When Vern Kimball, BA’81, MBA’90, started his political science degree at the University of Calgary in the late 1970s, he was aiming for law school or the diplomatic service. Fortunately for the city of Calgary, the chief executive officer of the Calgary Stampede never made it to either.
Kimball, who has worked his way up through the Calgary Stampede organization for the past 25 years—and has held the top spot for the past seven—looks back on his formative undergrad years studying political theory as key to how he views the world now. “It was a wonderful place to think about those things that make meaning in life.”
He returned to the campus part-time to work on his MBA and learn the skills required to be a business leader. “The combination of both those degrees in total was the best time of my life.”
Leading one of the most public and influential not-for-profit organizations in Canada, Kimball says the mission is what’s important in creating a place for others to gather. “It’s much more than a party. It’s what this community sees as its best attributes—things like western hospitality. And it acts as a beacon to draw people to Calgary to live and work and play.”
Kimball will play a central role in this year’s centennial celebrations, leading a core of 1,200 employees and about 2,000 volunteers. He’s worked hard to build a vibrant organization that will be around for the next 100 years and continue to be a focal point of the Calgary community.
“I’m delighted in the great relationship that the Stampede has with the University of Calgary. I take great pride in my alma mater as a leader in intellectual thought. I view the profs as academic rock stars that can better engage the university with the community.”
Earlier this spring, Kimball was chosen as the 2012 recipient of the university’s Distinguished Alumni Award. “Kimball’s leadership and vision has made the Calgary Stampede one of Canada’s most iconic organizations and the Alumni Association is delighted that a University of Calgary graduate is at the helm, leading its remarkable growth and 100-year anniversary celebration,” says Ken McKinnon, BComm’80, association president.
Like his boss, Paul Harrison, BComm’96, MBA’06, also took his undergraduate degree at the University of Calgary and then returned to get his MBA to round out his management training. He has also worked his way up through the organization and now holds the role of chief financial officer and vice-president, support services.
“People still ask me what I do for the other 355 days of the year, but this is a $120-million business, so it’s not small potatoes.” Along with the 10-day festival, the Stampede runs a number of year-round enterprises including a casino, the BMO Centre and a significant catering operation. Still, Harrison says one of the hardest things for a not-for-profit is to define success measures.
“We’re not bottom-line driven. We need to be conscious of the bottom line and we need to be financially sustainable to ensure that we can continue to do the good things that we want to do. But really what we’re competing for is a share of the heart in this community. So we need to make sure what we’re doing is resonating with Calgarians.”
Harrison says the Calgary Stampede is heading into its centennial celebrations off an “unexpectedly good year” in 2011, thanks to the global spotlight provided by the parade appearance of Their Royal Highnesses The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge—who also visited the University of Calgary’s Ward of the 21st Century Research and Innovation Centre.
“You couldn’t have asked for a better platform heading into 2012 than having Will and Kate come to the Stampede and give us that extra media buzz around the world.”
There are also an untold number of University of Calgary alumni within the Stampede’s volunteer brigade. One of them is Wendy Tynan, BComm’99, who juggles her time on two committees as well as holding down her day job as director of public engagement in the Alberta government’s executive council.
She’s the immediate past-chair of the Grandstand committee, which is responsible for the Young Canadians and Grandstand Show, and also sits on the Centennial Committee responsible for “all the iconic events” like rodeo, chuckwagon races and the Grandstand show. “Basically for 10 days each year I don’t leave the Grandstand.”
Tynan cites the skills she learned at the Haskayne School of Business in her success as committee chairman responsible for budgeting, marketing and communications. She also believes that her active role in various student clubs on campus built a solid foundation with respect to event planning, sponsorship and community relations.
“It’s pretty exciting to play a role in such a big year in the life of the Stampede. Every one of the 2,000 volunteers has had their eye on this for some time and anyone going to the Stampede this year will know they’re experiencing something new and special.”