Business leaders welcome release of the Indo-Pacific Strategy

Dawn Farrell is President and CEO of TransAlta, the Calgary-based power company.

TransAlta started with a single hydro generating station more than a century ago. It now operates more than 70 power plants in Canada, the United States, and Australia.

Dawn is a fascinating, introspective leader who really speaks her mind – and that makes for one hell of an interview.

In this episode she opens up about her humble childhood, how she and her husband built their family through adoption, and why despite her success, she still considers herself a lousy leader. Dawn has strong opinions about Canada’s energy future, the ever-shifting regulatory environment, and what it will take for men and women to truly share the leadership podium in business.

The transcript can be found here. Please note that the transcript is unedited.

Goldy Hyder:

Welcome to Speaking of Business. Conversations with Canadian innovators, entrepreneurs, and business leaders. I’m Goldy Hyder of The Business Council of Canada. Today, I’m speaking with Dawn Farrell, President and CEO of TransAlta, the Calgary-based power company. TransAlta started with a single hydro generating station more than a century ago. It now operates more than 70 power plants in Canada, the United States, and Australia. Dawn is a fascinating, introspective leader who really speaks her mind, which I’ve got to tell you makes for one hell of an interview.

Goldy Hyder:

In this episode, she opens up about her humble childhood, how she and her husband built their family through adoption, and why, despite her success, she still considers herself a lousy leader. Dawn has strong opinions about Canada’s energy future, the ever-shifting regulatory environment, and what it will take for men and women to truly share the leadership podium in business. I’m really excited to share this fascinating and revealing conversation.

Goldy Hyder:

Dawn, great to see you. Thanks for doing this.

Dawn Farrell:

Thanks, Goldy.

Goldy Hyder:

Let’s start with, who is Dawn Farrell?

Dawn Farrell:

Well-

Goldy Hyder:

Now, remember, we have 40 minutes.

Dawn Farrell:

Yeah. Dawn Farrell’s a pretty simple person. I mean, I’m a wife, a mother, a grandmother, and a CEO, kind of in that order. I’ve been married for 38 years. I have two daughters, 31 and 31, four grandchildren. The most important thing for me is my family life, and so I’m a worker. I’m an Alberta woman, which means I work 18 hours a day like every other woman in Alberta. I spend most of my time either working on TransAlta or issues surrounding TransAlta or working on behalf of my family, so I’m pretty simple.

Goldy Hyder:

Now, I know you to be a really proud Albertan. You were born right here in Calgary.

Dawn Farrell:

Yeah.

Goldy Hyder:

Tell us about your childhood.

Dawn Farrell:

When I was born, my parents were young. They were 17 and 18, and they took me how to a trailer in Forest Lawn. My father and mother worked their butts off.

Goldy Hyder:

What did they do?

Dawn Farrell:

My father was a heavy duty mechanic who became a beekeeper, and my mother was a homemaker who worked in my grandmother’s dress store. We all worked in the dress store. My grandmother was an entrepreneur and she [crosstalk 00:02:24]-

Goldy Hyder:

Now, you said beekeeper, right?

Dawn Farrell:

Yeah, he became a beekeeper.

Goldy Hyder:

That must have been pretty cool.

Dawn Farrell:

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Spending your summers extracting honey is really, really cool.

Goldy Hyder:

Do you like honey?

Dawn Farrell:

I like honey, but I learned how to work in a honey house.

Goldy Hyder:

Do you give them some credit for your business savvy? Watching them struggle and make-

Dawn Farrell:

Well, my father was… He’s very self-made. He left school at grade seven, same thing as a lot of people had in those days. My parents got married early. They wanted to be married. They wanted to really set us in a different path. He really wanted me to go to university. I’m the only child who’s gone to university on both sides of the family. He wanted me to break away, so what he did is he set himself up through his life. They saved money. They were beekeepers. They had gardens. He hunted. It was all about providing a very strong family life. We rode on the river fishing, doing stuff like that. At the end of the day, we learned how to work. We learned the values of our working class family, but we also learned about contributing and driving towards something bigger than where we came from.

Goldy Hyder:

Where you Daddy’s girl?

Dawn Farrell:

I am like my father a lot. I’m the oldest of three and he’s a very strong-minded individual. There’s the myth of the Alberta rugged individual, never need anybody. That is my father. That does exist. He taught me how to be very independent in my thinking. He also taught me… He argued with me for 18 years. I left home at 18. We argued at the kitchen table every night.

Goldy Hyder:

Over what?

