During this podcast, Andy shares his experience of growing up and then leaving the Island to pursue a law career on Bay Street in Toronto. Like many islanders, he returned years later to work at his family business. He shares with us his interesting journey to eventually becoming president of the company.
Andy talks about how the pandemic forced Proline to quickly innovate by removing paper-based processes so that they (and others in their industry) could operate remotely. He uncovers some of the challenges and successes of transitioning to a fully-remote workforce and then describes the return to the workplace — a return that has put into question the very purpose of an office space. This reconciling happens just as they embark upon the construction of a new head office on the Westshore, which may carry unexpected consequences.
Dave, Paul and Andy speak about the generational shifts in management and underline the importance of focus, setting goals and finding meaning outside busy business lives.
Click to read the full transcript
Paul: And welcome back to the latest episode of Island Thrive, serving the Vancouver Island Business and broader community. My name is Paul homes, and with me on this episode is Dave Monahan, the President of Smart Dolphins. Dave, how are you doing today?
Dave: I’m great, thanks Paul.
Paul: Outstanding and joining us also today is a very special guest, Andy Spurling, who is the president of Proline Management, a family-run business here on Vancouver Island actually, in the residential property space. Andy how are you doing today?
Andy: I’m really good, thanks, Paul.
Paul: Great, so we were chatting right before the episode, a little bit about your past and how things have gone forward in your life, and with this latest pandemic situation, there is a bit of a unique story with what happened with you personally and within your business, so why don’t we begin. Tell our listeners that really cool story?
Andy: Perfect. Well, like you say, I’m in a family-run business, I have been since 2007, so a little over 13 years, and I joined the family business, I think many people join family businesses, which is at the bottom, because you need to prove yourself and work your way up, and I didn’t really know what job I was even looking for at that time, but over the course of my time here, I was able to figure out where I felt my strengths are, find the things that really made me happy, feel my passions, like all those wonderful self-realization things you think about when you think about really driving a business, and pushing a dream. I had worked myself ultimately into what for me felt like my perfect position, and then like every business things happen and when you’re the owner and you’re running a company, you’ve got to step up sometimes to do different things. And about mid-February, we had somebody who’d been with us for a long time that was leaving, and we didn’t have anybody to take their portfolio of clients, and so I was asked if that was something I would consider doing. I agreed to do it. There’s going to be a transition of course, I like everything. He fell in the bathroom, broke his leg, got a concussion, and so he was out immediately. And so it was sort of like when I started in the company, here’s a portfolio, figure it out, and at least I knew what I was doing a little bit is time, so I jumped back in and that was February 20th and then on March 13th, for everybody, things started to really accelerate in terms of change. And so at that point, not only am I running a business, it’s having to transition really from a complete in-person experience to a fully remote one, as well as managing a portfolio of buildings that’s blown at the same time, and so it was incredibly hectic and exciting in lots of ways. It’s taught me a whole bunch of things on both sides in terms of, I think what to do and what not to do. And here I am, five months later on the precipice of a vacation, which feels really necessary right now.
Paul: And for those listening, we’re recording the day before Canada Day, and Andy, thankfully, by the sounds of it, thankfully is taking the day off.
Paul: It’s interesting (having run businesses myself, and of course, Dave runs Smart Dolphins) there is some value in getting into the weeds and having more roles in the company because you have that operational insight that you don’t always get when you’re standing at the top and counting on the people under you. Maybe talk a little bit about that and how maybe in better world, you might strike a balance with keeping your finger on the pulse of what’s going on in the company, but not getting consumed by it, you probably got some real good insights on that at the moment.
Andy: Yeah, I think there’s a real balance to be had, and I think a lot of it probably depends on your natural propensities. As much as I don’t like to think this, I think a lot of entrepreneurs probably find themselves in what we might call “the perfectionist space,” or that “needs to control,” and those are things I have worked out of myself in lots of ways, but when I’m at the client service level, I find it really tough to move particularly out of the perfectionist part. And so one of my challenges the whole time in transitioning fully in the president role was moving from me my last few clients. Ones for me I even had some historical connections with…places that I’d worked as a kid when I was 14 at the ground, and I met these people and so known them for 30 years of my life, to walk away was really challenging unless I felt they could be in the perfect situation and eventually got to that place.
But it’s been an amazing insight into some of the changes we’ve made since I transitioned out of that role. I think I did the role very differently than most people in our organization did because I had the benefit of an executive assistant, for example, and so I could be outside of the normal processes, and so it’s really hard to experience them first-hand in that way, that isn’t my case right now. I’ve been attempting to do the job within our normal processes, and it really shines a light for me on things that we’re doing really well and some changes that we made that were really great, but some other areas where changes that appeared great in theory, in practice, create some significant problems. And so I’m excited at some point, and I don’t know in that point is, to be able to transition out of having this full portfolio of clients. So I know now what my priorities will be as a pure business owner and leader in terms of changes that we need to make, in some cases, their tweaks, and in other cases, I think there’s massive shifts and how we service our internal clients, as well as our external clients.
