A Candid Conversation with Ian Telfer, former Chairman and CEO, Goldcorp Inc.
Published in Iconic Concierge, Summer Issue 2020
Welcome back to another edition of Creating Impact, Candid Conversations with Leaders in Life, Business and Philanthropy. Before we dive in, I first want to take a moment to extend my very best wishes and hope this finds you and yours safe and healthy. We, as humanity, are certainly in times unlike any other. In this issue, I am both humbled and excited to bring you another story of a big-hearted entrepreneur with a passion to create transformation on the planet and leave it a better place for future generations- something I believe is important now more than ever.
In early March, 2020, just before the world went into lockdown, I was in Palm Springs and had the fortunate opportunity to spend some time with Ian Telfer, former Chairman and CEO of Goldcorp Inc. Ian is a well-known Canadian mining entrepreneur and executive with a successful career spanning over three decades. During his time at Goldcorp, Ian led the company to become Canada’s top gold producer, prior to its acquisition in April, 2019, by Newmont Mining for USD $10B. Over his career, Ian developed a passion for philanthropy and sharing his success through giving back to people and organizations that made a difference in his life and others became a core focus both personally for Ian and for Goldcorp as a company. Throughout this candid conversation with Ian, his focus, drive and unique ability to lead were abundantly clear. What came through even stronger though were his humility, kindness and generosity of spirit- qualities of a leader that people truly want to follow.
Ian’s life journey begins in 1946 in Oxford, England. His father was a Scottish pilot in the Royal Air Force and had spent time living in Canada (Moosejaw, SK) training other Air Force pilots before being transferred back to the UK and meeting Ian’s mother on a blind date. The family lived in England until 1948 when Ian’s parents decided to move to Canada and after a five-year stint back in Moosejaw, they finally ended up putting down roots in Toronto.
Ian grew up in the upper-middle class area of Downsview where he remained until the end of high school, sharing that “I failed grade 13 and barely got into the University of Toronto”. Once he settled into U of T, he decided to join a fraternity and explained to me that “I was voted Most Likely to Fail by my fraternity brothers”. Eventually, Ian passed his final university exams in and had not a singled job lined up for when he graduated.
Over the next five years, Ian held many different jobs, including selling pharmaceuticals and even life insurance for London Life. After a short stint in Europe for “fun and work”, Ian found himself in Ottawa working for Prentice Hall, selling university text books. “Then one day I woke up and told myself I’d better get my act together”, he shared, “I always read Fortune and other business publications like that. One thing I noticed is that almost all CEOs started off as Brand Managers and then eventually became CEOs. I decided that I was going to become a CEO and start off first as a Brand Manager to get there”. Ian decided to go back to school to get his MBA. He wrote the GMATs and shared that he “did good enough” and then applied to 10 different business schools in Canada, every one of them turning him down.
At this point, it’s 1974, Ian is still with Prentice Hall and he shared, “I hated my job, I hated my life”. Then, on Labour Day of that year, he received a call from the University of Ottawa and “they have an opening in the business school! They also proceed to tell me that I have the worst marks ever for a graduate student and to please not embarrass them”. Ian is so grateful for the opportunity and explained, “I showed up, worked my ass off and at Christmas, I received a scholarship into the MBA program”.
It’s now the summer of 1975 and Ian is working for Bata Shoes. He has also just met his soon to be wife, Nancy on a blind date, ironically, just as his parents had met back in 1944. He has been working diligently in pursuit of his Brand Manager aspirations, sending letters to stalwart companies like Colgate, General Mills, Lever and Proctor & Gamble. Ian shared “at the time I was 28/29 years old. I got a bunch of interviews and both Colgate and Proctor & Gamble gave me job offers calling on Eastern Ontario drug stores. My response to them was, I already did that job! Forget it, I’m not doing that job”. He decided to reach out to some of his friends to get their thoughts on what he should do next. One of his friends suggested he get his Chartered Accountant designation, “so I did!” Ian shared, “In 1976 I wrote the CA exam and I passed! I started working right away at a firm called Thorne Riddell and then in 1979, a mining company called Hudson Bay Mining called. I took the job right away in the role of financial analyst”.
Ian worked at Hudson Bay Mining until 1983 when a chance arose that he couldn’t pass up, “so I moved to Brazil with Nancy and our one-year old son”. Ian shared, “I had an opportunity to work with Eike Batista, and we formed a company called TVX Gold. It was an incredible experience, we lived there for five more years, learned Portuguese, had a ton of fun and adopted our other son. At that time, TVX merged with INCO and I felt it was time to return to Canada so in 1990, Nancy and I moved back to Toronto with our two boys”.
Shortly after returning to Toronto, Ian received a call from well-known mining entrepreneur Robert Friedland. Ian shared, “I was bored at the time so in 1993, I moved to Vancouver and joined Friedland in a company called Vengold. We raised money at one dollar, went to Venezuela, drilled and found…NO GOLD!. The stock then eventually to dropped to five cents. We then decided to start a new project in Papua New Guinea through Vengold, run by Rio Tinto. The stock ran and then eventually gold prices dropped and the stock ended up at six cents”.