Dawn Farrell:

Everything. He was convinced that the schools were full of socialists and that I was going to become one, and so he argued [crosstalk 00:04:10]-

Goldy Hyder:

Boy, did he guess wrong.

Dawn Farrell:

He argued economic theory, he argued about the way society was, he argued of values. What he did for me as a woman is he made it so that I was never fearful of men ever. When I got to TransAlta, I remember the CEO that I worked for, Ken McCready, said to me [crosstalk 00:04:30]-

Goldy Hyder:

Now, were you… You were his EA?

Dawn Farrell:

I was his EA.

Goldy Hyder:

Yeah, so you started out as TransAlta’s Executive Assistant to the [crosstalk 00:04:35]-

Dawn Farrell:

No, no. I started out as forecasting. I ran the economic [crosstalk 00:04:39]-

Goldy Hyder:

Okay, and then you worked way up?

Dawn Farrell:

Model for Alberta. Yeah.

Goldy Hyder:

You became the Executive Assistant to the CEO?

Dawn Farrell:

Yeah. In 1988, I did a presentation and he happened to be in the room and he phoned me the next day and asked me to be his Executive Assistant. I remember one day he said to me, “Why are you so”… What was the word he used? “Irreverent?” I went, “What does that mean? What is irreverent?” He goes, “You just-

Goldy Hyder:

No Google back then to look it up-

Dawn Farrell:

Yeah, “You just-

Goldy Hyder:

Quickly, either.

Dawn Farrell:

“You just don’t seem to back down to anybody.”

Goldy Hyder:

Right.

Dawn Farrell:

It can be the Chairman of the Board and I’m like, “Oh.” I think my Dad taught me that. I say to men, when you have daughters, please give them the full meal deal so that when they go out in the world-

Goldy Hyder:

Be tough enough.

Dawn Farrell:

They can be tough enough.

Goldy Hyder:

What did your Mom teach you?

Dawn Farrell:

Well, my mother’s a beautiful, beautiful homemaker, so she taught me how to cook, she taught me how to clean. She taught me how to take care of babies. She taught me how to love children. She loves children more than anything in the world, so does my father, so my husband and I inherited that.

Goldy Hyder:

What about values? Where does values fit into your upbringing?

Dawn Farrell:

Well, my father was about truth and integrity, so you could never make a mistake, but if you didn’t tell the truth, you were dead.

Goldy Hyder:

Yeah, that sounds familiar.

Dawn Farrell:

Yeah, yeah. Now, he wasn’t about finding ways to tell the truth without hurting people, so as you know, I’m very straightforward, very tell it like it is [crosstalk 00:05:58]-

Goldy Hyder:

You’re irreverent, I’m being told.

Dawn Farrell:

Yeah, yeah. In some ways when I think about it now, there’s telling the truth and there’s learning how to tell the truth gracefully so that you’re kinder. That’s been one of my lifelong practices is saying, “Okay, you need to tell the truth, but you also need to be kind. Will it really matter if you tell the truth at this moment? Maybe it doesn’t. Maybe you should just walk away from this.”

Goldy Hyder:

Yeah. I don’t know about you, but as parents now, my wife and I always think back to, “Boy, we can’t do it as well as our parents did it.” Do you ever look back and say, “You know, despite all the challenges”, and clearly there were challenges, “That in some ways those were simpler times and-

Dawn Farrell:

Oh yeah. Yeah, yeah. I have two daughters and both of my daughters… We weren’t able to have biological children, so both of our children were gifted to us from beautiful women who decided to allow other people to parent their girls. Cara came at… She was two weeks old when her mother handed her to us, and Jessie was three days old when we picked her up at the hospital. They’re 13 months apart and both have Aboriginal background as well. Cara, of course, she looks like her mother and, if she wanted to, she could have treaty rights. Jessica looks like a typical First Nations person in Canada, and she doesn’t have treaty rights, so it just shows you how our system works.

Goldy Hyder:

How much did you… I mean, that’s a fascinating part of you. I didn’t know all of that. I knew some of that. How much of their heritage and their history has helped shape your thoughts on this critical issue of indigenous rights?

Dawn Farrell:

When Cara and Jessica became our children, we really thought that we would do more on the First Nations side, and then it turned out that we’re a big… Brendan’s got five sisters and a brother and I’ve got a family and we’re all family people and we’ve got 40 cousins.

Goldy Hyder:

A lot on your plate.