Dave: That really resonates with me, same kind of story of having to get in the weeds, not necessarily because we lost somebody, but just a sense of, this is a very…there are points in time that have different weights. And I learned a similar thing, and trying to pick out the lessons of how to change from the perspective of as a leader, one of the things I thought was useful was to try to make decisions as close to the action as possible. I think we’ve been maybe a little top heavy in that in the past, so it’s one of the things I’m trying to shift in the organization, and that actually also helps me get out of the weeds. I’m not sure if that’s helpful for you, but you’re also having the challenge of trying to hire somebody back and get them onboarded like a long-term employee. What is your thinking there? It’s going to be a challenge.
Andy: Yeah, well, this is where some of my perfection and a control freak elements don’t help. We had hired somebody that was going to help me and takeover, but I think one of the other things that I have, and this might be a generational thing, I’m a pretty solidly Generation X, but I feel like I need to work with people who can read my mind, I feel like I need to be married to people who can read my mind and luckily I am now so that works really well. I’ve had assistants that I’ve worked with in the past as well that bring that to the table. They know what I’m going hold onto, that I shouldn’t. They know what I’m going to do that I shouldn’t, and they make sure that those things don’t even get to me. It’s that protecting you from yourself, and so I think that it’s been… It’s challenging. I totally understand. Like I can’t imagine being that person who is hired to come in and your role is to impress the owner of the company and take this load off them, but to do it perfectly from the start.
It’s been a great opportunity for me. I do have somebody I’m working with right now, I think that has the potential to do that, but it’s that reminder that the feedback needs to be extensive, it needs to be kind of honest. And I think that in a lot of what I’m doing right now, part of it, the part of making decisions close to the action does resonate with me a lot. One of the things that I used to do is ask myself all kinds of mental questions, and my life is a series of intellectual rabbit holes that I find myself barreling down and I love it, but it’s not always sunshine and lollipops. And so instead of just asking myself these questions, I’ve just started asking those people close to the action, those questions, and so we’ve got this team of people that are leading all these teams, and instead of just going around my own mental mary-go-round, it’s been that opportunity to say, “what if we are doing this wrong?” “but what if instead of preventing turnover, the way we’ve tried to structure that, this is actually encouraging turnover?” And really asking those questions about the importance of internal relationship building in terms of job satisfaction versus efficiency and productivity and really trying to strike a balance that creates a quality work product in a pretty simple way, but also really nurtures human relationships.
And it’s one of the things I think this whole pandemic has done. It’s made us all of us ask ourselves what relationships are important? Are relationships more important than things? Is the goal productivity or feeding a family? For us, we work in a relationship industry, most of our clients are long-term, we have 35-year clients, we have 30 year clients, we have 25-year clients. It’s not transactional in any way, and so to build an organization that ideally creates those same relationships internally, I think is as important as it is building them externally. And asking the questions, I think has been a great part of that. I really forced myself to dive into conversations with a broader group of people as a result of this experience,
Paul: You’ve definitely tapped into the theme this podcast so far, which has been this change that’s been forced upon us, but really in the process has opened up the window for us to examine everything, and obviously within our businesses, but even just looking at our values and looking at what’s important in our lives, all the different various aspects, nothing like a pandemic to pause for some self-reflection, right? And really ask yourself when it comes to business like, we’ve been doing it this way for the last 20 years, now we can’t do it this way because we’ve got this code 19 protocols etc…But it really opens up the opportunity to say, “well, maybe there is a better way to do this anyway.” And of course, one of the big macro things which is going affect different industries in different ways is: should you have more staff working remotely? Is there a better a way to organize your workforce, using those communication tools and those technologies that are at your fingertips as well? But I think you’ve really tapped into that, and that’s definitely been a theme. I feel like if you come out of this pandemic running your business exactly the same way you did when you went into the pandemic, you’ve missed an opportunity… Right?
Andy: Absolutely. I would say in the first two weeks of the pandemic, we got to implement things that we talked about doing over the next five years. The amount of learning in that first 14 days was incredible. Yeah, it was…And I think for a lot of people, for me anyways, it was a high that I surfed. As my hobby, I run long distances, so I get out in the forest and run for 100 kilometers, and it makes for a fun day. It creates a little bit of challenge. But there’s always this weird thing where if you’re going to a 50-kilometer race, you cross the finish line and it’s like you can’t go any farther, and then you go to a 100 kilometer race and you cross the finish line and I walk into the parking lot seems impossible, which is ridiculous, because you just ran 100 kilometers. I felt like every day from a business perspective was that. I was getting up, coming into the office making what felt like a thousand decisions, which absolutely fuels me, it was thrilling in a lot of ways, and then I would get home and I would think, I’m just going to sit down for a second, and then I was out. And that was every day. I couldn’t go any farther. The ego depletion was complete. I think as human beings, we make more decisions than were intended to just living a modern life. But it was that exponentially day after day after day. And while it was exciting it also hit that point where it just got to be too much. But the learning in those first six weeks of that was incredible, and just to be able to shift from a fully in-person workforce to a fully remote one, with all of the process change that entailed was exciting and demonstrated a huge capability which for us was benefited by…you mentioned at the beginning, we are a Victoria-based company, but we are all over the Island, and so we got to take the work that we didn’t even know we were doing in setting up branch offices and figuring out how can Courtenay work with Victoria effectively. So we at least had a little bit of a head start when things hit in terms of our ability to run our business.
