Exploring the business of business

February 8, 2012

Keith McKenzie launched his career from the seat of a pedicab in downtown Victoria, but not in the business you might assume.

An Ontario native, McKenzie was working in Vancouver as a bartender and landscaper when his parents decreed it was time for him to do something more serious with his life. He moved to Victoria to attend an environmental technology program at Camosun College and paid the bills by pedaling tourists around the city.

After college, he landed a job as a co-op student with MacMillan Bloedel. The position included a lot of field work and his summer pedaling made him an ideal candidate for the job thanks to his fit physique. Fast forward in his career and McKenzie has launched multiple companies, ranging from specialized computer software to a drilling company in Alberta. Following a car accident in 2008, he rethought what he was doing and set his sights even higher.  

His drilling company was bought by a larger corporation, and after finishing a three-year commitment with them, MacKenzie started the MBA program at Royal Roads this year. He is interested in succession planning, and helping business owners move away from their businesses in the best way possible.

"The business of business is much more exciting to me than the nuts and bolts of a company," he says. "I love looking at potential."

That insight, coupled with his diverse business experience, is why McKenzie was selected as Royal Roads' second Entrepreneur in Virtual Residence (EiVR). The selected student is called upon throughout the year to share insights with students, sit on panels and act as a resource for budding entrepreneurs.

"(Keith) is dead honest about what he did right, what he did wrong and what he wishes he knew back then," says Geoff Archer, professor in the faculty of management. "That sort of frankness is going to benefit anybody going into a similar situation."

The scholarship program is modelled after a common practice in the venture capital community where a seasoned business person is brought into a company to help mentor start-up leaders. Royal Roads brought the idea online in keeping with its programming. Vancouver-based Nancy Mudford was the inaugural EiVR. She is the owner of Spa Boutique and La Petite Spa.

"This person is a resource for the community," Archer says. "It was tremendous to have someone who is currently running two multimillion dollar businesses speak frankly about what the biggest challenges are. She was here as a resource and an inspiration."

For McKenzie it's an opportunity to interact with more entrepreneurs to exchange ideas and support a shared passion. He is looking forward to working with others, and offering up advice based on his own experience. None of it is rocket science, he says, but it can be helpful to hear it from someone else.

His best advice to people in business? "Get out of the stuff you hate," he says. "That decision will be worth a multitude to you over the years."

That advice ties into the importance of hiring the right people. Having a solid team working with you allows you to focus on the big picture aspects of your business.

"It's easy to train people, but you can't change somebody's work ethic," McKenzie says. "It's hard to change somebody's attitude."

McKenzie's resume shows progression, Archer says. He has insight into booming industry in Alberta, and is not shy about sharing his successes and failures. He is analytical and has a frame of mind many business people would benefit from.

"Ultimately, why are you starting a business?" Archer questions. "It's in order to sell the business. If you are not thinking that way you might just bumble along with something that works locally, but if you are thinking it could be bigger, then you will build it differently so it scales - so you would be an ideal acquisition candidate for a large company. Keith has this experience."