Dawn Farrell:

All of that stuff, and we just couldn’t figure out how to connect to the Aboriginal community. It didn’t really work the way we thought it would, but when I got to BC Hydro, I got accountability for First Nations issues, so I used that to really, really study the whole thing. I studied the Constitution. I studied all the Supreme Court cases. I negotiated a bunch of deals in BC, and then I met a bunch of leaders. I was able to sort of say, “Okay, what really goes on here?” Having the girls really made me curious about what that’s all about so that as they get older and if they do ever want to really connect into that, I’ve got all the network for them.

Goldy Hyder:

Right. That’s interesting time. I mean, I normally don’t get this heavy this quickly into the podcast, but this is a serious subject, the whole issue of reconciliation and-

Dawn Farrell:

I have to say, I probably have a different… I’m very, very proud of what Cara and Jessica have been able to accomplish. Cara’s an amazing entrepreneur. She’s 32 years old. She and her husband have a business that they run. They have four children and they are amazing. Jessica is 31. She works at Mbridge. She got a philosophy degree. She does pipeline optimization work. She’s taking her MBA at U of C. Amazing. These are amazing people. I look at them and I go, “Yeah-

Goldy Hyder:

Pretty good role model at home, too, though.

Dawn Farrell:

Yeah. Well, no. What they were able to do is they were able to take advantage of all things. They had a safe environment, they were able to be educated, they had very strict parents, very high expectations, and they’re incredible people. They’re not related to me biologically-

Goldy Hyder:

But you shaped them?

Dawn Farrell:

But I’ve helped them find out who they really are because when children are gifted to you… You’ll notice I don’t like the world “adoption” because I think it has a terrible [crosstalk 00:09:37]-

Goldy Hyder:

It is a gift, isn’t it?

Dawn Farrell:

Connotation. When I child is gifted to you and you’re allowed to parent, it’s different than when I think you have a child. I don’t know because I never had one, but you have no assumption about who that child is. You have to help them find themselves. We support a school through TransAlta which is my pet project. Every CO has to have their pet project. Mine is Mother of School. It’s a charter school up by our plants and 70 babies go into that school and they get to grade nine and they’re protected in that school. They get a traditional education on the First Nations side and then they also write the exams for grade three, six, and nine. We’re getting results out of that.

Goldy Hyder:

Now, education was a dominant theme in your response here to both your own upbringing and those of your children. Let’s go back to that. You enrolled at the University of Calgary. You worked at a Bachelor of Commerce and then you continued to do a Masters in Economics. During that time, do you remember, did you have your eyes set on a particular job or particular career?

Dawn Farrell:

First of all, I loved school.

Goldy Hyder:

It’s the learning that gets you?

Dawn Farrell:

Yeah. One of the things that’s interesting about my story is the first institution I ever stepped into in my entire life was when I was six and a half years old. I stepped into grade one at Le Roi Daniels. I walked in and I went, “Oh my God. It’s not a sandbox with my brother. There’s stuff out here.” I went home, set up my room and started teaching that day. I loved school. When I got to university, I’d left school and I didn’t think I could go to university. I ended up going to Grande Prairie.

Dawn Farrell:

I finally went over to the college and somebody helped me in. They said to me, “What do you think you’d like to do?” I said, “Well, I’m working in this newspaper. I thought I wanted to be a journalist, but I don’t think I do anymore.” This lady said to me, “Well, if you had any job in that newspaper, what would it be?” I said, “Oh, that’s simple. I’d be the owner. That guy’s got to fix that place. It’s not working.” She goes, “Okay, we’ll put you in business.” Grande Prairie gave me four months to get me going, and then I went to U of C.

Dawn Farrell:

When I got my Master’s degree, I was standing in the library and one of the professors was there. He said, “What are you going to do now that you’ve graduated from your Bachelor of Commerce?” I said, “I don’t know.” He said, “Well, why don’t you come and take your Master’s in economics? You loved economics.” I said, “Oh, I could never do a Master’s. I couldn’t afford to do that.” He walked me across, he filled out the application with me, and I did my Master’s. There’s these angels in your life, Goldy, that are just sitting there. They’re standing there and they’re just waiting to help you, and if you can be open in those moments, you can get to places you’d never in a million years thought you could get to, right?

Goldy Hyder:

Find your angel.

Dawn Farrell:

For me, thinking about whether or not I was going to be a CEO when I didn’t even think I could get to university, no. It wasn’t on my mind, but I worked in my grandmother’s store, I worked in my Dad’s apiary. I was around businesspeople all of the time. Thinking about business and how you can make it work and how you could really do things, that was always on my mind.

