini family vacation in Northern California, my thoughts turned, as they do, to the looming May 1 deadline for the Ampersand.  Looking around the most uninspired Major League ballpark I’ve had the good fortune to visit, inspiration struck, quite literally, out of left field.  This was, after all, the home of Billy Beane, the A’s famed General Manager portrayed by Brad Pitt in the movie Moneyball, and mastermind of the baseball philosophy known as “small ball.” Billy Beane’s theory of baseball management asks two simple questions: Does the player get on base? And can he hit?

As the innings ticked by, I wrote this piece in my mind and ate popcorn as the kernels of Beane’s philosophy stuck in my head.  After all, haven’t we learned lately a thing or two about the benefits of getting runners on base over swinging for the fences in pursuit of home runs?


I’ve written in this space previously about the virtues of losing, my apparent latent baseball fascination evident in our February 2018 post on the subject entitled A Swing and A Miss. This isn’t that. This piece is about winning but doing so differently than we’ve done in the past.


After all, those businesses that have survived the ongoing five-year downturn in Calgary have had to reinvent themselves. We’re no different. And it’s a reinvention mirrored by our city, too, as it goes through its own makeover. In short, we, like our city, have learned the value of getting on base; of resisting the wild swing for the fences in favour of the practicality of small ball.  Make no mistake, we’ve hit more than our share of home runs, working on several very senior, public company, national and global mandates. Small ball doesn’t mean you can’t occasionally take your shots.  But what has allowed us to not only survive the downturn, but actually grow through it, is our unconditional embrace of Billy Beane baseball.


Pre-downturn, executive search firms were like wartime military defence firms supplying arms in the war for talent. With such an abundance of high paying work, primarily driven by the energy sector, it wasn’t baseball we were playing; it was a home run derby.  Since the summer of 2014, energy companies have been more about ‘synergies’ and ‘integration’; code for reducing two jobs to one, as the war for talent paused.  What, then, do defence contractors do in times of peace?  They either find a niche in the regular supply-and-housekeeping of peacetime forces or they get the government to commit to long-term commitments to develop and buy new systems. Similarly, to fill the void, many search firms either did their own synergy-motivated mergers or retooled their offering into areas such as organizational strategy, cultural transformation, succession management and enterprise leadership development that they can market through good times and bad.


What did we do?  Well, as you know, we recently addressed the strategy and leadership question through our unique alliance with Creative Coaching. But, more importantly, we have supplemented the traditional and fully embraced our inner Billy Beane to grow our existing business. And, as a consequence, in addition to an emergence in the real estate development, home building and private equity sectors, we are working with dozens of smaller start-ups, civic partners, and emerging technologies, too. Though the fees are typically lower, the volume of work is high and consistent and we now find ourselves at the centre of an entire ecosystem we knew very little about pre-downturn. In short, the bases are loaded and we’re scoring runs.


A few examples of our Billy Beane-dom. In recent years we placed the Board Chair for the Calgary International Film Festival and multiple board members for the Calgary Public Library and Calgary YMCA, each of whom are operating complex new facilities and experiencing an explosion of membership growth. In working with Tourism Calgary, we’ve seen first-hand what CEO Cindy Ady and her talented team are doing to bring more tourists to our incredible city. In having worked with Mary Moran’s team at Calgary Economic Development, we’re learning about Calgary’s thriving film and TV industry and efforts to market Calgary abroad.  By working with Board Chair Phil Roberts and the entire Chamber of Commerce Board to land CEO Sandip Lalli we’re playing our part in Grow Time, a rally cry to action for the Calgary business community. By working with the JUNO awards to find a General Manager we further immersed ourselves in Calgary’s arts scene.

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Over a recent beer at Ol’ Beautiful in Inglewood with Calgary Airport Authority CEO Bob Sartor, for whom we have executed several mandates in HR, Finance and Legal, we learned about the complete transformation taking place under Bob’s leadership at YYC, including, among others, the innovative partnership with ATTAbotics, a made in Calgary innovative logistics company, that will locate at the campus business district in the YYC Global Logistics Park. Picture a warehouse-sized 3-D Rubik’s Cube-meets-slide puzzle structure that provides super high speed goods-to-person storage, retrieval and real time order fulfillment from any corner of the fully utilized warehouse space in minutes.I know, right?  Bob is doing so much more than that on his 21.36 square kilometer parcel of land, most notably using his asset and all the captive eyeballs that pass through it, to shrewdly promote a city they’ll return to for a longer visit; to treat the passenger as guest and the airline as customer.


Having just launched a Board search for the Calgary Municipal Land Corporation we are learning first-hand of the incredible redevelopment efforts Mike Brown and his team are leading in the city’s East Village and beyond, literally transforming our skyline and the way we live and play in our neighbourhoods.


It’s an area with entertainment in its DNA. It’s been home to The Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth for more than a century and home to Calgary’s beloved Calgary Flames for over 30 years. And it’s surrounded by powerful players in arts, culture and entertainment: Glenbow Museum, Art Commons, Studio Bell, new Central Library, TELUS Spark, Calgary Zoo, Fort Calgary and more. The stage is set for Calgary’s first master-planned culture and entertainment district!”

