Focused on the solution
They had driven the five hours north across the border to Detroit Lakes, Minnesota, and it was pouring rain. Motocross races aren’t stopped for rain, only for lightning. Mud spattered Rick’s racing suit and goggles. Riders all around him were falling and bikes were strewn haphazardly along the track. Rick’s boots kept slipping off the metal foot pegs, and he couldn’t get a solid grip on the handlebars. His dad told him, “I’ve got an idea.”
The thirteen-year-old stood back and watched his father teach him about how to assess a situation and immediately adapt to it. First, Rick’s dad filed sharp notches on the surface of the foot pegs, making them rough and able to grip the rubber soles of the motocross racer’s boots. Next, he wrapped J Cloths around the handlebars, securing each one with wraps of black electrical tape. Then he switched out the softer tires for ones made of a harder rubber compound. These tires were able to cut through the layer of mud and find the traction there underneath.
Lastly, Rick’s dad cut out pieces of plastic and duct taped them to his son’s goggles. This ingenuity still amazes the newest president of Canada ICI. “Today, using plastic to shield your goggles like that is standard. They’re called tear-offs, but some 45 years ago nobody had thought of creating them.” Except Rick’s dad, that is. He invented tear-offs right on the spot.
“My dad adapted and pivoted, and by assessing the environment, he created a competitive advantage for me. I’ll never forget that.”
Did the competitive advantage help? You bet it did. “I won the 20-lap final race and actually lapped the second-place rider.” The race announcer said that a crazy kid from Canada, a good mud rider, had won, but Rick disputes that description of his teenage self. “I wasn’t a good mud rider. I simply had advantages. While others were focused on the problem of the muddy track, my dad was focused on the solution.”
Rick professionally raced both motocross and ½ mile oval dirt track across Canada and the US for ten years during which time he earned his white number plate Expert Status – the highest level in Canada – before he even got his automobile driver’s license. Through it all, his dad was Rick’s biggest supporter.
Visible behind Rick during this interview is a distractingly gorgeous Z06 C7 Corvette in bright yellow with bold black striping down the hood’s centre and along both sides of the coupe. “The same principles that apply to the racetrack now apply to business.” Everybody in business is navigating common curves right now. But as Rick’s dad taught him, “You’ve got to focus on the solution, not on the problem.”
For the last two decades, Rick has had one more person cheering him on. Deanna Hansen, President and CEO of Block Therapy, is Rick’s better half. He describes his partner-in-life in this way: “She’s one of the most intuitive people I know. She has an unparalleled passion to do the right thing for people’s health.” Rick shares that he views Deanna as a true visionary, and that he values her opinions and thoughts.
As Rick relied on his father’s insight when it came to his professional racing career, he now turns to Deanna for her perception, stating, “Sometimes her senses are just a little sharper than mine and her compass, just a little more accurate.”
The man, whom Rick describes as a good sort but a bit crusty, paused before answering, “Well, it certainly wasn’t because of your marks.” Rick was taken aback. Maybe that was the plan, to keep the intern off balance until the boss finished his explanation. “The finalists all had good marks. It was because you raced motorcycles. You were passionate about it, driven, self-motivated, took calculated risks, and won championships. This is what set you apart from the other applicants – now get back to work.”
"You were passionate, driven, self-motivated, took calculated risks, and won championships."
A Different Track, determined to win
The investment program internship began Rick Bachalo’s 35-year career with Great-West Life, recently branded Canada Life. During those years, Rick served in three different capacities. For the first five years, he sharpened his skills in US commercial lending during which time his territory covered Chicago, Boston, Atlanta, and Columbus, OH. For the next six, Rick partnered with Great-West Life Realty Advisors learning investment sales, asset management, property management, and leasing across Canada … an incredible experience. Rick looks back on those times and reflects, “I thought I knew a lot as a young buck on the US mortgage lending side of things. Wrong. The learning curve on the real estate equity side went straight up like a hockey stick.” Then an opportunity back on the commercial mortgage side arose, throughout Canada, and Rick invested the next 24 years learning with continued success.