The other cool thing I thought the pandemic brought out in our industry was there was all these other business owners that I knew through different boards and industry organizations, but all of a sudden we were sharing information, we were sharing work product, we were meeting weekly to talk about what we were doing. Like for example, with payment of supplier invoices, it was a manual process for everybody. We have an IT guy that I had coded a software program for us to be able to do it remotely because we had four offices. So, all of the sudden I’m able to say, “here’s a software platform you can integrate it. Talk to our guy, he’s willing to help you do it.” Let’s try to raise people up, we are sharing notices, communications. We became instantly public health authorities in terms of our residential communities, and so we were learning about epidemiology and it was all kind of coming to bare, but the way that it brought an industry together – we’re still having those weekly meetings as a group. And happily, it’s not all about Covid-19 anymore, we’re actually branching off into other areas and being able to offer that kind of mutual support and inside it seems like it lowered a lot of walls, which was pretty amazing because I don’t think they ever needed to be there in the first place.
Dave: Yeah, and so that leads into where I want to go next, like what do you see looking forward. This pace, if sprinting marathon doesn’t work. So how do you see transitioning as a company from massive change really quickly to more sustainable change, but still hanging onto that thread, I think we all are learning that we can change more quickly and more effectively. How do you see striking that balance and what specifics do you see sort of doing that in the next six months, a year?
Andy: Yeah, I think for a lot of members of our team, the remote working part is going to be here to stay. Certainly not for everybody. We have, what would be a more classic 9-5 style admin/accounting/ support teams that just work regular days. And then we have property managers that have always had very flexible hours and very unique hours. For example, tomorrow is July 1st, people move on July 1st. And so if you’re a rental manager, it’s not just, “well, it’s a holiday, so we’re not moving,” people are moving. It’s always been that kind of flexible job, the remote tools that we have in place now, and the way we’ve seen people be able to do those jobs specifically opens up a lot more freedom for people. And even in the way that we serve some of our clients. We used to get people from Port Hardy, for example, who would say, “can you help us out?” And our reality was, “we can’t help you out because driving to Port Hardy, it just doesn’t make sense economically.” We look at what we can do with Zoom meetings and how effective those have been, and for people in remote areas of the whole province that aren’t finding service that they trust, that they feel good about, all of a sudden we can deliver something to them. I don’t think quite as effectively as an in-person experience, but pretty darn close and maybe a lot more effectively than what’s available to them in their marketplace. So it’s definitely expanded our scope of where we can work, as well as where we can hire people. Victoria can be a really challenging place to find people on the admin side, particularly when government hiring booms are going, which happens at seemingly all of the worst times for us business people. So that ability to be able to hire somebody who is in a place like Fort St. John, that is great at what they do, they love where they live, maybe it’s Port Alberni, you can all the sudden have these people on your team that can still connect more frequently.
We do a Tuesday morning staff meeting every week, and that’s just always what we’ve done, and it’s typically been in-person at our head office. There was 35-40 people in a room, then there was 20 people on a screen, but it created a real situation of “here’s this main group, and then there’s the other,” and you’d call on the other, but it was a very disjointed experience. The team’s experience of a Tuesday morning staff meeting, I still end up doing most of the talking, but it gets really easy to bring other people in and give them center stage rather than talking from a screen or feeling like they’re trying to talk to 40 people, they can’t hear one of the 40 people that’s speaking, when somebody has the floor in a Team’s meeting, everybody can hear it, and as much as I’m personally not great at following chats, or using the chats. It is also pretty cool to see that as you’re celebrating somebody’s birthday, or you’re celebrating somebody’s anniversary, there’s all these little gifts that are happening and people are individually able to chime in and offer their congratulations, their best wishes. I don’t see ever transitioning back from that as our Tuesday morning meeting, because it actually feels more inclusive, and I think that for any technology that we can use to bring us closer, that we’re going to keep. And that’s sort of one concrete example of a change that we’re not going back from.
Dave: Yeah, it’s interesting I just had a conversation this morning with my peer group via email about this question because there’s a lot of companies that have sort of failed with the remote workforce, they’re struggling, and then many that are like, “we’re never going back,” and I think most are probably some kind of hybrid, just kind of wondering what you think about, maybe it’s a secondary question, but just, I guess utility of your office now, does that change for you? We are pondering hybrid sort of hot swapable offices, people can come in and that type of thing, and also just generally the culture, you spoke to it in the meeting, but the other aspects you of how your maintaining the good culture you’ve had? How are you tackling that?