Goldy Hyder:

Well, I’m going to come to this. People who have that operational streak and then go on to become leaders. We’ll come back to that as a theme, but I do want to stay with your journey in your career. I mean, pretty much most of your time has been at TransAlta, but there is that period in 2003 where you were-

Dawn Farrell:

I went to BC Hydro, yeah.

Goldy Hyder:

What drew you to that role?

Dawn Farrell:

I didn’t get the role I wanted at TransAlta, and the consolation prize was I got to go to the Harvard Business School and do a [inaudible 00:13:05] program.

Goldy Hyder:

Seems like a pretty good consolation prize, by the way.

Dawn Farrell:

Well, the CEO that I worked for, Steve Snyder, was very, very smart and I think he knew that if I went to Harvard it would give me the confidence to leave. He was a GE guy, and at GE, often people leave and they recruit them back. I think he knew that if I stayed at TransAlta, I couldn’t achieve what I wanted to achieve.

Goldy Hyder:

Leaving was a big part of that?

Dawn Farrell:

Leaving was a big part of it, so he helped me leave by sending me to Harvard. When I came back, I literally… There was a job that had come up at BC Hydro and I left. Then, Steve, to his credit, flew to Vancouver every six months and had coffee with me to see how I was doing. Then, when I came back to Calgary [crosstalk 00:13:45]-

Goldy Hyder:

He’s Steve Snyder, by the way.

Dawn Farrell:

Yeah, when I came back to Calgary kind of four years later and said, “I have an opportunity to be the CEO of X, what do you think about that?” He said, “You shouldn’t do that.” He said, “This is an industry that you don’t know. You’re a big infrastructure person. This is retail banking. You don’t want to do that.” He talked me into coming back. I came back to the job that I didn’t get, so I was very pleased about that.

Goldy Hyder:

Which job was that?

Dawn Farrell:

It was the Head of all Commercial and Trading.

Goldy Hyder:

Why did you want that job?

Dawn Farrell:

I love commercial work and trading. I love that business, and I’d started our trading business.

Goldy Hyder:

Did you think you could do it better?

Dawn Farrell:

Well, you know what was interesting about going to BC Hydro is I came back a much stronger person because, you know what you find out when you leave a company? Is the only thing you can’t change when you leave a company, leave a city, move your family, move jobs, a year later you wake up and you find out that you’ve brought yourself with you. You still have the same flaws that you had in the old company. You have to transform yourself, and that was a great, great experience. I learned a lot about myself in that experience and I learned a lot of new skills.

Goldy Hyder:

How much of that was knowledge acquired through dealing with challenges? Or adversity? Or…

Dawn Farrell:

Well, it’s always… I mean, I’m not the greatest leader, so-

Goldy Hyder:

You call yourself a lousy leader, actually, I read somewhere.

Dawn Farrell:

Yeah, yeah.

Goldy Hyder:

Why do you do that?

Dawn Farrell:

Yeah, because I am a lousy leader. I’m emotional, I’m too passionate at times.

Goldy Hyder:

Is it a flaw to have passion as a leader?

Dawn Farrell:

It can be a flaw if you’re intense. I’m very intense and I have [crosstalk 00:15:17]-

Goldy Hyder:

I love that about you, by the way.

Dawn Farrell:

Yeah, yeah, well, that’s because you’re a leader, but when you’re working for a leader who’s like that, you don’t know how to read that person and the signals are different. Having to learn through my career how to be less intense, which is very, very difficult for me because I don’t even know… There’s degrees of intensity and I don’t even [crosstalk 00:15:39]-

Goldy Hyder:

You got [crosstalk 00:15:40] to charter off at [crosstalk 00:15:40]-

Dawn Farrell:

I’m not in the chart, like at the top 10 percentile, so-

Goldy Hyder:

That’s the Richter scale [crosstalk 00:15:43]-

Dawn Farrell:

Yeah, the Richter scale is way below what I am. Going to BC Hydro, you try to get things done and you’re driving everybody crazy and you’re not really accomplishing what you want to accomplish. You have to really look at yourself and say, “Okay, if I want to be effective as a leader, what do I have to change?”

Goldy Hyder:

Now, was that a self-awareness moment? Or was that through performance reviews and someone taking you aside and saying, “Hey, Dawn, geez, you’re intense, we’ve got to calm you down”?

Dawn Farrell:

No. I mean, I always knew that. I knew that from the time I was 30.

Goldy Hyder:

It’s who you are.

