With roots going back to 1889, the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce has a long history of developing and influencing the city’s business landscape. Standing strong and advocating for business throughout the economic impact from both World Wars, the Great Depression, the discovery of oil in Leduc and several energy-related boom and bust cycles, the Edmonton Chamber is now one of Canada’s most influential business organizations.
The Edmonton Chamber of Commerce’s board is chaired each year by a successful, charismatic, influential, business-focused individual, and 2018 is no exception. This year, Len Rhodes, CEO and president of the Edmonton Eskimos Football Club, is excited to take the chair and bring his signature enthusiasm, passion and drive to the role.
Rhodes joined the Eskimos in 2011. He’s proud of the fact he runs one of the very few football clubs that operate as a not-for-profit organization. Winning the Grey Cup in 2015 ranks among the top five things to occur in his lifetime. Another career highlight is Northern Kickoff, where the Eskimos played in Fort McMurray in what would become the two most northern games in the history of the football league. Rhodes is also pleased about the opening of the Edmonton Eskimos Sports Bar at EIA, and he is thrilled that Edmonton is hosting the 2018 CFL Grey Cup.
“The last time we hosted the Grey Cup was 2010, and it sold out in six days,” he smiles. “From a business standpoint, we estimate that the 2018 event will generate $80-$100 million in economic impact. In 2010, hosting the game in Edmonton generated $75 million. What makes the timing so great is that this year’s game will coincide with the 40th anniversary of Commonwealth Stadium, and the 70th year of play of the Eskimos.” Rhodes will be co-chairing the Grey Cup game alongside Brad Sparrow.
Always focused on bettering the community, Rhodes is also involved in a large variety of charitable initiatives, including ending domestic violence against women, creating awareness for cancer and supporting amateur football.
In November 2016, Rhodes’ life was changed forever when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer.
“I’m a big believer that, if something touches my life, I use my platform with the Eskimos to bring awareness to the greater community,” says Rhodes. “I went to Derks and got a custom made plaid jacket in green and gold, and it became an iconic symbol for the Plaid for Dad – Prostate Cancer Canada fundraising drive. I thought I’d be happy to raise $20,000-$30,000, but I raised $57,000 in support of research for the cause! That just blew me away. The response in my network was phenomenal.”
Running one of the most beloved sports teams in the city, however, isn’t without controversy. Rhodes, never one to shy away from tackling difficult and sensitive subjects, handles this side of sports management with tact and diplomacy. Right now, the topic on everyone’s mind is the Eskimo name controversy.
“We use the Eskimo name with pride and respect,” says Rhodes firmly. “It has been the team’s name since its inception in the late 1940s. A lot of tradition comes along with the name. It’s important to know we value all of our citizens.”
Rhodes meets routinely with Natan Obed, the president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), to discuss this and other matters pertaining to the respectful representation of the Inuit people.
“I look forward to having an ongoing dialogue with him in the future,” says Rhodes. “We are listening to the conversation going on in the community. That feedback must include our own fans as well. There is a lot of conversation, and it’s been one that I’ve been listening to and having dialogues with people in the community over the past two years. Right now, the best approach is to listen to what people say. It certainly doesn’t lack different opinions. You can’t say there is a consensus on either side of the issue, but we are making sure every voice is heard.”
Rhodes brings this same even-keeled sensibility to discussions that affect the Chamber. Late last year, the Chamber released a statement about a controversial issue – the selling model for cannabis. The statement summarized, “The Edmonton Chamber of Commerce supports the Province of Alberta’s plan to adopt a private retail model for selling cannabis.”
“This is important because things are being introduced at a very fast pace,” notes Rhodes. “After spending 11 years in the beer business, my own experience and personal assessment as I’ve travelled throughout the country is that the private business model is the one that works best. The Chamber is very pleased that the government adopted a private model. The model is consistent with Alberta’s liquor system, which is very efficient. Private businesses are ready, able and willing to take on the challenge. This decision benefits business and government. Let businesses do what they do best.
“I feel like a nerd when it comes to cannabis, but I’m an expert in the beer industry! When it becomes legalized on all fronts, the private retail model is the optimal model.
