Hockey’s been good to BBA alumnus and Alpha Technologies CEO Mark SchnarrAug 01, 2013
The following article was published by Business in Vancouver on July 31, 2013. Mark Schnarr is a SFU BBA alumnus.
It’s been years since Alpha Technologies CEO Mark Schnarr laced ’em up for the Kelowna Buckaroos, but the lessons he learned and connections he made on the ice continue to influence his corporate career today
Hockey’s been good to Mark Schnarr.
The game has taught the Alpha Technologies president and CEO about fairness, hard work and the importance of being part of a focused team. When you lead a company of 700 employees – 30 times the size of an NHL roster – these are critical lessons.
But hockey has done more than help shape his personality. Hockey has also helped Schnarr pay the bills. In fact, the connections he made on the ice are, in part, responsible for his now decades-long executive career.
“Just before I attended Simon Fraser University, I played junior hockey with the Kelowna Buckaroos. One of the fellas I played with there, Phil Logan, his dad asked me if I wanted to work for BC Tel when the summer was out. I took him up on the offer,” said Schnarr.
“I continued working there while I was going to SFU. When I finished and got my degree in business administration, it just seemed natural to work full time for BC Tel. I ended up working there for almost 30 years.”
Throughout the years, Schnarr held numerous posts with the company. He worked in BC Tel’s new business division where he wrote the business plan that got the company into the cellular game. Later, he was involved in all of BC Tel’s Internet services.
When BC Tel merged with then Alberta-based phone company Telus (TSX:T) in 1999, Schnarr took on more varied roles. He was vice-president of corporate development.
He later led Telus International – an arm of the company that oversees call centres abroad, among other interests. And before he left, Schnarr ran Telus Ventures, a $100 million venture capital fund.
A diverse list, to be sure. But, according to Schnarr, moving around was part of the gig at Telus.
“I would describe it as various sundry duties assigned by Mr. [Darren] Entwistle [Telus president and CEO],” said Schnarr, smiling.
“Just because you had a certain job description in those days didn’t mean you were just going to do the things inside that job description. You were generally expected to do something a little broader.”
Schnarr left Telus in April 2005 after taking an early retirement package. He stayed on for a year as a consultant – a caveat of the retirement agreement – and mulled various job offers.
Although the opportunities came pouring in, Schnarr decided on a job outside of an office and free of a team. Something different, he thought. Schnarr wanted to be a stock market day trader.
But just as he was about to embark on a solo career in the markets, hockey reared its advantageous head once again.
A former girlfriend of an old teammate was a board member of Alpha Technologies, a Burnaby-based company specializing in backup and standby power for the cable, telecom, security, renewable energy and traffic sectors.
Schnarr was invited to meet her and Alpha president Fred Kaiser for lunch. At the meeting, Kaiser asked Schnarr if he’d be interested in becoming Alpha’s CEO. Schnarr was enticed by the offer, and after talking it over with his wife, he accepted.
That was the spring of 2006.
Schnarr’s game plan back then was simple: take over for a couple of years, help turn the business around and then move on to something else. But things didn’t quite work out as planned. One year became six. Now, more than seven years later, Schnarr’s still at the helm.
“You know, it’s been a really fun ride,” said Schnarr. “We’ve made a lot of changes here. When I first arrived here, Alpha had, as I would describe it, five years of negative growth. My feeling is, if you’re not growing, you’re dying. Your competitors are passing you by. We had to get focused.”
Part of that focus included a merger with Argus Technologies, another backup power firm, and zeroing in on the cable, telecom, security, renewable energy and traffic markets.
And the move has paid off. Alpha is enjoying significant growth.
In 2012, revenue at Alpha topped $195 million, up from $160 million in 2011. Gross profit in 2012 was more than $52.5 million, up from $45 million in 2011. This year, Schnarr anticipates the company’s revenue will hit $230 million.
In the emerging traffic market – providing back-up power to traffic lights – Alpha systems are now backing up lights at 15,000 intersections throughout North America.
The company is also participating in a groundbreaking energy storage project at the University of British Columbia.
The $5 million project, done in partnership with battery firm Corvus Energy and Natural Resources Canada, is investigating whether stored energy can be controlled by a centralized management system to reduce peak energy demand.
But, success and innovation aside, friends and former colleagues say it’s his respect for others that makes Schnarr a desired executive.
Profit is great, but in Schnarr’s case it’s how he achieves that profit that people remember.
“Mark is one of those people – integrity just oozed out of him,” said Rob Cruickshank, former president of BC Tel’s wireless division and longtime friend of Schnarr.
“He can be a serious, head-down guy. But he knows how to enjoy himself and be generous, too. Mark takes pleasure in seeing others succeed. He’s a real character guy, Alpha couldn’t have chosen better.”
Ken Berry, chairman of Northern Vertex Mining Corp. (TSX-V:NEE), a Vancouver-based junior company of which Schnarr sits on the board of directors, drew a parallel with Schnarr’s on-ice game to describe his corporate expertise.
After all, hockey’s been good to Schnarr.
“Mark had an incredible amount of finesse when he played hockey. He has a lot of skills,” said Berry, whose brother Doug played on the same line with Schnarr in Kelowna.
“In the boardroom, he carries on those traits. He brings business acumen, intelligence and hard work. He is very strong in those areas.”
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