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Unbundling the Prairies

Whether you are calibrating a campaign, developing messages or assessing related risks, geographic and cultural nuance is an essential consideration. Nowhere is this more true than in Western Canada.

For many Canadians, the vast geographic space between the Canadian Shield and the Rocky Mountains is frequently—and inaccurately—lumped together as ‘The West.’
On the surface, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta share some important characteristics: affinity for First Nations’ culture, spectacular Prairie landscapes, big skies, abundant wheat, a passion for perogies, a love of curling and a predilection for hotels with indoor waterslides. And they all experience extreme weather—from bitter cold to blistering heat.
Beneath those similarities, however, life in each of these provinces is distinct. For example, in the winter, Calgarians, with their milder weather and proximity to the mountains, are always off skiing and hiking. It seems everyone has a dashing array of sporty clothes and an SUV with a roof rack. In Manitoba and Saskatchewan, where the Prairie winds howl, the only reason to go outside after Labour Day is because you forgot to plug in your car (or, if you live in Winnipeg, maybe to attend a Jets game).
In Saskatchewan, few people are more than one generation away from the family farm. While the rise of the potash and energy industries in the province has led to a more diversified economy and the first growth in its population in many years, the province and its residents still identify themselves with farming.

Alberta’s identity, by contrast, is framed by its role as an international oil and gas producer with strong, direct links to the United States. Even as world oil prices have slumped over the last year, it continues to attract an eclectic mix of domestic migration and international immigration. It is also driven by a resolute work ethic. People get up early (7:30 meetings are the norm), show up on time for dinner parties and pursue well-paying jobs at company headquarters. Saskatoon has PotashCorp and Winnipeg has Investors Group, but Alberta is the place for unabashedly, upwardly mobile corporate types who shop at the only Nordstrom’s west of the Ottawa River.
In Calgary, the houses are big and new and there are strip malls galore to cater to them. Calgarians also tend to drive everywhere—trucks and SUVs seem obligatory.
In Winnipeg, homeowners are more inclined to renovate old houses built in the glory days of the railway, whereas urban in-fills dominate Calgary.While the biggest news (outside of hockey) to hit the ‘Peg in recent years was the arrival of IKEA, the city continues to strongly support small businesses and fosters a robust culture of independent entrepreneurship.
That support is based on an economy that is less prone to the booms and busts that tend to characterize the commodity-based economies of Saskatchewan and Alberta.
Ever since the days of the fur trade, Manitoba, with its location at the centre of the continent, has been a transportation hub. That, along with insurance, manufacturing and other industries, gives it a calmer vibe. That is reflected in the signs erected by the provincial government to sell its infrastructure spending program. ‘Steady growth, good jobs.’ Nothing flashy, but Manitobans remain fiercely proud of their communities.

“Working strategically with governments on R&D and other initiatives is another way to mitigate and manage related risk.

Big Risk on the Big Screen

The very best movie plots are the ones driven by the excruciating tension that comes when characters take risks—calculated or otherwise—and then struggle to overcome them…

The Matrix

1995 – Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne
Morpheus: “This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill—the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill—you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.”

Wall street

1987 – Michael Douglas
Gordon Gekko: “I don’t throw darts at a board. I bet on sure things. Read Sun-tzu, The Art of War. Every battle is won before it is ever fought.”


1995 – Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro
Neil McCauley: “He knew the risks, he didn’t have to be there. It rains… you get wet.”

Dirty Harry

1971 – Clint Eastwood
Harry Callahan: “I know what you’re thinking: ‘Did he fire six shots or only five?’ Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement, I’ve kinda lost track myself. But being this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you’ve got to ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do you, punk?”


2012 – Richard Gere, Susan Sarandon
Syd Felder: “What’s baffling to me, despite your sentimental history together, is why you would put your family’s future in this kid’s hands.”
Robert Miller: “He’s not like us.”
Syd Felder: “Is that a good thing?”

Casino Royale

2006 – Judi Dench
M: “I knew it was too early to promote you.”
James Bond: “Well, I understand double 0’s have a very short life expectancy… so your mistake will be short-lived.”

Risky Business

1983 – Tom Cruise
Miles: “Joel, you wanna know something? Every now and then say, ‘What the f***.’ ‘What the f***’ gives you freedom. Freedom brings opportunity. Opportunity makes your future.”

Literary Risk-takers We Love

Our collective fascination with characters who encounter—and sometime even provoke—risk, is deeply ingrained. Through the ages, there remains something compelling about stories that detail the travails and tribulations of others. Maybe it’s because we all know that truth is always stranger than even the best fiction. A random walk through the evidence:


1595 – William Shakespeare
An emotional steeplechase of family beef, possessive cousins, enabling nursemaids, and a meddling Friar. It was a risky proposition from the start, but who has ever been able to talk sense to a teenager?

Jack and the Beanstalk

Old English Fairytale
Jack buys some magic beans, shinnies up the stalk, sneaks into a giant’s castle in the sky, and steals his treasure. He repeats this high-risk strategy three times, nabbing gold coins, a goose that lays golden eggs and, finally, a harp that plays itself. Today, he’d definitely be running a private equity fund.

Alice in Wonderland

1865 – Lewis Carroll
For a proper Victorian maiden in a pinafore, Alice is actually a modern bad-ass. Her adventure is fraught with risk and danger from the start: the beastly Duchess, the Cheshire Cat, the hookah-smoking caterpillar, the Mad Hatter and the March Hare and, of course, the Red Queen. Every decent tea party has a Dormouse who needs to be stuffed into a teapot (you know who you are). And who among us hasn’t treaded water in a pool of tears at some point in our adult lives? Conversation with a mouse, optional.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

1997 – J.K. Rowling
Harry Potter is a beleaguered orphan who slowly comes to terms with his special powers only to be confronted with a wily nemesis, Lord Voldemort, and his assorted henchpersons. Is there a greater bore than an aspiring immortal?

The Hobbit

1937 – J.R.R. Tolkien
Mild-mannered hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, reluctantly braves wizards, wolves, trolls, dwarves, elves, goblins and Gollum to settle a score with an irritable dragon (is there any other kind?), gain riches and snag a golden ring that is the obsession of a deeply disturbed cave-dweller with a penchant for riddles. For most of us, it’s just another day at the office…

Talent Search

Shareholder pressure has made the recruitment of corporate directors a more transparent process. In many cases, that means turning to professional search firms when it’s time to recruit a new director. Paul Stanley, Senior and Managing Partner, and Sal Badali, Partner at Odgers Berndtsen in Toronto share their views:

P.S. “It’s important to differentiate between private and public sector boards. In the public sector, mandates dictate greater transparency, greater balance and mandated diversity. They also have a list of other criteria, including regional representation in many cases. That means they invariably require outside advice in recruiting directors.”

S.B. “When they start a search process, many boards are strategic and issue-driven. They collectively anticipate what sort of issues the board is likely to face going forward. Then they look for someone who has direct or related experience.”

P.S. “There’s a growing understanding that a truly diverse board is going to be more than just the traditional pool. And that makes for better corporate decisions.”

S.B. “It all comes back to risk management—even indirectly. A strong, diverse board that has different personality types and solid credentials is going to do a better job of anticipating challenges, protecting the reputation and the brand. The real risk these days is not taking care of all that proactively.”