A leader who gave the Pembina Institute room to grow

Blog - Dec. 13, 2010 - By David Dodge

It's an impressive run by any measure. Under the leadership of Marlo Raynolds the Pembina Institute doubled its budget, doubled its staff, improved its media presence three-fold and almost quadrupled its output of reports and ideas for a sustainable energy future.

When Marlo started working for the Pembina Institute it had a single office in Drayton Valley, Alberta. After seven years of leadership he leaves behind a thriving national organization with additional offices in Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver, Ottawa, Toronto and Yellowknife, plus an international presence in Washington, D.C.

Marlo RaynoldsIf you think results like this comes from strong leadership, you are probably right — but if by strong leadership you were thinking of a guy with a big stick and a strict plan, you'd be wrong.

Marlo Raynolds is one of those extremely rare people who literally inspires others to do their best. His secret was finding excellent people and then giving them the space to bring out their creativity, expertise and professionalism.

Pembina Institute staff were not the only people to notice Marlo's excellent leadership skills. In 2008, Marlo was chosen from 1,100 nominees by an independent board of 25 business leaders from across Canada as one of Canada's Top 40 Under 40 leaders.

Marlo is very serious about strategy, but not about mapping out elaborate plans. Innovation, flexibility and adaptation are what he sees as critical components to success.

An early interest in the environment

Marlo's interest in the environment came early from discussions around the kitchen table at home. "My sister Nadine is an environmental activist and those discussions sparked my interest."

While pursuing his engineering degree at the University of Waterloo, he wound up working for the Munich Wildlife Society on conservation issues in Germany.

Back in Canada in 1995, he scraped together a few dollars to go to a conference in Ottawa about life cycle assessments. "I wound up asking a question of the panel and I didn't get a great answer,"  recalls Marlo.

Wind farm in Southern Alberta.On that panel was Rob Macintosh, one of Pembina's founders. The two met and Macintosh suggested he consider joining the organization. Three weeks later Marlo had a co-op placement with the institute, researching the upstream environmental implications of plastics for Husky Injection Molding.

While working for Pembina, Marlo completed first a PhD in Mechanical Engineering on life cycle assessments and later a master's in management and leadership for non-profit organizations.

In 2004 Marlo left his role as head of Pembina's Corporate Consulting Group to become the organization's executive director.

"What I tried to bring was an increasing focus on energy issues - narrowing that down to a well-defined niche," says Marlo.

In the following years the Pembina Institute rapidly became the go-to organization on energy and environment issues in Canada. It wasn't long before politicians, bureaucrats, environmental non-government organizations and companies big and small started to reach out to Pembina.

That interest resulted in work, support and growing credibility across Canada.

"I don't think there is another entity out there that produces, for the size of organization, the volume of solid content, coupled with an ability to react very, very rapidly to emerging issues," says Marlo.

The secret, says Marlo, is that Pembina is able to couple the ability of a think tank to go deep on issues with the nimbleness to adapt and respond to a changing landscape.

Top three accomplishments

"One of the biggest things we've accomplished was bringing attention to the environmental issues related to the oilsands," says Marlo. A scan of news articles on the oilsands shows that before 2005 the majority of the coverage was about business opportunities. An early goal was to add the environment to the story.

"We have been very successful in making sure awareness of the environmental issues is top-of-mind for decision-makers right across Canada," says Marlo.

"That sets the stage for moving into the solutions phase and solving some of the problems. We have a lot of work to do, but it is on the radar now."

Wind on the rise in Canada."Secondly, I think the work we've been able to do on renewable energy and laying the ground work for things like the Renewable Energy Act of Ontario stand out as a success," he says.

Years earlier the institute worked with the Clean Air Renewable Energy Coalition to create a highly successful federal renewable energy incentive program. The incentives encouraged the growth of renewable energy in Canada, from 100 megawatts to more than 3,400 megawatts today.

 "Finally, the attention being given to energy issues as a whole in Canada is an important indicator of success," says Marlo. It may sound funny to celebrate being able to have a discussion, but politics rendered the concept of a national energy strategy taboo for many years.

"It's now possible to talk about a national energy strategy; it's also possible to talk about solar power and wind power. People are beginning to realize that climate change and energy issues are critical to Canada's success in the future," Marlo says. "Pembina played an important role in helping us get there." Marlo also played an important role in the broader environmental movement by regularly bringing together his counterparts to share experiences and advance broader strategy.

Marlo in Washington.How do you know when you've arrived?

One of the indicators that you have arrived on the national scene must surely be when politicians take aim at you. When members of the House of Commons on all sides of the political spectrum reference the organization's work and debate energy and environmental issues, that counts as success. But, Pembina prides itself on being non-partisan.

And major environmental non-government organizations from the U.S. as well as Canada are turning more and more to the Pembina Institute for analysis and opinion on issues.

So why leave?

"The last seven years at Pembina have been incredibly challenging and satisfying. I absolutely love my work," says Marlo. "That's a healthy amount of time for leadership. It's time now for fresh thinking, fresh ideas and new energy."

It's 'the Pembina way' to go to great pains to plan things, and Marlo is no exception. He's has been planning his departure and transition for quite some time.

"Four years ago when our son was born we decided to start saving to take a year off, and that time arrives in mid-2011," says Marlo. He steps down as executive director in January, but will remain as a senior advisor until June. Then he and his partner Anya and children Kael, 3 and Selah, 1, will move to France to "learn French and spend some family time and do some surfing." They will return back to Canada in 2012 seeking a next chapter to contribute to protecting Canada's precious environment.

David Dodge
David Dodge

David was the host and producer of the Green Energy Futures multimedia series.


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