After almost 20 years running the Winnipeg Richardson International Airport as CEO of the Winnipeg Airports Authority, Barry Rempel is stepping down at the end of the year .
It’s an auspicious time, no doubt, after the pandemic so drastically curtailed the operations of what is otherwise a $140 million per year business.
Rempel, who is 66, did not want to leave until the worst of the pandemic disruptions were over so his successor could start off seeing light at the end of the tunnel.
"Whoever comes in now, it is going to be about building," he said. "They won’t have to be thinking, ‘where can I cut another nickel’?"
He’s planning to stay on until the end of the year which means he’ll be around to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of the opening of the new terminal next month. The 25th anniversary of the creation of the WAA itself is early in the new year.
His two decades running the airport were years of significant growth in both passenger activity and development of the greater airport campus.
In 2002, when he took over the airport after a successful career in the airline business, ending up as CEO of Canadian Airlines International’s cargo and Canadian North operating divisions, the Winnipeg airport saw just shy of 2.6 million passengers through its old terminal building.
In 2019, that number was up to 4.5 million.
His long-time attention to economic development and his belief that the airport was a community asset that needed to be leveraged for the greater good of the community helped produce a turbo-charged employment generator for the city.
During his tenure, the airport campus has seen close to $1 billion in development including three hotels, the new Canada Post sorting centre, a StandardAero engine maintenance facility and General Electric’s one-of-a-kind cold weather engine testing site. The grand opening of the Royal Aviation Museum of Western Canada is slated for early next year.
And the massive undertaking of constructing a new terminal building was done on his watch.
While some may have muttered over the years about empire building, Rempel says he does not take credit for the growth.
"What I am most proud of is having a seat at the table with an incredible team here and lots of people around town who saw the vision for what we could do by leveraging land here for our community’s greater benefit," he said. "I facilitated the team that made it happen."
Brita Chell, the current chair of the board of WAA, said, "Barry’s contribution to Winnipeg is profound. He has led the airport’s transformation into the asset our community enjoys today. Throughout his career, Barry has focused on service to the community and that approach is now embedded in the culture of our company."
Among other things, during his tenure, Winnipeg’s air cargo business has grown so that it is now one of the strategic elements of the city’s economic development strategy.
And his legacy in that regard will soon grow as the old Air Canada cargo terminal at the end of Sargent Avenue will come down at the end of this year to be replaced by a new 140,000 square foot common-use cargo hub owned and operated by the WAA.
Rempel believes the air cargo project, which will become a $100 million investment, will provide one of the biggest economic impacts in the community over the next five years.
The last 18 months have been tough on everyone, but the airport was particularly hard hit. Rempel said the toughest part for him was the closure of concessions and seeing the job losses to the people who could least afford it.
While no one would fault him if he had decided to retire after such stressful times, he said his timing had more to do with the going-forward planning needs of the WAA.
For instance, as a condition of its land lease with the federal government the WAA is obliged to update its master plan and next year such an undertaking is due.
"I said to the board it would be unfair to the new CEO to be held accountable to a plan that Rempel put in place… and It was pretty clear I was not going to be here for another 10 years," he said.
As well, the next thing that will happen once passenger traffic comes back to near 80 per cent of its prior level – it’s now at about 5,000 passenger per day from about 11,500 at its peak before the pandemic – is that Rempel’s successor is going to have to start thinking about expanding the terminal building that was built for maximum capacity of 5,000 passengers per day.
As it is there is still $580 million worth of public debt outstanding on the terminal – and the WAA also had to borrow another $100 million to make ends meet during the pandemic.
But Rempel said that number would have been higher were it not for the prudent decision making of his board resulting in a construction design that allowed for future expansion.
Martin Cash has been writing a column and business news at the Free Press since 1989. Over those years he’s written through a number of business cycles and the rise and fall (and rise) in fortunes of many local businesses.