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The Interview with Kevin Weidlich

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Kevin Weidlich is President and CEO of the Wood Buffalo Economic Development Corporation. Tasked with increasing growth, innovation, prosperity and resilience of the economy of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, he seemed like the perfect person to feature in The Interview With… as part of our Growing Local Edition. He recently chatted with Managing Editor, Kerri Johnson-Leland; here’s what he had to say.

KJL - Kevin, tell us a bit about your life leading up to taking on your new role with Economic Development.

KW - I’m pretty lucky, I’ve had a very adventurous life and done many different things. I joined the Army Reserve at a young age. So I was able to serve in the army in places like Cyprus, Bosnia, and the Middle East. But even in my private sector career, I was able to have a lot of adventures. I had a small business in Mexico, consulted in London, and worked in France as a gardener, (not in that order). My career includes construction as both a project manager and business development manager, economic development with Edmonton Economic Development Corporation, and as a policy advisor in the Alberta Legislature. It is an eclectic career with common threads of leadership roles and undertaking complex jobs.


KJL - Tell us about your family, your hobbies, and the activities you’re most excited to do in our region.

KW - When it became apparent that this job opportunity was happening, my family got very excited. My wife, Gaylene, is pretty adventurous and was already talking with me about maybe moving and trying something new. We have 3 boys 13, 11, and 10 years old. They are young and this will be the first big move for them. But, I think they will love the community. There is so much for these kids to do.  My family loves skiing, and I expect the boys will join the local ski club and spend a lot of time at Vista Ridge.  We are also into golf and will spend lots of time on the golf courses here.  I would also like to explore the region. I’ve never fished, so now is the time to learn.


KJL - What are three key things you’ve brought with you in terms of experience or characteristics?

KW - My experience with marketing, project management, economic development, and policy work all come together in this role. I enjoy tackling complex problems and putting together simple actions that can solve those problems. It often takes leadership in both formal an informal ways to do that. For example, just last year, I was in Jordan, leading a small team of military advisors, to help the Jordanian Armed Forces with their northern defence strategy. It was a big undertaking, but within a few months, we put together a plan for Canada to contribute to Jordan’s defence goals. We put together supporting projects and I’m proud to say that many are underway today and they are really working out positively. I was also VP of Marketing at Edmonton Economic Development. We undertook the big problem of changing the perception of Edmonton as a cold, dark industrial city. Today, many recognize Edmonton for its entrepreneurial talent, artificial intelligence research, a creative and vibrant arts scene, and outstanding universities. This took a few years for our strategy to take hold, but now it is unstoppable.


KJL - Tell us about the people who make up the board and staff at Economic Development.

KW - This is an impressive group of people. Our Chair, Gregg Saretsky is an outstanding leader and he has given me great guidance since the very first day I started. I’m fortunate as I also have known a few for several years and have worked with them in different capacities in the past. I worked with retired Major-General Tim Grant in the army and I often met with James Rajotte when I was a policy advisor. These leaders are very approachable and really helpful.  Doreen Cole from Syncrude is very insightful and has given me a lot of help understanding the nature of the oilsands business and how it directly affects the community. We also have several board members from the community who are very knowledgeable about the community and how business gets done here. I really rely on them. Ron Quintal brings an indigenous perspective that is critical to our success as well as his own business acumen. Andrew Boutillier, Kristi Hines, Doug Allen, and Dan Foutts bring their business experience and practical knowledge to the table. I think they might actually know everyone in town! They keep us grounded. And they man who helps us to take-off is of course, RJ Steenstra, the CEO of the Fort McMurray International Airport. The Airport is a critical economic enabler and ensures we are well connected to the country. Our efforts will dovetail with each other. My staff are all very impressive too. Within days of starting, many in the community told me that I’m lucky to have a team of rock stars. Amanda Haitas, Erin Morris, Natasha Hartson, and Lisa Sweet are my economic development team. They each bring a lot of talent and they are already tackling some pretty big projects. Soon we’ll be welcoming some staff back from leave, and at the end of March we will integrate tourism into our team. I’m really looking forward to that.


KJL - What is Economic Development’s vision for the next five years or so?

KW - I’m in the middle of creating and defining my vision. But at this early stage it is something like this: To awaken Canada to Fort McMurray and our region and what we mean to the country. Our country must know that our industry is the largest contributor to our economy and our nation’s growth relies on us. And our region is also far more vibrant and diverse than anyone in our country realizes. We need to change that perception.


KJL - How do you plan to execute it?

KW - I call it a bowling pin strategy. We cannot do everything, but we can pick a few items that will have knock-on effects. For example, arming residents with language and stories to tell about our region creates a marketing team the size of our entire population. Another priority is to pursue retail investment into our region. Everywhere I go, I hear that residents would prefer to stay here to shop if only there were more opportunities to do so. There is a lot more to do, and we’re developing the plan.


KJL - Why should residents and taxpayers invest in the vision of Economic Development? How does it impact them?

KW - As I mentioned, we’re refining the vision, that will be based on input of our residents. It’s important to participate, because if we are successful, we will achieve economic growth at a faster rate that what would otherwise take place. The economic impact of some our projects will be far greater than our operational funding.


Fast Facts with Kevin

What is your favourite local restaurant?

Well that’s a tough one to answer. I’m just getting to know the restaurants here and I’m impressed. I really enjoyed Asti Trattoria Italiana, Surekha’s on the Snye, and East Village Pub and Zee Bar in ANZAC. So far they are all really good. I’m looking forward to going to Wood Buffalo Brewing pretty soon too. I will say that I’m eating out way too much lately because the restaurants are so good!


What’s your favourite movie?

I love classic movies and especially adventure thrillers. “Too Late the Hero” and “A Bridge Too Far” are go-to favourites.


What’s the best way to spend a Saturday in Fort McMurray?

Go to MacDonald Island Park, and participate in the many events there, and of course get some exercise!


Who is your hero?

I look up to many people, but I don’t really have a hero. Of the people I know, I look up to my Dad. Of famous people, Winston Churchill, Dwight Eisenhower.


What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

If something isn’t working, stop, walk away and think. Then try a different approach.


Favourite meal?

I love a good red curry.


Kerri has always enjoyed a good story, and favours jotting them down on paper where her thoughts become way more organized. She has always called Alberta home, and delights in the tales that come from there. In her free time, Kerri daydreams, rides bikes, goes on long walks, and cries over videos about dogs. She also donates her time to raising two pretty fantastic kids who call her "mom".