“Right now, there are lots of questions surrounding cannabis and the rights of the employer and employee. Our role as the Chamber is to allow certain people to deal with certain aspects. What we were interested in was a model that is skewed toward the private system.”
Discussions like this will be ongoing for Rhodes in his role as Chamber chair, but he has plenty of experience behind him. In 2015, he became a director in the Chamber. He was asked to join after seeing the Chamber members in action at a social Eskimos event, and it didn’t take long for him to decide to align himself with the historic organization.
“What I love about the Chamber is that it’s all about business. I love commerce. I took commerce in university and worked with small businesses and large corporations since I was 14. I’m excited to play a role advocating for business because I love everything about business. It drives employment, generates income, creates revenue streams and supports citizens. The Edmonton Chamber of Commerce brings a fair and balanced perspective, offers constructive advice and bolsters the competitive environment. It encourages policy and decision makers. It champions Edmonton as the place to live and do business.”
Since joining in 2015, Rhodes has chaired the finance & risk, and policy committees.
“What I love is the diversity on the board, based on skill sets, business representation and a healthy balance when it comes to gender,” he smiles.
There are many things he’s looking forward to in his role as Chamber Chair.
“The board’s role is one of governance, financial sustainability and blessing and influencing the strategic direction of the organization, all while removing barriers in business and creating a strong business environment that allows our members to prosper. Creating value for our members is one of the most critical areas.
“There is a new economic reality in Alberta: new taxes, a 48 per cent increase in minimum wage, new costs from the carbon levy, potentially higher employer premiums with WCB and increases in corporate taxes at the federal level. All of this creates a huge burden on business. The Chamber will be a strong voice and will stand up for its members’ needs.
“Given my hectic schedule with the Canadian football league and co-chairing the Grey Cup, one of my challenges for 2018 will be giving everyone the attention they deserve. All my time management skills will be coming into play. To some people, this schedule appears to be overwhelming, but to me it’s downright exciting because each aspect of it complements the other very well.
“If you believe, as I do, that the overall community and citizens benefit from a prosperous environment, what is there not to be excited about? Business creates jobs. Jobs create wealth for citizens. Competition is tough, but companies conducive to communities will thrive. There are more opportunities than barriers. Let’s focus on them to take our businesses to the next level.”
In addition to supporting existing businesses, the Chamber supports the upcoming generation of business leaders.
“I love anything to do with scholarships,” Rhodes smiles. “We can give an opportunity to students that don’t have an opportunity for business or post-secondary education. I grew up in a low income neighbourhood in Montreal. I worked hard and was able to get post-secondary education. Now I want to give back. The Chamber has three scholarships with Junior Achievement of Northern Alberta & NWT, and one scholarship with Centre High. I’m proud that the Chamber is involved in that. There is also the Northern Lights Award of Distinction that publically honours people that make a lasting contribution in our business community. Each year, the winner is announced at the Chamber Ball. That is always a highlight!”
Rhodes knows there are some members of the business community that have not yet joined the Chamber, and he encourages them to consider membership.
“Your Chamber is pro-business,” he says. “Consolidating all of your needs into one major voice can go a long way. As a member, we can serve you best. We are the voice for small business, medium business and large business. Our business is your business. Your business is our business.
“A healthy business environment is one where business gives back to the community. As business custodians, we plant the seeds for the future; it is as important as what we do within our businesses today. Whether you want to get involved as a member, volunteer or join the board, it’s vital to unite under one umbrella. We are excited about working as a group. The Chamber stays relevant due to active participation.”
As he looks forward to the busy year ahead, Rhodes can’t help being enthusiastic and excited about all the possibilities.
“As long as I can contribute to the company I work for and to the community in which I live, I will remain motivated to continue down this road. I want to bring active leadership and two values to everything I do: innovation and creativity. As for becoming the Chamber chair, I respect the current culture and will not create radical change. I see myself as a custodian in a long line of predecessors and successors and will start every board meeting by asking ‘what’s in it for our members?’ If it is not supporting business, it will not be relevant to pursue. The Chamber is a proponent of balance. I like that. In fact, I like that a lot. Think of the Chamber as being a steady hand in a world that is changing at a rapid pace.”