News: BC Ferries' CEO Profiled by Globe and Mail

Self-described hockey ‘grinder’ takes rink’s lessons to the boardroom

Globe and Mail - April 24, 2015

Still an intimidating and skilled hockey player, British Columbia Ferry Services Inc. president and CEO Mike Corrigan knew early that he wanted more than an unpredictable NHL career.

“I didn’t want to be a mediocre hockey player in my late 20s with nothing to fall back on,” said Mr. Corrigan, 53. “As good a junior hockey player that I was, I learned how insignificant you can be in life, fairly quickly.”

Since 2012, Mr. Corrigan has been the head coach at BC Ferries, one of the world’s biggest ferry systems, with 35 vessels, 47 terminals and 184,000 annual sailings that carry 20 million passengers and eight million vehicles. He joined the company in 2003, after being recruited for a job as vice-president of business development from an executive position with Westcoast Energy. “I immersed myself in the business,” he said, admitting he knew little about marine operations. By 2006, he was second-in-charge, as chief operating officer.

As chief executive officer, he remains on 24/7 alert, ready to stick-handle unpredictable events, such as on-board medical emergencies or vessel breakdowns. “The last thing I do at night and the first thing I do in the morning is look at my e-mail,” he said. “I’m more confident knowing than not knowing.”

Mr. Corrigan’s journey from ice to sea has been marked by astute self-awareness, a blue-collar backbone and the smarts to manage $3-billion in capital spending over the next 12 years while taking hits, not from defencemen, but teams of critics who scrutinize ferry fares and executive salaries, shipbuilding contracts and cancelled routes.

His early hockey career has helped him navigate the routinely rough seas.

“By 17, I was living away from home. I learned to stick up for myself. To survive and flourish at that level is very, very hard to do. It’s all about the mental and having faith and being positive. When things aren’t going well, you can overthink and get into a negative mindset.”

Today, the hockey right-winger dons a helmet in a recreational league at North Saanich’s Panorama Recreation Centre.

“Mike calls it as he sees it. He’s fair but firm, and that’s how he plays hockey,” said Chris Cheadle, Mr. Corrigan’s Shoreline Canadians’ teammate. “He plays with an awareness and intelligence which manifest themselves in how he runs BC Ferries. There’s no trepidation with Mike. He’s a straight-ahead guy.”

Back in his early hockey days, Mr. Corrigan could shine, when motivated. “Problem was, I wasn’t consistent enough. I didn’t want it bad enough every night. I was what they called a grinder or power forward. I had to work hard and play very physical and not be afraid to fight, and come every night with a high level of intensity. As I got older, I realized I wanted to do other things.”

The son of a contract miner, Mr. Corrigan was born in Timmins, Ont. His father, Jack, left school at 14 to work in the mines to help his widowed mother support the family. Jack, who rose to be a mine superintendent, died a decade ago at 67, a death Mr. Corrigan said was related to workplace hazards.

He recalled his father’s experience in 1984 when four men died in an underground rock burst at a Sudbury mine. To reach one of the miners, Jack made his way about 1,200 metres down ladders and then crawled in the dark. Through the huge boulders that blocked freedom, Jack managed to hold the hand of the 22-year-old until he died. As Mr. Corrigan’s career advanced, Jack reminded him to “make damn sure you look after the men and their safety.”

“I try to spend a considerable amount of time on the health and well-being of employees,” Mr. Corrigan said of BC Ferries’ 4,500 employees. “Nothing gives me greater satisfaction than going out on the vessel and talking to employees about everyday situations.”

One of his leading initiatives as COO was the SailSafe program, which targets injury prevention and employee wellness. Since 2007, BC Ferries has had a 60-per-cent reduction in time-loss injuries, earning awards and workers’ compensation rebates.

As for his own hurts, “I sustained a lot of injuries earlier that come back to haunt me now, mostly wear and tear,” Mr. Corrigan said. “I’ve had surgery on both knees, separated shoulders a couple of times, lost a portion of my teeth. I never took a stick in the eye, but I’ve got lots of scars around the eyes.”

At 17, he left his Sudbury home to play junior hockey with the Cornwall Royals, who in 1980 won the Memorial Cup. Mr. Corrigan’s line included Marc Crawford and Dale Hawerchuk.

Teammate Newell Brown, who grew up on a Cornwall dairy farm, and is today assistant coach of the Arizona Coyotes, remembers his friend as a straight-shooter. “He was a big, strong right-winger who could intimidate. I can see that coming out in his job as CEO. He liked to have fun off the ice, but on the ice, he was a really serious player.”

Mr. Brown, who gets together with Mr. Corrigan when in Vancouver, was somewhat surprised that he didn’t stick it out longer after he’d been signed to the Detroit Red Wings organization. “But, he was typecast in the tough-guy role. He didn’t like it. He didn’t want that to be his calling card,” Mr. Brown said. “He was a smart guy. I knew he’d go back to school.”

While playing out his contract with the Kalamazoo Wings, Detroit’s farm team, Mr. Corrigan attended Kalamazoo Valley Community College and later, Western Michigan University, where he earned a business administration degree. He married Shari, a Michigan native, in 1984.

His first business job was mail-room clerk for a Michigan utility company. In 1989, the Corrigans moved to Northern Ontario before eventually settling in Victoria in 1996 when Mr. Corrigan was working for Westcoast Energy. In 2000, he earned his MBA from the University of Victoria.

Beyond realizing that he wasn’t a “one-dimensional human being,” hockey netted other revelations. “For teams to be successful in hockey, you need your fourth line and last two defencemen,” he said. “It’s the role players and what they can provide. Superstars are expected to perform.”

He admits that as a manager, he once focused on individuals’ shortcomings instead of their strengths. Now he seeks staff who complement one another. “You won’t turn a checker into a goaltender.”

At work, from 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Monday to Friday, Mr. Corrigan also spends time each day at the gym. He also walks his black Lab, Ace, each evening with Shari, a business teacher at Victoria’s Camosun College, and plays golf at the prestigious Victoria Golf Club on weekends with a close group of business people.

Mr. Corrigan is also treasurer for the 225-member Interferry association, which represents the international ferry industry. In 2014, he was Interferry’s president.

His charitable work includes BC Ferries’ Media Charity Golf Classic, which since 2006 has raised $550,000 for children’s programs. One recipient was Community Living Victoria, which supports people with developmental disabilities. Mr. Corrigan was also a three-year board member for the organization.

“We could count on him,” said John Stevenson, who has been involved with Community Living for more than 25 years. “He had good ideas and also challenged our ideas. After he stepped back, he never forgot us. I’d ask him for help and he helped, contributing significantly.”

And for nine years, Mr. Corrigan was volunteer head coach for the South Island Breakers midget AAA girls hockey team, where his daughters Jacqueline, 26, and Mika, 24, played. The team won four provincial junior championships in the mid-2000s.

While his big-league hockey days are behind him, Mr. Corrigan harbours one regret.

“I never did get a chance to put the Red Wings’ jersey on for an actual NHL game,” he said.

But still, as Mr. Cheadle said, “Mike plays hockey like he plays life, really well.”

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