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From the edge to the top

A Q&A with Alumnus of the Year Barry Perry

Campus and Community

By Michael Pickard

Sometimes you find amazing success stories in the most unexpected places.

We’re used to it in Newfoundland and Labrador: over and over again, we see unbelievable victories and accomplishments from the people who live here. With a population just north of half a million here on the edge of the world, we have a reputation for overcoming the odds.

Then there’s the edge of the edge, in New-Wes-Valley, population 2,172. Edgier still is one of its constituent communities: Pound Cove. It’s a hardy fishing village, 200 strong in its heyday . . . and it is where Barry Perry, B.Comm.(Hons.)(Co-op)’86, grew up. And just to punctuate the “edginess” of his upbringing, his grandparents were from islands off the coast of Pound Cove – sort of the edge of the edge of the edge of the world.

That heritage, familiar to many in this province, can be seen to have its advantages and drawbacks. From that background emerged the president and chief executive officer of one of the largest utility companies in North America.

MP: When you were a kid in Bonavista Bay, what did you think you would be when you grew up?

BP: I was the second youngest of nine children. Back then, the majority of my graduating class was thinking about life and careers that did not include university. But once I got to high school, I knew university was going to be in my future. I had good marks in school, which is a factor of course, but I just felt there was something calling me.

My grandfather would regularly sit with us at the kitchen table, and he was great at sizing people up. He said to me, “Barry, you can be a minister, or a chartered accountant.” I didn’t know what a chartered accountant was, but it sounded right.

So, at 16, this young guy from the bay who had only been to St. John’s a couple of times and had never been off the island, headed off to Memorial University.

MP: How did your Memorial education shape who you are today?

BP: I was always good at math, and in my first year of the commerce program, things were working out. It was a co-op. program, so I had the chance to gain work experience and get paid while I went to school.

“Some of my best friends are people who I met at Memorial, both in Feild Hall residence and in business school.”

For someone who did not grow up with much money, I managed to come out the other side owing very little. Without those fundamental experiences and opportunities, I don’t know how I would have succeeded.

Some of my best friends are people who I met at Memorial, both in Feild Hall residence and in business school. We had a particularly impressive graduating class, many of whom are leaders in the province today.

MP: How did you end up working at Fortis?

BP: My first work-term was with the accounting firm Warr, Sanders, Blackwood, and Hoskins. These are amazing people and top-notch accountants who taught me so much about finance, about business, about life. This firm was acquired by Ernst & Young and that is where I completed my chartered accountant designation in 1988.

Very quickly, new opportunities emerged. In 1989, I was asked to work at Come-by-Chance, then eventually Abitibi. I moved to Montreal when another position came up within Abitibi. When a door opens, I have always been someone to put his hand up and say: “I can do that.”

“We always felt our humble beginnings advantaged us and helped shape Fortis into the company we are today.”

Eventually I got a call to come back home, as the chief financial officer (CFO) of Newfoundland Power. I got to work with the best: people such as Philip Hughes, Angus Bruneau, Nora Duke, John Evans, Peter Alteen, Karl Smith, Earl Ludlow, Stan Marshall.

And after a few years, I moved into the role of CFO of Fortis. Early on, I remember we were negotiating a deal in New York and it struck us. Here we were, a group of small-town folks from places like Freshwater and Pound Cove making our mark on Wall Street.

We always felt our humble beginnings advantaged us and helped shape Fortis into the company we are today.

MP: Fortis has a great history of hiring Memorial graduates. What makes them good employees?

BP: Honestly, we have good employees from many universities, in locations around North America. But, I have a particular affiliation for people not just from Memorial, but from Newfoundland and Labrador.

You have to be a special person to live here and there is something in our DNA – we have big challenges to overcome here. You want to hire people who are skilled at overcoming obstacles.

“Try to imagine this province without Memorial. It is at the centre of so many of the successes.”

So, I see characteristics in Memorial graduates and people from this province that are so important for employees of Fortis: people with integrity, who are bright, gritty, and humble.

Try to imagine this province without Memorial. It is at the centre of so many of the successes in this province: it would be daunting to consider how Fortis would be able to prosper without it.

And personally, it has meant so much – my wife Nadine, my two daughters and I are all Memorial graduates. I believe there is a lot more of the story to be written about of the connection between Fortis and Memorial.

MP: Looking back on Fortis’s success, can you think of any events that shaped the trajectory of the company?

BP: When we first started focusing on growth in Alberta and British Columbia, many would have commented that the odds were stacked against us. The management group had to have the fortitude to win – which was the start of our transition as a great company.

Up until these pivotal times, we were pretty much only an Eastern Canadian electrical utility: we then started diversifying from electricity to gas, to become more of an energy company. We very quickly doubled in size and suddenly had a million customers in British Columbia.

We were involved in many mergers and acquisitions over the years, but ultimately, the most monumental moment was in 2016 when Fortis acquired the electric transmission company, ITC Holdings – a CDN$16-billion transaction. It was bold, intense and exciting, but not without risk.

MP: There are very few “moments” in business more iconic than ringing the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) bell. What was that moment like?

BP: Imagine working for so long to build a company, and then seeing two of your bucket trucks parked right there on Wall Street in front of the NYSE. That moment was astounding. I saw our Fortis blue and it gave me the most incredible feeling. We had 150 people there to be part of this amazing atmosphere.

“But I am the CEO, so I got to ring the bell. It was the highlight of my professional career.”

I consider it a culmination of success, and a historic moment. From back home, on a mauzy day in St. John’s, we were sent a congratulatory photo of some of our team up on Signal Hill holding the Fortis flag, with St. John’s in the background. I’ll admit it: I shed the first tear.

And then there is the bell. There were perhaps 15 of us on the podium and they had the countdown. Having your company’s name on “The Big Board” of the NYSE brings tremendous credibility to your organization. Without a doubt, it was a team effort.

But I am the CEO, so I got to ring the bell. It was the highlight of my professional career.

MP: How did you feel when you found out you were being named Memorial’s Alumnus of the Year?

BP: It was a truly special moment and it made me proud. I thought about my parents. Without Nadine’s commitment, and the support of my daughters, we never would have gotten here. I have been in the business community for over 30 years and so many iconic people have won this award.

It is incredible and humbling to be thought of in that way. To be honest, I have not taken in all in yet.

It reinforces for me that life is not all about work. I put in a lot of effort into my career, but my family is more important. When I travel for work, it is all about getting home. My family and my colleagues are reflected in this award, as well.

Barry Perry will be honoured during the 38th annual Alumni Tribute Awards ceremony on Thursday, Oct. 24, at Memorial’s Signal Hill Campus, St. John’s, N.L. Tickets (individuals and tables) can be purchased online. For additional inquiries, please contact Alumni Engagement, Office of Public Engagement at 709-864-4354, toll free at 1-877-700-4081 or email rsvpalumni@mun.ca.

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