Right before his senior year of high school, Norman Leach went on a bit of an adventure. At the ripe old age of 17, he left his hometown of Weyburn, Saskatchewan, to study in Nagoya, Japan. But far from floundering like a country bumpkin, Leach took to the Land of the Rising Sun like a fish to water, becoming fluent in Japanese. He even made a return trip to Japan to work at Expo ’85 and earn his black belt in judo.
“It was a very formative two years for me,” he says. “I saw how companies don’t work in the immediate [term]. You take this long-term view of things, and if you do things well, it will come back to you. But you don’t try to get everything right now.”
Evidently, though, he learned how to get everything eventually. Leach now speaks four languages and runs an export consulting firm with offices on three continents. When not working, he writes books on Canadian military history (he’s had five published), strategizes with his wife about their boutique stone import business and watches his trilingual daughters perform ballet. Prior to founding Norman Leach & Associates, he headed provincial chambers of commerce in Manitoba and Alberta and ran the 2000 Grey Cup in Calgary.
It’s all built on a cosmopolitan foundation. “My whole life has been international,” he says. “I don’t know what it would be like to not be international.” Leach also teaches international business practices at multiple universities, including the University of Lethbridge and the University of Calgary. While working for the Alberta Chamber of Commerce, he opened up the provincial government’s trade office in Mexico City, where he met his wife.
His work in Mexico reinforced earlier lessons about the importance of looking at things over the longer run. “You have to learn to be patient,” he says. “You can go to Mexico and spend two or three trips before they’ll talk business, because they just want to know who you are as an individual.”
Leach attributes his success to his abilities to pick the right people to work with and to take a macroscopic view of business. “Good people are good people, and you need to let them run things, and be there for guidance,” he says. “And I think my team would say I’m the big-picture guy.”
Assiduous analysis of that big picture lets Leach position his firm for the long run. He says Norman Leach & Associates struggled through the aftermath of the 2008 recession, but persevered and eventually returned to prosperity. “I’m a generalist,” he says. “That was a struggle for a long time, because people wanted that highly tuned specialization.”
That’s about to change, Leach believes. An aging population and low birth rate, he says, means Canada will have more jobs than it has workers to fill them by 2016. This will benefit firms that can offer clients a variety of services. If you can engage only one company, you’ll probably pick one with a broad skill set – like, say, Norman Leach & Associates, which can help with marketing, communications, export consulting and event co-ordination. “We think with this dramatic labour shortage that generalists are going to be back in vogue,” Leach says.
Not that business is bad right now, mind you. “2011 has been a great year for us, so we’re really happy with that,” he says. The firm currently works with about 13 clients, and Leach likes the company at around that size. “We’re a boutique consulting company. I never wanted to become a manager of consultants. I wanted to have my hands in it.”
Leach spends a lot of time promoting Alberta’s export products and the businesses that produce them, and his pride in both is obvious. “When Albertans say they’re going to do something, it means something,” he says. But he still sees areas in which Albertan businesses could improve. For example, while governments and businesses will pursue exporting with great enthusiasm for a time, he says, they then turn their attention elsewhere and end up undermining their own efforts. “We cut off the foreign customer,” he says. “We have to stop doing that. We need a long-term perspective.”
This article originally appeared in the December 2011 issue of Alberta Venture.