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Tobin takes chance to brag about New Flyer's governance

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During his political career, Brian Tobin always seemed pleased when the lights shone on him.

But in his post-political career as a corporate director -- and in particular as the chairman of the board of New Flyer Industries, a position he's held since 2005 -- he is a study in, well, good corporate governance.

And that means to yield the limelight to the management team.

Tobin chose to make a rare public appearance in Winnipeg Wednesday to talk about the relationship between a board chairman and the CEO.

The event was a regular meeting of the local chapter of the Institute of Corporate Directors, an organization that provided a platform, of sorts, for Tobin's post-political life.

"When I left political life, I wanted another career," he told the crowd of 180 people at the Manitoba Club, more than twice as large as a typical ICD events. "I had been in political life for 22 years and I was 47. I made the decision I didn't want to be another longtime politician that came out and spent time on the edges of whatever, and then really retired."

He made a few calls and a friend at the University of Toronto told him the first class of the ICD's director-designation course was about to begin.

Tobin was in the inaugural class and a confidant of John Marinucci, then the CEO of New Flyer, was also in the class.

"I think my name, purely as a result of going through the program, was put up as a potential director," he said. "I guess the network worked in that case."

A year after taking his seat at the New Flyer board, he became chairman of Consolidated Thompson Iron Mines Ltd., where the former Newfoundland premier helped orchestrate the $4.9-billion sale of that firm to Cliffs Natural Resources Inc. in 2010.

Even though he was recruited by Marinucci who is still on New Flyer's board, Tobin's relationship with the bus-maker's current CEO, Paul Soubry, seems to be filled with the kind of respect, professional thoroughness and good humour of which good corporate partnerships are made.

Tobin seemed to enjoy poking fun at Soubry, alleging he was snubbed by Soubry at his Winnipeg hotel while Soubry fawned over the chairman of the board's compensation committee.

Later he said, "Our management team are standup guys. Last year, they did not get paid a whole bunch because we had a tough year. But no one came and said we missed targets, but pay us anyway."

While the ICD event gave him a chance to brag about his and the company's dedication to good governance, New Flyer really does have a good track record.

Soubry is known for almost maniacal attention to detail and a dedication to operational excellence. For instance, succession planning at New Flyer goes deeper than just senior management; Soubry draws up complicated checklists on levels of briefings provided to the board; and every board member must receive the ICD designation.

In 2012, the company experienced significant declines in profits as its mainly U.S. customers -- municipal transit authorities -- saw their resources jammed up as U.S. governments dealt with the financial crisis. But the orders are starting to come back and in the meantime, New Flyer spent $25 million becoming more efficient. Brazilian bus-maker Marcopolo recently sunk $116 million into the company for a 20 per cent stake and it acquired the parts business from shuttered former competitor Orion.

"When you look at a lot of the wreckages during the last four to five years and the companies that disappeared or were bailed out, a lot of it was because people began to manage for compensation, for bonuses," Tobin said. "People stopped taking the view of... building for the next generation."

But not New Flyer; with Soubry at the helm and Tobin in the background making sure he knows where he's going.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 21, 2013 A17

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About Martin Cash

Martin Cash joined the Free Press in 1987 as the paper’s business columnist.

He has spent two decades chronicling the city’s business affairs.

Martin won a citation of merit from the National Newspaper Awards in 2001 for his coverage of the strike and subsequent multi-million-dollar union settlement at the Versatile tractor plant. He has also received honours and awards for his work on agriculture and technology development in Manitoba.

Martin has written a coffee-table book about the commercial and industrial make-up of the city, called Winnipeg: A Prairie Portrait.

Martin Cash on Twitter: @martycash


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