The never-retiring Susan Thompson moves on


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I've known Susan Thompson since we were kids growing up like family on the same St. James street, so I wasn't happy when I heard the rumour last summer.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 06/10/2011 (4077 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

I’ve known Susan Thompson since we were kids growing up like family on the same St. James street, so I wasn’t happy when I heard the rumour last summer.

After what I was told was finally confirmed, we spoke on the phone Wednesday about her earlier-than-scheduled departure as the CEO of the University of Winnipeg Foundation.

The official announcement was made Tuesday, strategically perhaps, on election day, on one of the busiest news days of the year. Thompson issued a statement to the university faculty and staff that accompanied a news release, but only internally. It was a gracious, even classy, farewell letter that thanked all concerned for their efforts in “surpassing all expectations” over the 81/2 years she led a team that raised more than $135 million and nearly doubled the endowment fund to $34 million.

BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Susan Thompson: ‘I’m not retiring’

Yet I wasn’t surprised that the female force who served as Winnipeg’s first female mayor from 1992 clear through the Flood of the Century to 1998 was departing six months short of completing a five-year contract extension. Mind you, Susan had alluded to it when we chanced to meet at the St. Charles Country Club on Friday night.

The rumour I had heard earlier this summer was that she was being replaced after an internal struggle involving more than one person. I heard Susan and U of W president Lloyd Axworthy weren’t getting along, which isn’t surprising given that they’re both big personalities working in the same sandbox.

Hence the appointment, starting next month, of Brian Daly, who has been the director of fundraising at the University of Victoria.

The customary job-well-done-and-thank-you quote in the news release was left to Sandy Riley, the chairman of the U of W Foundation and the man who recruited Thompson back in 2003 when he was the university’s chancellor.

At the time, the U of W had a $100-million deficit and its founding structure and face — Wesley College — was crumbling. So Riley, whom Thompson had appointed to head Winnipeg’s Pan American Games, reached out to Thompson while she was still serving as Canada’s consul general in Minneapolis.

The decision to replace her 81/2 years later couldn’t have been easy for Riley. Wednesday, over the phone, I asked Thompson if it was true she and Lloyd, who came along just after she was appointed, hadn’t got along.

“I make no comment on anything,” she said.

Ultimately, though, she went on to praise Axworthy’s leadership.

“The president of the university is the chief fundraiser,” she said. “And Lloyd did a remarkable job. Remarkable. As did all the team.”

If she was bitter, there wasn’t a trace of it in her upbeat voice.

She sounded proud of how she was tasked to create the foundation and a culture. How the initial goal was to raise $11 million. And how it turned out.

She told the story about the board meeting where the target trajectory was set by Leonard Asper. How in a room full of alpha millionaire males, Asper took off his coat, leaned back in his chair, rolled up his sleeves and declared that he wasn’t there to be part of the ordinary. He was there to do the extraordinary.

And suddenly the initial goal had soared to $36 million.

Her answer to the board’s challenge was to challenge the board.

If they wanted to have others give, they’d have to give themselves.

And give big.

They passed the hat right there.

Jim MacDonald, a vice-president at RBC Dominion Securities, was the first to ante up, with a million-dollar donation. Before they were finished though, the likes of Jim Richardson, Randy Moffat, Bob Kozminski and Doug Leatherdale, along with Asper and Riley, had given a third of the $36-million goal.

But that was yesterday.

What, at age 64, is Susan Thompson going to do now?

“I’m exploring my next chapter,” she said. “Because I’m not retiring.”

Realistically, she can’t retire. She refused to take a civic pension during her six years as mayor and she didn’t get one for her four years working for Foreign Affairs Canada.

“I am a self-made woman,” she said. “I’ll be working forever.”

She just doesn’t know where, yet.

And with that I give you my childhood friend.

The rarely shy — and never-retiring — Susan Thompson.

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