From running ONB to Toronto Global, Stephen Lund is a man on the go

Posted on April 02, 2021 | Atlantic Business Magazine | 0 Comments

Stephen Lund’s life is a series of vignettes that could spring from the pages of a Horatio Alger novel. You know: The one about a poor boy who overcomes impossible odds to succeed. But there are problems.

For one thing, the Saint John, N.B., native didn’t exactly start poor. He graduated from St. Francis Xavier (BA) and Queens University (MBA). His resume says he has “completed executive-level studies at Harvard and University of Chicago.”

For another, the 60-something doesn’t believe in “impossible”. He’s the past CEO of both Nova Scotia Business Inc. (NSBI). and Opportunities NB (ONB) and a former New Brunswick Deputy Minister of Economic Development and Small Business. In September 2020, the Atlantic Business Magazine hall of famer (inducted 2011) landed a job running Toronto Global, even though, he said, “it’s in the middle of a friggin’ pandemic.”

Rather than a tightly scripted novel, it’s probably more accurate to say Steve Lund’s life is a series of happy accidents with no discernable pattern at all.

Exhibit A, by way of anecdote: “After St. F.X., me and my best friends were all living and working in Halifax when all of sudden one of them says to then rest of us, ‘Guys, we’re all going to quit our jobs and move to Banff to drive buses’. So, at 21, we all quit our jobs, great jobs, and we moved to Banff and drove buses… We ended up going to law school and MBA and stuff like that anyway.”

Exhibit B: “So then I moved to Toronto, got a job in banking and got married. Seven years later, I was sitting around the house reading the Globe and Mail and there’s this article… manager… trust fund… job in Bermuda. So, I said to my wife, ‘Sandy, what do you think about Bermuda?’ She was teaching at the time, and she goes, ‘Sure’. So, I picked up the phone and said, ‘Hey I’m interested in this job’. (I was talking to the president). And he says, ‘How much experience do you have?’ And I said, ‘Well none.’ And he goes, ‘What are you? I’ve got 20 people on a short list, all with 20 years’ experience.’ So, I said, ‘Here’s the deal: If I fly down, will you give me five minutes of your time?’ Anyway, long story short, I cold-called the Island and got a great job.”

Exhibits C and D: “While I’m in Bermuda, I get this call about a job in venture capital in Halifax. I didn’t get it. I wrote the president a letter and said, ‘You made a mistake.’ And he flew down Saturday morning, and we spent seven hours together. I got the job.

“And then, after I was in Halifax for a while, I got this call about a new job. Nova Scotia Premier John Hamm was setting up this new agency, Nova Scotia Business Inc., in 2001. Anyway, I was running it and in 2005… I remember this like it was yesterday… we had a guy in from New York who was the head of real estate for the biggest hedge fund company in the world. We spent a couple of days with him. Before he left, he looked at me and said, ‘Why in the world would I set up an office for my company in Halifax?’ He said, ‘This is a dead city. There’s not a single crane in the sky.’ And he was right, and that’s when we took off.”

He added: “None of these companies come here on their own. You got to be on the phone and be in front of people and tell your story. That’s how you get ahead.”

Not a pattern, then. But maybe a theme.

When Lund left NSBI in 2013, before taking up the gauntlet at its provincial counterpart ONB, its board chair Janice Stairs said his “leadership, dedication and perseverance has helped attract some of the top companies in the world, has helped create new jobs in our economy and has helped strategically position Nova Scotia internationally as a great place to do business.”

In fact, thanks to him and (he hastens to emphasize) the team of people he hired, Nova Scotia was for one, shining moment “the best-performing region in North America in attracting inward investment,” according to fDi Intelligence. (According to their Twitter bio, fDi is a “world leader in investment promotion solutions powered by data and media from the Financial Times.”)

When he left ONB in 2020, after five years on the job, he and his hand-picked team had attracted some of the top companies in the world and transformed the province into one of the top jurisdictions in Canada for cybersecurity. “Stephen has been a leader in the field,” New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs told local media at the time of Lund’s departure. “He’s represented us well, not only throughout Canada but in other countries as well.”

So, what narrative does fit Lund’s decidedly nomadic 30-year career now that he’s about to write another chapter of it?

He paused, visibly annoyed by the fact that we were talking about this via video and not, for example, yakking over a beer or two (the way he did some years ago when he hopped on a plane and showed up unannounced at former U.S. Ambassador to Canada David Wilkins’ Washington office because… well… why the hell not?).

“To say that I am excited about the opportunity to join the highly respected team is an understatement,” he told the Toronto Global scribes who penned the press release about his hiring. “The Toronto region is a powerhouse on the international stage and is only becoming more attractive to international investors as we navigate these unchartered waters in the post-COVID era.”

Less diplomatically, he confessed, “At first, I wasn’t particularly keen about moving to Toronto after living in the Maritimes for a while. But I went through the process and the more I did, the more I got interested in the job.”

Then he stressed, “Coming out of this pandemic, someone has to lead. And, in my view, it’s got to be Toronto in terms of Canada. We really need to step up and take the lead and work with everybody else, but I want to position our organization and Toronto as the leading place in North America. I really like Toronto. I mean, I’m on the international stage. I chat with people around the world at some pretty senior levels. I just knew it was a good fit for me.”

Maybe there is a pattern to all of this, after all.

“Look,” he said without a shred of bravado or boast, “it’s just about confidence.”

Slice of Life
Working mind and body: The pandemic has kept Lund mindful that “the big challenge through this pandemic” is mental, especially for the young. He’s a Junior Achievement champion.

Feels like a health nut: Lund refuses to let COVID-19 throw him off his game. “I exercise five days a week. I still work out. I’ve even taken up cycling.”

Missing the fire of ice: How is the former Canadian University Hockey Championship player handling his forced absence from the rink? “We just have to get through this.”

In the family way: Lund and his wife Sandy appreciate their pug Humphrey. They’re also pretty fond of their two sons Connor and Shaun.

Café spontaneity: Once, on a whim, Lund flew to Silicon Valley to invite Google’s COO out for a coffee. They went. The billionaire paid. Lund puts that in the win category.

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