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Business Person of the Year 2004: Dr. Sam Shaw, NAIT

As Alberta's Business Person of the Year, Sam Shaw proves he has learned the lessons of success

“Where’s the hole?” Moving at his usual near-run between segments of an on-location shoot with Global television, Sam Shaw, president of Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) notices a crucial missing detail in a patch of golf turf brought inside to help illustrate the technical institute’s diversity of programs: the setup includes putters and a ball, but nothing to aim for.

Ears tuned to the chief’s leading questions, staff catch the concept buried in that one-liner, and act. While cameras record an exploding gummy worm in a nearby chemistry lab (recently renovated with corporate dollars), the turf guys hack a circle out of their green carpet and insert a cup rim from the (NAIT-owned) coffee franchise just steps away. Voila, a target – which the president hits handily, at least until the cameras roll.

Master of the leading question, 53-year-old Shaw has set – and helped his team hit – an impressive array of targets since answering the head hunters’ call to NAIT in 1997. The Edmonton-based institute’s annual budget has nearly doubled to $204 million, while reliance on government support has dropped from 60% to 48%. Shaw has turned this post-secondary institution into an entrepreneurial venture whose economic impact in the capital region is approaching $339 million a year, – and he’s done it by applying business principles with (to quote the mission he helped shape) a human touch.

“The man has charisma,” says Global TV host Lorraine Mansbridge as we trail Shaw from chemists to robot makers to veterinary clinicians. “Some of places we’re in, you go, ‘Who’s running the ship?’ But you come in here and you know who’s running the ship. And yet everybody’s happy.”

Deep down, NAIT remains what it always was, Shaw insists: an excellent technical institution committed to student success. “What may have changed about NAIT is that we view the world differently in terms of opportunities.” Put in corporate terms, he adds, “our share value has increased exponentially.”

Perhaps it’s no wonder a judging panel, made up of business leaders including a selection of previous Alberta Venture Business Person of the Year recipients, took the unusual step of choosing this not-for-profit executive to join their ranks. “He is one of the most outgoing people I know, which is actually what I would call counter-academic,” says Capital City Savings CEO Harry Buddle, Business Person of the Year for 2000. “He most certainly is in an enterprise that, while not for profit, has all the other components: having to earn income, having to meet the offerings of competitors, and having to balance budgets. When all is said and done, NAIT is still a business enterprise.'”

“The optics aren’t so good.” Standing next to NAIT’s resident Harley-Davidson, golf putter in hand, Shaw looks to be shirking work as he prepares to alert Global viewers that both turf management and Canada’s only Harley-Davidson technician training program have joined the NAIT family, thanks to recent consolidation with Fairview College. In truth, he not only enjoys golf but lusts after a two-wheeler to go with his motorcycle licence, playfully inviting donations “at any time” to his desktop Harley-Davidson fund. But this passion is fueled by a workaday motive, or so he says: “Part of it is trying to get into that space of knowing about the programs we have.”

Optics aside, the mutually agreeable marriage between Fairview and NAIT is the product of hard work. “The due diligence we did, you wouldn’t find very much different from what you’d see in the corporate world,” Shaw says, crediting then-board chair Brian Butlin for applying principles he learned while acquiring businesses as CEO of Flint Energy Services. “It’s not a case that Fairview wasn’t doing a great job,” the president adds, “but what a great relationship. We’ve often said it’s not one plus one equals two but one plus one equals three. That’s the kind of power you get when you have organizations joining like this.”

Wrinkles remain, but the merger is already giving Fairview students access to highly regarded credentials while extending NAIT’s program menu and geographic reach, Shaw says. NAIT gained a presence in Peace River, Grande Prairie, Fairview, High Level, La Crete and St. Albert, plus its first-ever student residences – key assets for an institution that regularly hosts trainees from around the world. The new campuses will facilitate NAIT’s expanding work with aboriginal communities – and with corporate partners facing acute skills shortagesas megaprojects expand and baby boomers retire. “Clearly, when I look at the northwest and I look at what we need to do as a province, we need to support a skilled workforce. There’s a great opportunity here for us to expand access to more and more students.”

It’s 9 a.m. We’ve said good bye to Global’s Lorraine Mansbridge and hello to numerous staff on the trot back to Shaw’s office, tucked into the corner of the executive suite on Main Campus, near Edmonton’s City Centre Airport. Time now to edit speaking notes for the announcement of Canada’s first commercial fuel cell, a NAIT partnership that will set the cameras rolling again in little more than an hour. But first, a quick Web check on the culinary team, just touching down in Germany. No news yet, but that doesn’t keep Shaw from highlighting the competition any chance he gets.

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