Andy: Yeah, that’s also a very “now” relevant question for us. The other thing that we did on February 15th and then opened on March 1st was a temporary office in the Westshore, because we were just about to demolish our office out there and rebuild a new head office, and so that that construction piece is going on. So we have another 12,000 sq. ft office coming our way over the next year, and it is one of those internal navel-gazing exercises in terms of what is that going to look like now? When we were creating that space, one of the things that we have designed into it is the ability to have more informal gathering, and so we recognize that the office space isn’t meant to just be a cubicle farm, and I think that notion of office space…hopefully it’s dead. I know real estate is expensive, so it might not be, but it’s not the most inspiring environment to be in. So we had designed into our office space a massive lunch area with the ability to cook food, and so the bridges and stoves and be able to do cooking classes have fresh food on it and hope to re-institute that notion of people gathering together to eat, I think there’s still a huge power in breaking bread together. So we want to want to create that. That office space also contemplated a library, coffee, music area to meet with clients in an informal setting for people just to chill out in an informal setting, so I think those parts of our design will be important. The big question, because how much space do we ultimately need? And we don’t know the answer to that. Once daycares opened there was a number of people who are very excited to get back to work in the office. And I would say that we were down over our four offices to maybe having eight people working in person at the beginning of the pandemic, which would have left about 55 people working remotely. We’re probably up to 22 people working in the office right now. We’ve hired five people since the start of the pandemic, and even though you can do some training remotely…that seems to be one area where in-person touch points, at least at the beginning, are pretty crucial when you think of how much there is to learn in virtually any new job, it’s pretty tough when I think when you’re in your own home. So yeah, that was initially how we were bringing people. And we’re lucky to have enough space that it’s really easy to socially distance. On the client side, it’s fascinating as well, some clients love being able to meet by Zoom and not having to leave and the flexibility that creates and others despise it. And so it’s an interesting position to be in as well with that pressure of, when can you be in person again, when can’t you and trying to navigate all of the different guidelines that we get from regulators and worksafe and public health authorities makes those questions still hard to answer as well.
Paul: It’s interesting, I give a talk called the “workplace of the future.” And we talk about that in that talk about what is the function of an office? And effectively, the function of an office is collaboration, and yet we’ve got tools like Teams and many others, of course, which their function is collaboration, but it doesn’t replace the in-person experience. Right, but in some ways, you can actually enhance it, like you talked about for meetings and such…The ability to really showcase the person that’s speaking and stuff like that, there’s a number of things where technology can actually provide a better overall experience, and then there’s definitely cases where we need to have that in-person ability, that one-on-one and small groups and breakouts and exercises and team-building and all that sort of stuff, which is really, really hard for technology to replicate. So it’s definitely going to be striking a balance in the future in terms of how we approach that.
Andy: I love that idea. One of the mental rabbit holes that I find myself in a lot is: the office is one part collaboration, though the other thing that I’m starting to wonder is, is the office also a major part focus. Distraction is such a challenge, I think, for everybody now. We’ve just got these things in our pockets that are vying for our attention constantly, and being at home creates that easy ability, “I just going put on some music, I’ll just put on a show in the background.” Does the workplace of the future create a space where we can actually insulate ourselves from all of that noise and focus. Because I say, I think collaboration virtually is a lot easier than focusing virtually, and so that’s another thing that we’re playing with our office is “what kind of focus spaces can we create for people that feel warm, that feel friendly, that don’t have a phone, that don’t have a computer, they’re maybe disconnected from all of these things that are just constantly asking for our attention and really for most part, I think people are giving them that attention. This pandemic for me has been a re-immersion in distraction. I was pretty great before, I knew no news. My phone got ignored more than it got paid attention to.
It’s been interesting on Teams meetings and using Zoom meetings as well, because it creates that opportunity and sometimes almost an incentive to multi-task, and as human beings I think lots of us think we’re good at it, neurologically, we know that it’s not possible to do. But it is interesting, when you’re on an internal Teams meeting and they’re reading their email, they’re checking their phone. It’s much easier to not be present if that’s your go-to than it is when you’re sitting around a table. It becomes another part of the future workplace is when you need everybody’s attention get them in a room without their phones.
Paul: Years ago, I read a study, it was probably five years ago, six years ago, it a study, an article about a study and they had studied goldfish and people and discovered that goldfish actually had a better, longer attention span, then people did.
Dave: Yeah, the question of focus is an interesting one because we have tease out from this really strange experiment we tried very quickly in an reactive sense, what the potential could be if we took some time to set it up. Well, so the idea of focus at home is difficult maybe more so than at the office, but if you knew in a year, you had to work from home and you could potentially move to a different place that had a separate office, maybe even distant from the kitchen or whatever might be distracting you. So that’s where I think there’s some Smart Dolphins that have done really well at home because they’ve already had that. Whereas others, like Paul had a separate room and had worked at home already a little bit, but other people are just kind of thrown into their kitchen, so obviously that’s not what we would optimize. So it’s hard to know from this crazy experiment what we can tease out, I don’t know. What are your thoughts on that?
