When the Business Council of Manitoba was formed in 1998, Don Leitch was clerk of the executive council for the province and the top bureaucrat in Gary Filmon's government.
Leitch, 70, who is stepping down from his position as CEO of the BCM after six years, said he remembered hearing that Art Mauro and Harold Buchwald were talking about forming such an organization.
"Jim Carr was the CEO and I knew Jim well," Leitch recalled recently. "I thought, jeez, I've got the job as clerk of the privy council and this is a great job but if I was not doing this I would love to do that. Fast forward 15 years later and I am doing it. It was fantastic."
Leitch's departure comes less than two weeks after the BCM's pre-budget submissions to Finance Minister Scott Fielding, something the 80-member organization does every year. It also comes less than two months after the completion of a report in partnership with the presidents of the province's post-secondary institutions that outlines the urgency for education and the private sector to work much closer together to ensure the province has the kind of employees it needs for the changing workplace.
Not to say they are the most crucial achievements in Leitch's long career, but considering the challenges the provincial economy is facing and the amazing connectedness that Leitch has had in the important going-on in the province, they illustrate the role he has been able to play in a rich career of public service.
Some might balk at the suggestion that running an organization whose members are among the province's largest employers (and richest individuals) as public service.
But Leitch is not alone in recognizing the important role the organization plays in the province.
"As I look back at the strength of the Business Council, it is just so deep in its business smarts, coupled with a sense of commitment to the community. This is our place, where we live. We want it to be better," he said. "When we deliver messages to government it is not about how do you do something that will better our members' companies. It is about how to better the province and how to benefit the economy so we can all grow. Our members are phenomenal promoters for the province."
(Bram Strain, a former provincial deputy minister and assistant deputy minister for Western Economic Diversification and most recently the city manager in Lethbridge, Alta. is succeeding Leitch starting Monday.)
Leitch's perspective, and the message from the organization, is that they acknowledge -- and encouraged -- the current government's need to stabilize the province's fiscal situation, but that now it's time to start concentrating on economic growth.
Leitch and the BCM have been pushing the government to establish a clear strategy on how to accomplish that (which the premier would argue it has done).
"When we deliver messages to government it is not about how do you do something that will better our members' companies. It is about how to better the province and how to benefit the economy so we can all grow. Our members are phenomenal promoters for the province." – Don Leitch
"If you know where you want to go and how you’re going to get there you are more likely to be successful," he said,
The fact that the Palliser government's goal is to see 40,000 new private sector jobs created, may even make the government listen that much more intently to the BCM's message and advice.
After all, Leitch said, "It is the private sector that will make the investments that will generate the wealth that will create the jobs for this province to move forward."
Leitch has had an incredible vantage point to understand how that works. The BCM may not be unique but its non-partisan approach, across-the-board inclusion from all business sectors (unlike an organization in Alberta that is oil and gas dominant) and singular focus on this province (a B.C. organization includes national companies not based in B.C.), may not exist anywhere else in the country. It's not enough to gain membership by being a large company headquarterd in Manitoba. Members have to demonstrate a commitment to Manitoba’s economic growth and community development.
Leitch likes to tell a story about hosting high school students as part of the BCM's Youth CEO program where the BCM member CEO's mentor inner city youth to give them an insider's look at how the largest companies in the province operate.
"We had them in the office for pizza and we were just chatting and one of them was looking out our eighth floor office onto Portage and Main and one said, 'I have never been this high in my life before'," Leitch said. "The program opens their eyes. They are great kids, full of enthusiasm and soaking it all up. They love it. You cant help but be inspired."
Leitch is not leaving the city. He will continue to chair the Royal Winnipeg Ballet where he is working at finding a new home for the professional division's residence. He also has professional contacts across the country gained after leaving the Mantioba government from serving in the B.C. government for five years and in Alberta where he revamped that provincial travel association and then chaired the Alberta-government led securities task force for the Council of Ministers of Securities Regulations for seven years.
In addition to trying to get all parties to see the need to treat the post-secondary educational system as a strategic asset to address the gaps in the skilled workforce, Leitch has also had serious engagement with the province on doing something to create a framework for better access to capital. In its recent pre-budget submission the BCM also reiterated its concerns about the mining industry in this province and that more needs to be done to ensure its development here.
"One of our buggaboos is that we need to get out act together on mining," he said. "We do not want to be a province that used to have a mining industry and that is the path we are sliding down."
But Leitch is encouraged by the province's now stated focus on economic growth and the prospect that some of the things he's worked on for years might even come to fruition.
"We've been having meetings recently that are hopefully leading to some really good stuff," he said. "Some of which we will hopefully see in the budget in the coming weeks."
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.
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