Michael Waters

Michael, the CEO of the Minto Group of Companies, began his talk with a brief history of how Minto started from its humble beginnings in the 1950s and how it has grown to become one of the most successful Ottawa-based companies.

When Michael joined as CFO in 2007, Minto had been operating as five small businesses completely autonomous of one another. Recognizing that he had to pull together the backbone of the company’s financial systems, Michael launched an initiative called “One Minto” – a project that continues to this day and includes several different elements. The subsequent key challenges he noted were people, leadership and culture change, technology, strategy, and performance management. Michael continues to work on all of these in his role as the CEO.

Michael’s people strategy revolved around quickly identifying individuals who were not interested in change, and bringing in high energy people from outside to “push the pace and make it happen”. Michael stated that, “What I learned about change management was to accept the fact that some people will never buy in, and then to focus on those who do buy in and the waverers in the middle.” It is also important to be able to handpick people who would fit within the organization.

Michael had many interesting things to say about strategy and execution. He focused on four main themes: growth, diversification, asset management and focus.

  • The growth pillar was important for Minto in order to attract and retain the best talent. If there are no opportunities for people to grow their careers and take that organization to the next level, they will not stay.
  • The diversification pillar was important to ensure that the company can reallocate its capital into markets other than Ottawa including different areas of Florida where distressed vendors are selling off good land at low prices.  Diversification and growth also meant that Minto had to build partnerships to raise more capital from institutions such as pension funds, etc.
  • This began Minto’s entry in asset management on behalf of institutions.
  • The fourth pillar was focus. Minto decided to focus on those product classes where Minto had scale. For example, it was determined that the condominium and real estate brokerage businesses were no longer strategically relevant, so the decision was made to exit these markets.

Michael also discussed the increased need for business planning and a performance management process that increases the level of accountability. At Minto, the definition of success is based on a return on equity. By clarifying this, Michael believes he has simplified the decision-making process for the new “non-family” management team. He discussed the importance of aligning compensation for the team in a way that is somewhat similar to the way the family members were aligned as shareholders. He set up a compensation scheme that encourages them to feel and act like shareholders all of the time.  Michael then admitted that coming up with a compensation scheme has been a big challenge. “I’ve learned you never get it quite right.”

One of the biggest challenges Michael has had in his tenure as CEO is communicating effectively to hundreds of staff “to make a connection and get across the purpose – or the “why” – of what we are doing.” He said he is continuously looking for ways to connect one-on-one or in small groups. Although this is very challenging given the time required, he feels it is important to do so. He has learned there must be a constant flow of communication and the key messages must be repeated over and over in different ways, and through different mediums, to ensure that the overarching purpose of the organization is clear to everyone. According to Michael it is important to tell people “why” you do what you do, rather than just tell them “what” you do, “because people are emotional,” he explained. “If you articulate the why and people believe it, they will buy from you.”

Michael credits his success thus far to some great mentors, who he said he’s made a point to seek out informally in his life. He plans to continue “calibrating the pace of change”, acknowledging that in the early part of anyone’s mandate it is key to keep up the momentum. He also recognizes his own impatience and that there are times when he has to hold back a little. “It’s about not going too fast — but knowing you don’t have forever.”

He will continue to stick to his “4 P” rule for Minto’s future success:

  1. Is there a plan?
  2. Is it in line with the overall strategy (profit)?
  3. Are the right people assigned?
  4. Is this outside of the regular process?

As you can see, Michael’s talk covered a lot of bases, and we at CRGroup thank him for taking the time to share his thoughts.

Stay tuned for the next event in this series, currently planned for Spring 2015. As you may recall, the first speaker in the series was Steve Wazak who presented last October. You can read my summary of his talk here.


Dr. Vijay Jog

Founder and President

Corporate Renaissance Group