During Rick’s time with Great-West Life, the company acquired London Life in 1998 and Canada Life in 2004. These were formative transitions for Rick. “Corporate acquisitions shaped me,” he admits as he recalls the growing pains. “When you grow the portfolio from $2B to $6B to $10B and now over $15B, you learn a lot.” He chuckles and shakes his head in something like disbelief at the time that has passed. “It’s been a very good run so far, I have to say.”
For the next core value, Rick begins with this caveat, “You might be wondering why this one is a core value. After all, everybody wants it. Exactly! That’s what makes it a core value.” Rick is talking now about happiness and, as he does, he smiles widely. “In my 35 years, I have seen that the happiness factor is the carrot we’re all chasing. As a leader knowing that, you need to create the culture in which you play to people’s strengths so that they are happy. Happy people add value to the team and those happy employees become ‘sticky.’ That is, they’re not looking left or right for another opportunity. They will see that the grass is greenest in their current position and they won’t want to go anywhere else.”
Rick can’t resist. He has to relate this story of the power of happiness in the workplace. “I’ve seen the Canada Life mortgage originators work weekends and nights to do a deal, knowing full well they’ve already maxed out on their incentive bonus. This current loan won’t add a nickel to their compensation at the end of the year. But they do it anyway. Why?” He laughs softly in disbelief as this reasoning defies the fundamentals of economics. “Because it made them happy to do it and it made the borrower happy. People will work overtime to achieve a goal with no reward other than happiness, contentment, and a job well done.” True happiness, once achieved and easier said than done, has no best before date – it will motivate people long term.
Last but not least, Rick discusses the core value of leadership and admits that most people don’t want to be the leader. He goes on to outline why this is the case. “Not everybody wants to set lofty goals, only to face setbacks or unforeseen challenges, or face difficult choices when none of the options are good. That’s not easy. And not many want the weight of the world on their shoulders and people’s livelihoods depending on their decisions.”
Rick is precise about how he qualifies leadership. “Most people don’t want it and that’s why prudent leadership is so powerful.” Finally, Rick describes his own style of leadership, confiding, “As a prudent leader, I work for the employee. That’s my job as a leader. You have to find a balance, and temper drive, determination, and success with compassion, kindness, respect, and happiness.”
When Rick talks about his career over the last 35 years and about his experience as a professional motorcycle racer for ten years in his youth, the central theme hasn’t changed. Do what you love, and you will do it well. As a leader, Rick inspires others to do the same.
The mechanics of communication
At this stage of his career, Rick Bachalo is excited about creating and sustaining harmony in the workplace. So far, he’s done that at Canada Life and he has a strategy for maintaining the effective teamwork and attitude of cooperation that already defines Canada ICI. When asked what is necessary to build a stellar culture, Rick answers, “Communication with dignity and respect – at all times – is paramount.”
Why is respectful communication that preserves dignity the most important element to good leadership and to inspiring a team? Rick looks at it this way: “Everybody feels good when the results are great, but you need communication with dignity and respect when things go wrong. You need to have skilled communication with all groups, at all levels, and at all times.”
His reasoning is that this type of skillfully-honed communication allows team members to openly share concepts and ultimately generate better ideas. Rick believes that if team members feel afraid or uncertain or treated poorly, the team won’t get the benefit of their best ideas. He reveals why he values communicating in ways that make people feel respected and that leaves their dignity intact, saying, “Communication is critical. I like bringing out the best in people and playing to their strengths. Everyone has things they do exceptionally well so simply play to their darn strengths.”
Changing lanes on a sharp left
It’s a fact that Rick Bachalo is making a major career transition during a notably uncertain time. Throughout his professional racing career, Rick did what he loved, encouraged by his father to take risks and to challenge himself. And over his 35-years of working with Canada Life, Rick continued to take on challenges he enjoyed. Rick’s dad taught him the value of doing what you love and that’s a gift that Rick’s been able to give to others.
During this interview, Rick is asked why he’s making this move now and why does he know that it’s the right one for him. Rick smiles and the answer comes easily, “It all returns to what my dad taught me on that rainy Saturday afternoon in Detroit Lakes where the track seemed too difficult to navigate. It’s a simple approach but genius, really. Make a decision then make it the right one. There’s no looking back.” Rick Bachalo is leaning into the curve of change, focused on the future, and still enjoying the ride.