Born Driven Canada ICI's New President Rick Bachalo

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.”

"While others were focused on the problem of the muddy track, my dad was focused on the solution."
The Starting Line

Rick Bachalo was born and raised in Winnipeg, Manitoba, where his parents operated an Imperial Oil Esso franchise for 40 years, the longest serving ESSO dealer in that province. Growing up, Rick cleaned washrooms, stocked shelves, and also learned how to run a business. In the 18 months following high school graduation, before Rick headed off to University of Manitoba’s School of Business, he managed the original service station for his parents while they acquired and set up a new retail business. Rick confides, “I probably learned as much, working every summer and weekends for years and in those full-time 18 months, about customer service as I did in business school.”

It’s true that Rick’s early experience in the service station industry taught him how customer loyalty is fostered and how powerful that loyalty can be. He tells the story of a long-time patron on his way into Winnipeg from the lake, the gas gauge dangerously nearing empty. The customer drove by twelve competing service stations in an attempt to reach Rick’s family’s gas station. The car sputtered to a halt before the driver made it to the Imperial Oil station. “He called us from a pay phone and we brought him a jerry can of gas,” Rick recalls, adding, “It was the epitome of customer loyalty. It’s powerful to create a relationship like that.”

After graduating in 1985 from business school, Rick applied, along with 320 other hopefuls, for one of the two available internships in the Great-West Life investment training program. Rick was one of the two candidates selected.

Three months into his internship, Rick worked up the nerve to ask his boss, “Why me?”

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.”

Five core values that drive business

Rick leans forward in his seat when asked about the personal values he lives and works by. It’s obvious by his answer that he’s thought a lot about what makes a person and a business successful. It’s also clear that he doesn’t view his personal life and his business dealings as two separate entities. The Rick Bachalo you see on the racetrack and the Rick Bachalo you meet in the boardroom are the same man propelled by values that do not change.

He cites trustworthiness first, explaining, “Trustworthiness is critical in both personal and professional relationships.” He pauses thoughtfully and leans back in his chair, weighing his words. “Trust takes forever to build and can be shattered in an instant. Within an organization, trustworthiness is the foundation upon which all other core values rest. Without trustworthiness, the whole structure crumbles. Trust is the operating system of relationships.”

Rick confesses that he must list optimism and hope together because, to his way of thinking, the two are intrinsically linked. “Without hope, you have nothing. It’s impossible to thrive without it. Then, if you splash a little optimism onto hope, it’s powerful. Suddenly, the headwinds aren’t quite so strong, the slope of the challenge, not so steep.” You can tell Rick is speaking from his experience with headwinds and challenges. Hope and optimism are the high-octane fuel to drive success.

In addressing the value of determination, Rick goes on to say this: “I will take a determined B student over a lazy A student anytime. There’s no contest. That determined B student will out lap that lazy A student every single time.” Rick says this with conviction. By his tone, you know he’s witnessed this time and time again. “When determined B students hit an obstacle, they’ll power through it whereas lazy A students will stall. Determination contributes directly to long-term success.”

Core Values

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.”

"Communication with dignity and respect – at all times."

The race continues with Canada ICI

When asked about his move from Canada Life to Canada ICI, Rick gives this analogy for what he describes as the last, albeit long, chapter of his career: “My approach right now is to stretch the limits beyond the comfortable edges. I want to utilize the experience and wisdom of 35 years I’ve gleaned from Canada Life to drive the business and exceed the targets. That’s the goal. At ICI, I want to crush some records and then set some of our own.”

You can hear the excitement in his voice when he talks about his move to Canada ICI. It’s like he’s heading out to the motocross track again and into a new set of challenges. It’s not daunting. It’s exhilarating. “That’s what motivates me. It’s way more fun to crush a ten-year track record, shaving seconds off the lap time, in a screaming bright yellow, 650 HP Z06 Corvette with AC/DC pumping than cruising down the highway, at 90 km per hour on cruise control, in a four-door, silver luxury sedan, with the windows rolled up, and smooth jazz crooning away.”

The next president of Canada ICI laughs and professes what he knows for sure about himself, “These are two completely different approaches, and mine is certainly the former not the latter.” And Rick is sure this approach will suit the team at Canada ICI with whom he’s already had a strong and positive relationship that has exceeded a decade.

Tied in with resiliency is the trait of adaptability that Rick views as necessary for business to problem solve. He describes the role of adaptability in problem solving like this: “Business is around to solve people’s problems. Those problems change and we need to be able to pivot and adjust to see the opportunity.” Then he gives this example, “We need to be adaptable like a race car driver, and understand the problem quickly. If there’s a crash in turn number three, and you’re roaring along at 180 miles per hour, you’ve got to assess that problem and make a decision. You’ve got to navigate the terrain.” From this description, it sounds like Rick Bachalo is well prepared to navigate the commercial real estate terrain, no matter the economic road conditions.

Over the course of his career, Rick Bachalo has worked with a lot of companies, and he tries to put into words that something that makes his interaction with the members of Canada ICI stand out. He describes what sets them apart like this: “I think they display integrity and honesty. Secondly, Canada ICI fosters a team environment as opposed to an office of lone wolves functioning independently.”

He clearly feels he’s hit the nail on the head with this description, and Rick elaborates, “This team culture is the secret sauce that Canada ICI has. It’s that unique combination of high-performance, energized, team culture that’s very refreshing to see in the industry – refreshing enough to pry me away from a 35-year career with Canada Life.”

This team culture is the secret sauce that Canada ICI has. It’s that unique combination of high-performance, energized, team culture that’s very refreshing to see.

Rick credits solid leadership practices that model energy and honesty with the culture that’s been created at Canada ICI. Rick explains, “The culture of any organization always emanates from the top,” adding, “I find the workplace collaborative culture there very exciting and invigorating, and I want to be a part of building that brand going forward. That was the draw to Canada ICI.”

Starting with the end in mind is Rick’s aspiration going forward. “It’s important to sustain that which is there, and have those wheels turning, that momentum going, for all those young people that are there today and will be there long after I’m gone.” Rick’s aspirations extend beyond building Canada ICI for today; he aims to position the firm to thrive beyond his presence there. He wants to expand service work at Canada ICI and plant the seeds for longer-term initiatives all the while keeping this in mind: “The goal here is helping others to succeed.”

This team culture is the secret sauce that Canada ICI has. It’s that unique combination of high-performance, energized, team culture that’s very refreshing to see.

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.

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