– Michael Brown, President & CEO, CMLC 


Other ongoing interactions with the likes of Vibrant Communities Calgary, the YWCA of Calgary, the Calgary Police Commission, the Calgary Housing Company, Parks Foundation Calgary and so many others have opened our eyes to a world I doubt we would have seen pre-downturn.


Here’s another one. Did you know that right now in the site of the old Centennial Planetarium-turned-Calgary Science Centre, a transformation is underway led by Contemporary Calgary to build one of the world’s leading galleries capable of hosting exhibitions on par with the Tate Modern in London or MOMA in New York?  In speaking with CEO David Leinster, the vision is incredibly aspirational; transforming the site of many a kid’s birthday parties past, into a world-class destination for modern and contemporary art.




“Contemporary art has the power to be a leading force in how we perceive and think about society and the world. The re-imagination of the Centennial Planetarium—an icon of optimism—into a dynamic, game-changing cultural hub, is an ideal project of architecture in our time. We’re making something that is totally unique.  I don’t know of anything quite like it anywhere in the world because of the existing building, because of the cultural history of the Planetarium, because of its location in Calgary, because of the changing urbanity here.”


– Bruce Kuwabara, Partner, KPMB Architects


As David explained to me, “[W]hen you consider the opportunity for Contemporary Calgary, one only needs to look at the success of the East Village. With the Studio Bell National Music Centre and the Central Public Library, the East Village has exploded with opportunity and development. The East Village is now a bustling community, with residential condos, restaurants, businesses, busy parks and pathways. It is a destination in our city that citizens are proud of. Contemporary Calgary promises to equally be a showcase for the neighbourhood, a gateway to the downtown and new West Village, a source of pride for the community, and a destination for all Calgarians and visitors.”


Equally exciting things are happening all over town, be it at Winsport or the Calgary TELUS Convention Centre (where I recently received a tour from CEO Clark Grue who showed me some of the amazing revitalization efforts underway there) or the planned re-development of Arts Commons or The Rivers District.


I could go on. Point is, while we’ve been nursing our post-Olympic hangover and listening to the back and forth over a future arena (while the current one again sits empty in May) there are 14 business improvement areas, 74 sport groups, 154 community associations and 66 social recreation groups in Calgary all quietly hitting singles and getting on base, overshadowed and undermined by the strikeout of a failed Olympic movement, the ultimate home run swing for the fences if ever there was one.  What we’ve learned through our central and immersive experience with so many civic partners and agencies and entrepreneurial start-ups is that there are base runners all over the diamond.


Sure, we’d all love a Reggie Jackson or Sammy Sosa or Alex Rodriguez on our team but while they were prolific home run hitters, those three players are also among the Top 5 all-time strikeout leaders, too. It takes discipline, team play and a low ego to see the value in getting on base, foregoing the look-at-me home run trot around the bases.


Not only has our small ball strategy allowed us to grow through a crushing down-turn but we have truly met the most interesting people along the way and we are emerging as the most nimble, entrepreneurial search firm around, able to partner effectively with new, emerging entrants to our ever-changing marketplace who, traditionally, were seen as too far “down market” to attract the attention of traditional search firms encumbered by minimum fees and maximum egos. Would we say ‘no’ to a big oil and gas company asking us to lead their next senior-level search?  Of course not; we’ve led dozens of them.  Indeed, prolific hitters do hit the odd home run, but home run hitters have a hard time laying down a bunt (in over 11,500 plate appearances, Reggie Jackson had just thirteen sacrifice bunts).  And just as home run hitters have a hard time advancing the runner, so too do global search firms have a hard time working with smaller local organizations, so too does a city like Calgary have a hard time not chasing home runs like the Olympic Games.


Yet, we’ve come to see the beauty of a sacrifice bunt. There’s something incredibly selfless and rewarding about advancing the runner and manufacturing a run.  Each time we do a smaller civic or start-up search, ultimately for a smaller fee, yet involving no less time and resources, we advance the runner, too.  We’re advancing our brand, our know-how, our connectivity and our knowledge of a civic system in which we all work and play.


Sure, the Flames got bounced in the first round. And sure, Justin Trudeau is still Prime Minister. But the woe-be-us refrain has to stop.  We are constantly reminded of our 30% downtown office vacancy rate. I’m more of a building 70% full, than 30% empty kind of guy. I like to focus on the positives. If we all continue to get runners on base, continue to do our little part, not be afraid to swing for the fences occasionally but never lose sight of the virtues of a sacrifice bunt, we will win more games than we lose.


As Billy Beane said, “The math works. Over the course of a season, there’s some predictability to baseball. When you play 162 games, you eliminate a lot of random outcomes. There’s so much data that you can predict: individual players’ performances and also the odds that certain strategies will pay off.”


Yes, Billy, they will.