Andy: I totally agree. I think it’s very individual-specific as well. We have a couple of people here that… It’s not even just that they’re thriving, working from home, they’re excelling beyond any reasonable expectation at home in a way that they just didn’t and or couldn’t in an office environment, so I can think of five or six people that if they asked to come back to the office, you’d ask why?
What are you hoping to achieve from this, because what we’re seeing from you at home is truly incredible, and I think that a lot of that is specific to the individual, whether it be circumstance or personality, or approache, kind of inherent motivation.
Yeah, for people with kids it’s been really tough. My wife has been working throughout this whole thing. We have three boys, and they’ve also been at home as a result for all of this as well. But for her, it became she couldn’t work the way she had before, and so she was willing to be flexible about it to make it work. So for her, it meant instead of working her regular hours, she was up at 5 in the morning and between 5:00 and 7:30, any of the focus work that she needed to do to be prepared for meetings throughout the day, she had to get done because once the kids were awake, you couldn’t plan on any consistency. So even though we ever set up in a separate workspace, she’s got all the technology tools that she needs, but as anybody with kids now, they’re unpredictable, their only predictability might be that they’ll need you at the time where you most need them, not to need you. So that’s how she’s made it work, so she has this very strange day where she has outcomes that she needs to achieve and she can achieve them by being really flexible, but it requires a lot of sacrifice, I think. When you see people who’ve tried to execute the normal work day with a non-normal home situation is where the most friction occurs. If your approach is, I work between 8:30 and 5:00, and so if my kids distract me…my kids distract me, I can’t do anything about that. It’s virtually impossible. And so I think that becomes the individual discussion to have going forward. Almost what’s your plan, what is your remote work plan?
And be willing to ask some of the hard questions rather than hope that they’ll just resolve themselves or they won’t be a big deal. Because I think we’ve learned throughout a lot of this that a lot of those little things are really big deals and paying attention to the little details is probably the most important part of most processes.
Paul: Definitely so many lessons. And we could go on and on. I think we’d be remiss if we didn’t talk a little bit more about Proline and your background as well Andy. You mentioned earlier your Gen X of course, all of us are on this call… sandwiched between the baby boomers and the millennials who outnumber us enormously…
Andy: Where’s Dave’s black t-shirt?
Dave: I don’t know.
Andy: We’ll have to photoshop it on.
Paul: But obviously very different mental context coming from GenX, and I know it was your father started the business in 1985. Eric and, and you took over, I guess, four years ago as president…So a family business, maybe talk a little bit about that change and but also, I think dig in a little bit to the generational change as well. What’s great about your situation is you know how the business is ran by the generation before or the generations before, how are you running it differently? And how much of that is just Andy or how much of that is maybe that sort of GenX influence and would apply maybe to other general approach that GenX might take to running businesses?
Andy: Yeah, for anybody that’s worked with a family member, it’s a really unique experience, and I think that even though each one of those experiences is unique in and of itself, there’s some pretty similar commonalities that arise and a difference in values and approaches often tends to be one of them.
And we’ve been lucky in lots of ways, and we’ve had challenges in others. My story of coming back into the business is its own weird thing, I was a lawyer in Toronto, I had just had an accidental baby, I didn’t know anybody that had kids, and I went from being this guy living in a city that worked on Bay Street and then went and saw like music when he could and virtually never ate at home or was at home to somebody with a child. And all of a sudden, it was this immediate value shift where the importance of family took on a whole new meeting for me. And so I started thinking about, “Do I want to go back and work?” I was with Bell Canada as a lawyer at that time. “Do I want to work in Vancouver? Or do I want to go back to Victoria?” And if I go back to Victoria, I don’t want to be a lawyer, because I understand in Vitoria, the lawyers do lawyer things like study and read the law and execute, where as I was doing transactional law, that just doesn’t exist here on that level.
Paul: When you went into law, was that your plan or was your plan to be sort of a corporate type lawyer? What was your mindset when you went to law school?
Andy: My mindset when you went to law school was very different, it turns out than most lawyers. I finished university, I did a history degree, I had no idea what I wanted to do, but to celebrate being done university, I knew I was going traveling with my girlfriend of the time, and before we were going to leave, I went on a backpacking trip with one of my best friends on the Juan De Fuca trail and then one day on Sambrio as we were passing through there, my dad and his friend showed up because my girlfriend’s dad had died unexpectedly. And so all of a sudden it was just that moment in life where like: “Life is fleeting, life is short. I need to figure out what I’m going to do and I have no idea.” So cue existential crisis, number 13, or whatever it would have been at that point. And so I just thought, “what am I going to do? What am I going to do? And I was like everybody’s always said “you should be a lawyer. You love to argue every single point.” So I looked up the LSAT.
Paul: Same reason I thought of becoming a lawyer. But I didn’t do it because I argued my way out of it.