It was now 1999 and the internet was coming fast online. At that time, Ian decided to launch an internet start-up called Itemus, using the same shell company as Vengold with the share price starting at six cents. He joked, “at that time we asked, does Canada have an internet? The stock went on a nice run from six cents to five dollars and we invested in a number of different internet/IOT companies. Then, in July 2001, with the Dot-Com bubble bursting, the company went bankrupt”.
Ian was now 55 years old and he shared that at that point in life, “I had two kids in Collingwood School and no job. I sold my house in West Vancouver and moved into a rental. Then, around 2002, I reconnected with Frank Giustra. We knew each other from the mining industry and Frank had called and told me he’d always wanted to work with me.” Ian and Frank then started Wheaton River Minerals and Ian said “we bought EVERYTHING. We kept on buying, acquiring a lot of assets, continued buying and acquiring and then, in 2005, we merged with Goldcorp”. After the merger, the offices were moved from Toronto to Vancouver. “It was incredible”, Ian shared,” when we started Wheaton, our market cap was $10M and at one point, Goldcorp hit a market cap of $50B. We grew from six to 20,000 employees”.
At this point in our candid conversation, there was a natural segue from business to philanthropy. Ian shared with me, “what I’m most proud of is that from 2002 to 2019, Goldcorp gave away over $100MM to charity. I was thrilled that we were able to have the impact that we did. I believed that for Goldcorp, it was just part of being a good corporate citizen and in Vancouver, there were very few large corporate citizens”. It was incredible to learn just how substantial Goldcorp’s contribution to the community truly was under Ian’s leadership. He shared that “as Goldcorp grew, the charities didn’t really know about us at first, and then every year, and the next year, and the next year, and the next year, they learned about us and our giving and requested support…and we were thrilled to do it! The difference with Goldcorp was that all of the other major companies like BMO, Telus, Rogers, etc. had products to sell to the public, we were just doing it out of the goodness of our hearts”.
As the company continued its incredible growth, so too did its focus on charitable giving. “I absolutely pushed it at Goldcorp”, shared Ian, “we had an “eclectic” approach to giving, we did what felt good and really focused on staying in sync with our employees and the causes that mattered in their lives. As an example, we covered around 99% of the Special Olympics budget. We considered it as though we were “supporting friends” and my biggest concerns with the Newmont buyout were the future of the Goldcorp staff and the philanthropy”.
We then expanded the conversation from the corporate philanthropy at Goldcorp to personal philanthropy, which Ian and his wife Nancy passionately share in together. In opening this dialogue, he shared with me a story about a very unique call he received one day in the mid-‘90s, “ I’m in mining, living in Vancouver, it’s been about 20 years since I was at the University of Ottawa and I get a call from them. They ask, “is this Ian Telfer?” Yes, “Did you go to the University of Ottawa?”, Yes, “We’re setting up a $5,000 scholarship in your name, have you thought about your criteria?””. Ian paused for a moment to reflect and replied, “I want the scholarship to go to the student who is accepted into the MBA program with the lowest marks!”. After the faculty at the University of Ottawa heard about this, they put Ian on their “radar” and the next time the dean was on a trip to Vancouver, he asked Ian to have lunch to open communication between him and the university.
Ian then fast-forwards the conversation to around 2005, “it was around the time the TV show The Apprentice started. I decided to create a posting for the MBA graduates that one student could apprentice under the CEO of Goldcorp. I go to the University of Ottawa, interview and bunch of students end up hiring a woman who turned out to be fantastic. We ran the apprentice program for only another year and both of them are still in the mining business today”.
It’s now 2007 and through the MBA apprentice program, Ian shared that, “I got to know the school and the school got to know me. Then, one day, the dean says to me that no business school in Canada has been named after someone who went there”. This conversation then led Ian to make a significant mark with his desire to give back, donating $25M to his Alma Mater, the University of Ottawa’s School of Management. Following his generous gift, the name was changed to the Telfer School of Management.
“The triple irony was”, Ian said, “the guy who got turned down, then gave a scholarship to the student with the worst marks, now has his name on the building!”. Ian still returns to the school 2-3 times a year and said, “the students have a much stronger connection to the school when it’s names after a person. Invariably when I’m back there, someone comes up to me and says, “Mr. Telfer, I won your scholarship!” and I can’t help but smile and laugh a little”.
Ian and Nancy’s giving hearts are felt throughout the community, both at home in Vancouver and across Canada. They have been generous supporters of Collingwood School, Princess Margaret Cancer Centre and Lions Gate Hospital to name a just a few. Ian shared with me a few thoughts on their personal philanthropy, “All causes are deserving causes. I believe personal philanthropy is about things that touch your heart”. Today, through their Fernwood Foundation (Fernwood Road is the first street they lived on Toronto), education and healthcare are the main focuses of their giving. “Philanthropy doesn’t need to be complicated”, shared Ian, “today we just see things much more simply”.
At the completion of our candid conversation, I asked Ian to share two key takeaways for people, young and old, who want to give back and maybe even become philanthropists themselves. As I had expected they would, Ian’s words truly struck a chord with me and made me think a lot about how to look at giving from a new perspective. “Focus on things that are impactful to you. Do something where you feel a close connection to it, where it’s close to your heart. And, I believe that to the extent possible, giving should be very public. When you do something, put your name on it! This will encourage others and inspire them to do the same!”.