2019 BC CEO Awards: Craig Richmond

Sky’s the limit: The president and CEO of the Vancouver Airport Authority focuses on fostering culture, embracing diversity to drive success

Craig Richmond, president and CEO of the Vancouver Airport Authority: “you’ve got to be able to see the details and see the big picture at the same time” | Rob Kruyt

Given that Craig Richmond started flying planes at age 13 and later flew Canadian fighter jets during the Cold War, it’s easy to assume that he would have a natural affinity for running an airport.

But that wasn’t the case, said Richmond, who has been the president and CEO of the Vancouver Airport Authority since 2013.

Today, Vancouver International Airport (YVR) is widely considered one of the world’s top airports, serving a record high of 25.9 million passengers last year with 56 airlines providing non-stop flights to 125 destinations.

Richmond’s association with the airport began partly by accident.

“When I left the Air Force, I decided that I wanted to get into business, but I had no idea that airport was a business,” he recalled of his career prospects immediately after graduating from the University of Manitoba’s MBA program in 1994.

He noted that he held consultant positions in forestry and IT before aviation.

“It was then that somebody told me that I should work at the airport – but I had no idea that it was a private business,” he said. “So I did stumble into the airport part of the aviation business … and I never really left the YVR family.”

The airport’s success and the rising traffic have provided the impetus for a $9.1 billion expansion that includes work to expand the international terminal. Also, the airport has taken major steps in local community development – the highlight of which is the 2017 sustainability and friendship agreement with the Musqueam First Nation that has led to 90 band members working at YVR within the last two years.

In April, YVR was named Skytrax World Airport Awards’ top North American facility for the 10th consecutive year – an honour that has never been achieved by another airport in any Skytrax category.

“It’s a team sport, so I will take some credit – but it’s easy to look good when you lead a good team,” Richmond said of the award. “Why we love that award is because it’s voted on by 13 million people over six months, and it’s everything at the airport.… If you fall behind in any one thing – be it the lineups getting too long or the washrooms not being as clean as it used to be – you will lose very quickly. So it really reflects the efforts of a really, really wide range of team members. We just found out last week that 26,500 people work at the airport, and everyone contributed.”

A major part of maintaining YVR’s momentum comes from the airport’s effort to build culture – something Richmond credits largely to his extensive stints overseas since joining YVR in 1995, mostly as part of the then-YVR-owned Vantage Airport Group.

With Vantage (which has since become an independent company with YVR selling all of its shares in 2016), Richmond was sent to countries like the Bahamas (Nassau International Airport), Great Britain (Liverpool John Lennon Airport), Cyprus and the United States. Richmond said the experience of managing staff in different social and cultural environments was an eye-opener.

“I highly recommend people who do business to take some time overseas on international postings,” he said. “It is really good for you, and it really broadens your ability to work with all kinds of people. And it’s a lot of fun. The only way to work with people from other cultures is to be honest and to prove yourself. You can’t just go over and start ordering people around; it may work for a little while, but it’s not going to be genuine.”

Richmond added that the positive aspects of each country he experienced changed him for the better as an executive and as a person. For instance, Richmond said, he picked up what he called “pluckiness” from the British after going through difficult job cuts at Liverpool, noting people never gave up at doing their best.

The Cypriots, Richmond said, have a stoic nature that helps carry them through all kinds of adversity.

From the Bahamas, Richmond gained something he especially valued.

“They are just such a naturally gregarious and outward-loving people,” Richmond said. “You can imagine how shocking it was for a former Canadian fighter pilot in his 40s to give a presentation that goes so well that the people spontaneously start dancing and singing. And I said, ‘Well, if I just sit here, I’m going to look pretty stupid,’ so then I started dancing and singing. I never tried doing that in Vancouver, but the experience made me more empathic and spontaneous.”

That type of focus on small details like employees’ individual happiness, combined with an overall vision of the business at hand, is the foundation of what Richmond considers the vital trait of a good corporate leader.

“You’ve got to be able to see the details and see the big picture at the same time,” he said. “The bigger life experience you have, the more training you have, it gives that opportunity to look at details but not get bogged down on them. You have to do both, and it’s a skill that has to be learned.” •

Q&A

What sort of leadership style does a CEO have to cultivate in the 21st century?

It is difficult to prescribe a certain style for every person in every situation, but here are some thoughts. First, everyone can spot a phony, from Vancouver to Cyprus. It’s obvious to everyone—so be yourself. Next, take your work seriously, but lighten up, don’t take yourself too seriously. Most everybody can relate to that. Finally, acknowledge that you are not an expert in everything just because you have a job title that says CEO—and if you are afraid to hire people smarter than you, you are cutting yourself off from great advice. That’s not very smart.

What accomplishments are you most proud of?

Being a Canadian fighter pilot in the Cold War. It was dangerous, hard and tricky work but there were amazing times with incredible teamwork and laughter. As part of Vantage Airport Group, leading the superb teams in Nassau, the UK and Cyprus and then returning home to coach the already excellent YVR professionals to even greater results. You don’t win ten in a row in any contest by luck—YVR’s Skytrax record shows that BC has one of the top airport teams in all the world. And finally, the historic friendship and sustainability agreement between YVR and the Musqueam people. Now that is reconciliation.

What is the biggest challenge you have faced?

Aerial refueling in a thunderstorm was sporty. Leading in other cultures was tricky at times. Graduating as a newly minted MBA into a recession sucked. But the biggest challenge has always been motivating, challenging and figuring people out. Sometimes it can break your heart. It can also yield the moments of greatest satisfaction in your career.

What career decisions would you make differently were you starting out today?

That’s such a tough question because you are the product of all decisions, good, bad and indifferent. I don’t think you should parse out some from the others, because they all contributed to the person you are right now. If I had to choose, maybe work harder and earlier at a second language. But again, life is a series of trade-offs. On the whole, I am very satisfied with how things turned out.

What is the one business lesson you’d like to pass on to others?

L’audace, l’audace toujours l’audace! Go for it! This is not a dress rehearsal, chances fly by and are gone forever. Don’t be foolhardy, but push the throttles up, get your head on a swivel and get into the fight – “Tally ho!”

 

Join us to celebrate this year’s honourees at the 2019 BC CEO Awards November 13, 2019, hosted at the Fairmont Waterfront Hotel. For tickets and event info, visit www.biv.com/ceo.