Andy: Yeah, I eventually did. So I looked up when the next LSAT exam was it was in six weeks, I was like, “I’ll write the LSAT and see how I do. And if I do well, then I should go to law school and if I don’t, then I won’t.” And so I did well, I got into law school and I decided I was going to go to law in Toronto, because the only thing I knew about it was that it was the biggest city in Canada, and it sucked in every way. I knew nobody who’s ever been there, but I was positive of those two things. So I knew if I’m going to be this guy who lives in Victoria forever, I should at least go somewhere else so that I can say “yeah, I was right.” And I gave myself one year. If I go to law school and I hate it – I’m out. But I had no horse in the game finishing law school. And so I get to law school, it’s an incredibly entertaining experience to go to law school because there’s a lot of interesting people that join you there, most of whom have parents that are lawyers. And there’s the common fight, my dad was a lawyer and my mom was a teacher, and they were fighting over whether I go to Teachers College or I go to law school, and my dad went here. My mom’s a lawyer, my dad’s a teacher. My mom went. And so I’m in law school, and so that’s most of the kids that you go there with, and I was just this kid that came from a family in Victoria where my mom was a nurse and my dad dropped out a university to be a painter because he got my mom pregnant. So that was sort of my history, so I got to law school thinking “If I finish, I’m going to be moving back to Victoria, getting a government job, because what else do you do? That’s kind of life.” And everybody was all about corporate law and Bay Street, and I had never actually heard of Bay street. I didn’t even know what it was. It turns out it’s a thing in Toronto where lots of business happens and there’s lots of tall buildings. And in my first year in law school, you go through and it’s all on the curve, you write these exams, I’ve been told by this one guy that, “Hey, if you know nothing else about law school, put all of your energy into the first year, because if you can land a summer job based on your first year grades, you just can coast the rest of the way, and these jobs pay well for the summer and then they pay for your articling.” And so as a kid, who was there paying for it myself on student loans, that sounds pretty good. And so I got good grades, and then I got a job at a corporate law firm.
And it was actually really interesting, I learned a ton, there was a slavish devotion to attention to detail, to work ethic, and for me mentally, it was a lot about putting together puzzles. So you’d have these…I worked in mergers and acquisitions. So it’s like, these guys want to buy these guys, here’s their issues, here’s these issues, how can we craft something that reflects all of those and protects everybody, and at the end of the day, and protects your client may be a little bit more. So I found it pretty intellectually rewarding.
Paul: I imagine you would have delved a lot into culture of the companies as well, right. Yeah, I mean, evaluating those deals, right.
Andy: A little bit in that. I think my biggest cultural lessons though were being in a law firm, and there were a lot of those lessons of, “if I had an organization, here’s what I would not do.” Law firms pay a lot of attention to billable hours, they pay a lot of attention to landing big clients, all of the extrinsic rewards of life are at the forefront. So it’s you become a junior partner and then you get a parking space in the basement of the skyscraper, which you’ll be able to put this car in and that’ll be the same car as everybody else, then I’ll buy a house in this neighborhood… And that’s really where the focus is. In the corporate law world, in my experience anyways, there was not a lot of intrinsic value, and there’s a lot of angry people, it’s a job you get yelled at a lot for little things. Is this a partner that likes common which or no common that. And you need to know those things because you’re in trouble if you don’t. And so, so even though I sweat the stuff intensely for myself, I’m pretty forgiving in that with others, and being part of what I would consider a pretty toxic environment was really illuminating. That was the lens that I was looking at things through, was this kid from Victoria growing up in a small business of culture, finding myself myself first in a law firm where the humanity didn’t seem to be respected, which is the worship of the dollar. From there, I transitioned…There’s lots of great people in those environments as well, and I had an amazing mentor there, he ended up going to Bell Canada and then got me a job at Bell Canada, and so I was working at a law department there, remarkable change in culture in terms of the way people are treated, the way people connect with each other. The way people work together.
But it was those first moments where I also thought, maybe I’m a small business person, like I… All of the things that these companies do to inflate earnings in a quarter to make things look better, to impress investors were all things that just didn’t make logical sense to me. I constantly found the advice I was having to give and how we were trying to protect the company from itself at odds with the way everybody was compensated in the way that whole…A multinational is set up. And that was some of the genesis of me thinking maybe small business in Victoria is right for me. But when you grow up with a dad who’s an entrepreneur and a workaholic, frankly, and your Gen X, your assumption is, or mine anyways, was well, I must not be an entrepreneur, because that’s not the life I want to choose for myself.
Paul: Well, there’s definitely that balance question… there’s the work harder. The e-myth, working on your business versus working in your business. All those sorts of balance things, and I feel like our parents’ generation was just about working hard. And it’s funny when you talked about working in a toxic environment and how you still manage to try to draw out some positive lessons from that. I think it’s similar with parents too, right. I learned everything I wanted to be as a parent from my parents and everything I didn’t want to be. And so very similar in business, you learn about… I think it’s great that you had that experience, right brcause you learned all the things you wanted to bring to that business, you learned a little bit about yourself in that journey, right, but then you also learned all the things you didn’t want to have in your business. Right. I think toxicity is one of those ones, it’s just kills a workplace. How many people jump out of a toxic workplace to go somewhere else because they just can’t be surrounded by that. So would you say landing back in Victoria and obviously working your way up in the family business to President today, you still carry some of those lessons with you?
