Judi Hess’ first job offer in the early 1980s may have been a bellwether for what would lie ahead for her as one of the few women working in the B.C. tech sector at the time.
After completing a co-op program in Vancouver at what was then known as MacDonald Dettwiler & Associates Corp. – now the MDA division of Maxar Technologies Inc. (NYSE:MAXR) – the software engineer compared notes with one of her fellow students.
That’s when Hess realized she had received an offer of $2,000 less than her male peer at the University of Waterloo to work at the aerospace firm following graduation.
“I said, ‘No,’” recalled Hess, now president and CEO of Vancouver-based Copperleaf Technologies Inc.
“My marks were better than his, I graduated on the dean’s list – and they offered him more?”
After some back-and-forth with the recruiter, the fresh graduate negotiated a pay bump for her starting salary, and the Torontonian departed for the West Coast, drawn partly by the opportunity to spend winters skiing.
“I should have known that [salary offer] was a big tipoff,” Hess said, adding that her first performance review was perhaps the biggest eye-opener about gender dynamics in her early career.
“There was one section called ‘career planning.’ And he [the manager] looked at it and said, ‘You don’t have to do career planning, right? You’re just going to get married and have children.’”
Hess declined to do any career planning with that particular supervisor.
But she eventually found herself moving up at MDA, first on the technical leadership side of the business, where she would lead and deliver projects for the aerospace firm.
As she recalls, there were only two women out of about 30 people taking on technical leadership roles at the time – “and zero in management.”
Four decades later, she leads a company that has enjoyed revenue growth of about 3,200% during the course of a decade-long tenure that took Copperleaf from a consultancy group to a software product-based organization focused on asset management.
“Copperleaf is the best decision and the worse decision I ever made,” she said, tongue firmly in cheek.
The best decision because of the opportunity to transform the company, develop its corporate culture and expand the team from about 25 workers to 250 workers.
The worst decision because it became apparent early on that Copperleaf was underfunded, its product wasn’t yet up to snuff and its own founder was filing a lawsuit against it.
“It was quite tense,” Hess said. “The first thing I spent my time on was survival.”
But by May 2010, about a year into the job, Hess had helped Copperleaf raise $8.2 million, the lawsuit was later settled and the team had developed a product it was proud of.
“After the first year of survival, then it was … strategy. How do we build? What do we need to do? What’s the market look like? Get the right team in place and then get the right culture in place,” she said.
Copperleaf’s signature product, its C55 software, is now a market leader for decisions analytics in electricity generation, in transmission and distribution and for natural gas and water.
Prior to Copperleaf, Hess cut her teeth as an executive at Creo Inc., the Burnaby-based company best known for its digital imaging technology.
After serving at MDA for 14 years, she was recruited as vice-president of workflow solutions at Creo in 1995.
“It was a very open company,” Hess said, adding that Creo adhered to more of a merit-based approach for its workers.
“I just learned a ton there and took on more and more responsibility.”
And she continued to ascend, becoming president in 2002.
But by 2005 the company had become the subject of a hostile takeover.
“We were a publicly traded company at the time, and that was very challenging,” Hess said. “The shininess of an IPO kind of lost it a bit for me after that.”
The hostile takeover was averted when Eastman Kodak Co. (NYSE:KODK) purchased Creo for US$980 million.
Kodak had been going through its own challenges at the time, and the corporate team there wanted to make a play for a commercial print division in the graphic arts industry.
“I think it was a good exit,” Hess said, acknowledging the experience could be summed up for her as “bittersweet.”
“It was better than the potential hostile takeover. It’s like democracy is the worst system – except for all the others. I think it was the best of some poor options.”
Hess remained with Eastman Kodak through to 2009, eventually becoming a managing director and vice-president.
“I would have preferred to drive the company [Creo] forward as a public company and build it in Vancouver,” she said. “But in the end all of the people from Creo came out and went and built other companies in Vancouver. It’s all an ecosystem.”
Despite all the demands of her executive position, Hess said she still makes it a priority to decompress during her free time.
Last year the married mother of two – one daughter is a doctor, the other daughter is an accountant in Switzerland – hit the slopes more than 40 days.
“The winter for me is Whistler,” Hess said, adding she also loves kayaking, cycling and hiking.
Meanwhile, that first performance review in the early 1980s still didn’t dissuade her from any of her career pursuits.
But it did allow Hess to reflect on how her path may have been different if she had not been a woman in the tech sector more than 30 years ago.
“If I had been a male I would have ascended much faster in all of these various companies I was in. But being a woman, I think, it took a little bit longer. But, you know, determination, diligence, hard work, being creative – I still got there.” •
What sort of leadership style does a CEO have to cultivate in the 21st century?
•Good at getting to yes
What accomplishments are you most proud of?
I’m most proud of getting Copperleaf off the ground. In particular:
•Raising over $8 million in investor funding back in 2009, and everything we needed to do to get to where we are today
•Creating a market-leading product
•Driving continuous growth in a challenging market
•Building a strong team and culture focused on success and having fun
What is the biggest challenge you have faced?
Being a woman in a man’s world of leadership expectations.
What career decisions would you make differently were you starting out today?
Always say yes to opportunities offered to you and pick your battles wisely, because not everything is worth fighting for.
What is the one business lesson you’d like to pass on to others?
If you are determined to find success in your life, and you focus on creating value, you will get there.
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.