Alberta’s 50 Most Influential People 2010
The deposits of oil and gas, the fields of cattle and crops and the majestic timber forests are important assets, but it is the people of Alberta who are its most valuable resource
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Listen to excerpts from Paul Marck’s interview with David Emerson.
It is the summer of 2030. Alberta is in a different place from where it was in the early part of the century. With one of the most highly educated populations in the country, Alberta has parlayed its resource wealth and human capital into a dynamic global economic force. The oil sands are the undisputed driver of Alberta’s economy, living up to the hopes and promises of creating a diversity of commerce and value-added spin-offs.
Yet there is more, much more. The entrepreneurs have taken over in a bloodless, well-financed coup. Technology clusters thrive in the big cities. Alberta is home to innovations that have reduced greenhouse gases, effectively slowing the course of climate change, and the province has embarked on a new course of water recycling, preservation and conservation. The sustainable economy has muted the environmental dirge that dominated the first decade of the 21st century, mirroring Alberta’s rise as a global leader in green technologies.
David Emerson’s illustrious career has led him through the corridors of power in both business and politics. He has been a deputy minister to the premier of B.C., chairman and CEO of Canadian Western Bank, head of Vancouver’s airport authority and CEO of Canfor Corporation. He was elected an MP and named minister to the portfolios of industry, international trade and foreign affairs from 2004-2008. After retiring from politics, Emerson found himself more in demand than ever. Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach named him chairman of the Premier’s Council for Economic Strategy in August 2009. “It’s just a real honour and I’m excited by it,” he says of his role with the council. Raised in Grande Prairie and educated as an economist at the University of Alberta, Emerson and his wife Theresa retain a special affinity for Alberta, where both spent their formative years. In addition to his role with the premier’s council, Emerson is a director on several corporate boards, government agencies, and is a special advisor to CAI Managers, a private equity fund.
Innovation has spurred increasing numbers of new businesses within the province, its mobile population overseeing satellite businesses and branch operations the world over. Economic reverberations are felt everywhere, as small towns and Aboriginal communities share the province’s spreading resource wealth across rural Alberta.
This is what David Emerson sees, a future for Alberta that looks rosy indeed.
As chairman of the Premier’s Council for Economic Strategy, Emerson heads a group of 12 eminent advisors and experts who are developing a long-range blueprint for Alberta. Appointed in the summer of 2009, the council will deliver its final report to the government next year.
“The mandate is to look out at the forces and trends that will shape Alberta over the next 30 years and offer recommendations and a bit of a roadmap for the government in terms of what needs to be done,” says Emerson.
Emerson told an executive forum in Edmonton earlier this year that the Premier’s Council for Economic Strategy determined early on that Alberta’s new economy will be built on the foundation of the existing resource economy. The council’s job is to find ways to develop, strengthen, improve and grow the resource sector and related business opportunities.
That will take planning, vision, investment and new policy direction from government to help vault Alberta companies into the ranks of their global competitors. The retooling of executive thinking is crucial to expanding Alberta’s economic influence in the increasingly globalized energy sector.
“You will see companies that are basically becoming mature, competitive natural resource firms spreading their wings and putting down the footprint in other parts of the world. And as you do that, you retain mind and management in Alberta,” says Emerson. “When you have operations around the world, you’re really spreading your market risk, because it does give you a foothold in markets when Canada is strong and vice-versa. That all adds stability.”
A conversation with Emerson reveals that going global is a central theme in the discussion about Alberta’s future economic prosperity. Such linkages will play an increasingly important part in Alberta’s evolving and diversified economy, since the province produces far more goods and commodities than it consumes.
“Alberta will be, 20 years out, a much more globally connected part of Canada. There will be linkages to China, into India, the United States and other parts of Europe,” Emerson said in wide-ranging interview. Yet the economic plan is intended to be more than tomorrow’s wish list. It will map out strategies and checkpoints at the five-year mark and intervals so the province can measure where it stands against the goals and targets outlined in the plan.
Economic and fiscal stability, resource stewardship, environmental protection, water allocation, education and Aboriginal opportunities will all be prominent themes in the council’s work.
“There are long-standing issues that are calling out for solutions when you rely on non-renewable resources and resource revenues to pay the operating expenses of government,” says Emerson. The further challenge is in deploying the wealth generated by non-renewable resources for the betterment of future generations.
Hand in hand with improving the fiscal fortunes of the province and its people, the Premier’s Council for Economic Strategy recognizes that resource stewardship and eco-system protection are integral elements of Alberta’s blueprint for the future.
“Going forward we need to ensure that the tremendous wealth creation is also complemented by environmental enhancement,” says Emerson. “Increased and improved environmental protection through the application of technology is going to be critically important.”
Emerson says that the strides that Alberta has made in the fields of bio-mechanics and nanotechnology are examples of the benefits of this clustering-oriented approach. There is room for new and novel innovations as well, but in Emerson’s view, diversifying in the new economy means sticking close to home.
“If you’re not prepared to get into an area and support it in a fairly meaningful way for a long period of time to develop the critical mass, then the likelihood of failure is fairly high,” says Emerson. “I’m cautious about starting clusters of activities that are unrelated to the core base of the economy because you have to build up critical mass in order to be globally competitive.”
Additionally, Emerson’s prescription for Alberta’s economy going forward will pay particular attention to the importance of human capital. Education and human resources are key areas that the Premier’s Council will address, given that Alberta needs a more highly skilled and educated workforce if it is to realize the benefits of this new economic direction. Emerson assures that the post-secondary education system and incentives and opportunities that can help young Albertans to participate in it will both receive close scrutiny.
As well, the council has identified the need to build new and lasting economic bridges to Alberta’s aboriginal population.
“First Nations is another area that is a tremendous human resource that has not been fully utilized and hasn’t had the opportunities that many mainstream Canadians have had,” says Emerson. “So these are areas that are going to be critically important.”
Ultimately, the world is knocking at Alberta’s door, and the province has to be prepared to answer the call. “I think you’re going to see a world for decades to come where there’s going to be a real demand for natural resources and resource-related products. We have a real opportunity being one of the few islands of stability and rule of law where people can source their natural resource needs,” says Emerson.
New knowledge and spin-off technologies that can be deployed in the global marketplace will create opportunities and partnerships for Alberta companies. Premier’s Council for Economic Strategy will devise the plan and government will create the economic climate so business has the tools to make it work.
“I think you’re going to see just a tremendous economic drive that will be technologically rich and economically diversifying and that will become more stable and provide the foundation for Alberta’s economy going forward,” Emerson says. “Alberta 30 years out is a place of prosperity, a great place for the kids, grandkids and generations of Albertans.”
Listen to excerpts from Paul Marck’s interview with David Emerson.