Andy: Yeah, absolutely, I think that for anybody running a business, one of the challenges is that at a certain size anyways, you’re going to end up with negative people on your team, who are just naturally negative, and so how do you manage their impact on other people. There’s a book called “Connected,” which is maybe a little dense and heavy for a lot of people, but I always loved the central concept of it, which is the way you behave and act not only impacts those people around you, it impacts on people around them and the people around them, so it’s this tribal idea of as human beings, we impact this large expanding circle of people. And when you go to the goldfish analogy and the amygdala, we cease on the negative most quickly, and so if you’ve got a negative person in your mix they’re impacting a broad scope of your organization and they’re doing it quickly, whereas the impact of positive people is equally broad, but it’s a much slower burn. And so that has been one of those big challenges, I think when I’ve faced my own challenges, it’s always hard to be to like totally different than where you’re at mentally. But I remember having that moment where I realized that for Tuesday morning meeting, for example, even if I was having the worst day of my life and I had some of those going through a really difficult divorce, I wasn’t allowed to come to the office and be that person. Again, I think that just like a negative person spreads like a fire wild, leaders do as well. And so no matter what you’re feeling as a leader, I think it is your role in those moments to be what you want your organization to be, even if it feels impossible, which it frankly does sometimes. And I have definitively not gotten it right, and I continue to not get it right from time to time, but it’s one of those things I’m really cognizant of. Like before I turn on that camera for a today morning meeting, even if I feel like I’ve just been kind of kicked in the teeth, that’s not the meeting that I can run. And I really did see that working in a law firm, if somebody was angry they yelled. It didn’t help you in any way, in fact it did the exact opposite. Governing by fear is not going to create any sort of organization that most people are going to want be a part of.
Paul: Very demotivating to be in that environment for a certain personality type. I think some people probably respond differently to it, but now for people like me and probably most people, you get treated poorly. It’s not going to make you want to be a better person.
Andy: It’s incredibly confusing for a lot of people, because I don’t think the go-to is, “I wonder what has happened to that person that’s made them so unhappy that they’re yelling at me.” I think for a lot of people the go to is, “am I failure, I’m being yelled at?” It’s not an easy step to be constantly taking a step back and wondering what is it about that person that’s making them negative. The thing that it’s about is not the thing that it’s about. So what is it? And I think I’ve always been…That’s been one of my more natural questioning aspects, is I’m always curious about where people are coming from. And so it made it easier, I think in a lot of ways to learn lessons in an environment like that, because I just thought I would go down that road, maybe they’re unhappy, why are they unhappy well they are probably not doing the job they want to do. Do I want to be that person or not that person so you start pulling away at the layers, and…
Paul: Sometimes people just have a really bad day.
Andy: That’s true.
Paul: And you’re the person standing in front of them, taking the grunt of their day.
Andy: A hundred percent.
Paul: Well, I think we could go on forever. Dave, you go next here, because I’m afraid we’re running out of time.
Dave: Yeah, I was just going to say, Andy and I have had some great lunches and coffees and chatted, and that’s what I wanted to capture today, it’s been great… exactly this, except I want to do it for another three or four hours, but maybe we will pause and we can have you back. Maybe just wrap up with…I’m trying to picture the average business person listening to this, what could be a few takeaways you’d suggest, some lessons from 2020 and maybe even going back further, some of your principles that might not be obvious to most?
Andy: Yeah, I guess there’s a few things that come to mind and because I spend so much time in my brain, I think sometimes I think that everything is obvious to everybody, and so it can make it tough sometimes to distill what those things are. But one of the things that I think often surprises me is people’s strained relationship with the idea of goals, whether it’s organizational goals or personal goals or just any sort of vision for the future. And I think that one of the things that served us really well is that we’ve been a goals-based organization for a long time, and when I say that, I don’t mean in terms of quarterly targets and things like that, but we’ve had a painted picture for the last 10 years, that’s changed, but it’s really just like our imaging of – in an amazing world, where are we in three years or where were we going be in five years? And by drawing out this map of where we want to go, what we want things to look, feel, smell, what we want the touch to feel like, how we want our customers to feel, how we want our teams to feel… It was that approach that really ended up putting in place a bunch of things that served us well when a pandemic hit. So if we start imagining if well we want to be everywhere in the Province, what are we going to need to do that, we’re going need to leverage some technology, well, what can that look like in our industry? Okay, well, we need to get these processes which are paper-based across the whole industry and figure out a way to do them between Courtenay and Victoria and Nanaimo and Victoria or even just Langford and Victoria…they aren’t far away, but when one person sitting in one office and another and another…You need to be able to make those things work.
And so by having that approach to our business when a real kind of calamity hit and don’t get me wrong, our business is a little bit different in that we work on boring monthly recurring revenues with 30-year clients, it wasn’t like the pandemic changed our revenue stream overnight, and I know for a lot of people staying afloat financially has been the thing, for us it was, how are we going to continue to operate in this new world? And we were able to do that really because we were looking forward, and so I think if you’re always just looking at what’s going on right now, when now changes fundamentally, it’s going to be that much more difficult and not much more confusing. So I think organizationally, that’s pretty key.
I think as a business leader, as a business owner, there’s a lot of responsibility that I think all of us feel. It’s really tough to describe, I still don’t actually know how to describe it. But I remember I was a kid in a business that I knew I was going to own one day, so I thought… “I think like an owner. I do get it dad, yeah. I get it, I get it, I get it.” And then all of a sudden you’re an owner and challenges occur and you’re like “Oh, I did not get it the… Even a little bit, I thought I understood, but I don’t…” It’s this weight and… And so I think it’s really important to have some kind of escape that’s meaningful for you. Just like I was saying, every work day during the pandemic was like an ultra marathon, and then on weekends, even though I was a little bit connected by email, which I normally wouldn’t have been, just because of how quickly things were changing, my family and I live on a 10 acre property out on Mount Finalyson, and I was on a tractor digging fence holes, mixing cement, putting up deer fencing, building gardens, chopping down trees, clearing areas, and it was a wonderful escape. In hindsight, it might not have been physically the best thing to do because I was exhausting myself mentally, Monday to Friday, and then exhausting myself physically, Saturday and Sunday, but I had those moments where I just…I wasn’t thinking about the business, and honestly, there were some pretty poignant moments of clarity that came through that in terms of what my approach needed to be by distracting myself in something productive and physical and meaningful to me, I was able to shift perspectives from the business side and really escape rather than feeling like I was wrapped up in it seven days a week.
Dave: It’s interesting, as you were talking, I was thinking this sort of reflects on the Generation X. But to some degree it’s situational, the businesses we run today are so much different than the environment, so much of a different pace of change and all those things. So yeah, it’s an interesting question, I guess, is whether or not it’s a generational thing to think about vision, to think of a balance versus just the environment we are in now.
Andy: It’s interesting. My dad is definitely a goals-oriented person as well, and I think the goals are just different in lots of ways. I was at dinner with him in Toronto, we do this thing called Strategic Coach together, or we did this thing called Strategic Coach together. And so every quarter we’d be in Toronto for a day, and it was sort of learning and growing, and we met a really great friend there who had also grown up in a family business that had transitioned to him, it was a really horrible experience, the way that I went for him, but he is sort of more of my father’s generation. We had a discussion one night that I think in some ways sums up maybe a difference between Generation X and Boomers, but for both of them, their main life goal was they needed to feel they had done better than their parents. And what better than their parents meant was that they had accumulated more material wealth than their parents, so whether it be more houses, more money, more combination of that, that was the goal. And so it was really a balance sheet, more money, more business, more employees, whatever it was, they could check, check, check. And it was fascinating, because for me the outcome in lots of ways was the same, my goal is to do better than my parents, but money has no part of it. It’s growing up with the workaholic dad, well I want to be more present for my kids and I want to experience more, I want to learn more, I want to be more self-sufficient in a way then driven that way. And so I think generationally it was a really interesting difference and I suspect that it’s not an uncommon one…
Paul: No, I think that’s probably a theme, and I think the baby boomers talked about life balance and work balance and stuff, but I don’t think they ever…I think it was really GenX that picked up the mantle and said, “Yeah, maybe there is something to this… Right?”
Paul: And ultimately, you’re right. You burn yourself out. What’s the phrase? Nobody ever says on their death bed that they wish they had spent more time at the office.
Andy: Right, exactly.
Paul: Well, thank you so much, we’re going to wrap here because this is probably going to be one of our longest podcasts so far, but it’s been incredible. We’re going to call this the first kilometer of our 100-kilometer run with Andy Spurling, the President of Proline Property Management. We hope you’ll be back to finish the other 99 kilometers. We will have to have you back 99 more times, I think to pick your brain. And it’s been a really great experience. So thank you so much. And just in close, if people want to learn more about Proline, they should visit your website, which is…
Andy: www.prolinemanagement.com. If people want to talk to me, I’m always happy to chat. I prefer to do it over the phone or in-person, than on email, but my email is just firstname.lastname@example.org and my number is 250-940-4750.
Paul: Right, thank you so much, Andy. And Dave, thanks for joining us again today on Island Thrive. If you’re listening, please remember to subscribe on your favorite podcast app, and thank you for listening, we appreciate any feedback, any thoughts you have on future guests or future topics, we’d love to hear it. All the very best.
Andy: Thanks for doing this, guys. I think it’s a really cool thing for the island.
Paul: Thanks, Andy.