Dawn Farrell:

It’s who you are, and it’s getting people that are willing to take you on, willing to coach you, willing to push back. I did a lot of 360s in my career. I did a lot on my own. I actually would do my own 360. I’d go meet with people and say, “Okay, I’m trying to be effective. How do I impact you? Here’s what I think I do.”

Goldy Hyder:

People told you the truth?

Dawn Farrell:

If you tell the people what you think the truth might be and you’re searching for answers, they will tell you the truth. If you say, “I’m here for a 360, please tell me how great I am, I really want to know”, of course they’re not going to tell you the truth. If you say, “Look, I know in that meeting the other day that I was trying to get a point across. You looked really stressed. You left. I know I didn’t land the point. What could I have done differently. How could we have had that dialogue differently?”

Goldy Hyder:

Do you still do that?

Dawn Farrell:

I do. I did a 360 in April of 2018 and I had a friend of mine do it for me. I changed some things in April of 2018 that have made me more effective. We’re never going to be perfect, but I’m more effective than I was in April of 2018, which is really only… I thought I had done it like three years ago, and it was only actually just over a year ago.

Goldy Hyder:

You mentioned mentors and the role of mentorship. Tell me about some mentors in your life and how you are a mentor today.

Dawn Farrell:

I had many mentors, so Ken McCready was one of my top [crosstalk 00:17:32]-

Goldy Hyder:

The CEO that you worked for.

Dawn Farrell:

Mentors. Jim Leslie and I worked on sustainability starting in 1988. Steve Snyder, Dale Huntingford, all of the people [crosstalk 00:17:41]-

Goldy Hyder:

All men.

Dawn Farrell:

That I worked with. Yeah. Stella Thompson-

Goldy Hyder:

Does it matter that they were men?

Dawn Farrell:

No, we had women as well. It was harder to find women role models, but June Wasnie came to work on strategy here, so she mentored me. Stella Thompson, she’s one of our big corporate leaders here, she mentored me. Over on my Chemours Board, Mary, she’s one of the other women on the board. She’s about 10 years ahead of me. Fantastic.

Goldy Hyder:

What makes them good mentors?

Dawn Farrell:

Well, first of all, you have to be a good mentee. Again, I’m not the best mentor for people because I’m too intense, so people are afraid to ask for mentorship from me.

Goldy Hyder:

You look like a lead by example kind of mentor.

Dawn Farrell:

I don’t know. Other people would have to tell you if that’s true or not, but I think at the end of the day what I’ve found is I’m really, really curious. I’m a great mentee. I’m like, “Okay”… I will ask people 10,000 questions because I really want to know [crosstalk 00:18:38]-

Goldy Hyder:

Curiosity seems to come out in every conversation that I have, that that’s really a trait of leadership.

Dawn Farrell:

Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I think it it is, and I think that’s a natural… That started at six and a half. First day of school, I’m like, “Oh my God. There’s a world out here. They’ll teach you how to read.” Right?

Goldy Hyder:

Right.

Dawn Farrell:

It’s curiosity.

Goldy Hyder:

What about your evolution as a leader now? I mean, here we are, you turned 60 in 2020. You know, it’s the new 50, so you’re good.

Dawn Farrell:

No it’s not. I feel 60.

Goldy Hyder:

You’re good. We talked earlier about your self-assessment as being a lousy leader, which I think is harsh, but nevertheless, are you getting to that stage in your life where you’re looking back and saying, “I’ve become a much better leader”?

Dawn Farrell:

No, I don’t think so. I don’t think I am.

Goldy Hyder:

Are you that same person still?

Dawn Farrell:

No, I don’t think I’m the same person, but I’m still not the leader that I would have wanted to be. I look back and I go, “Man, I wish I could have done it differently”, but I think that’s what leadership is about. I think if you start to drink some Kool-Aid that you’re some [crosstalk 00:19:40]-

Goldy Hyder:

You’ve arrived.

Dawn Farrell:

Special person and you’ve arrived, I think you’re losing the thread. I think leadership changes, too. What you have to be curious about today wasn’t what you had to be curious about 10 years ago. How you need to move with people today wasn’t the same as what it was 10 years ago. You have to be constantly evolving.

Goldy Hyder:

Social media’s had a big impact on that, leadership-

Dawn Farrell:

That’s right.

Goldy Hyder:

How’s it changed you?

Dawn Farrell:

It’s made me very nervous about being human.

Goldy Hyder:

Ouch.

Dawn Farrell:

Yeah, it has. I’m a religious person and I believe in forgiveness and I watch the way the crowd comes out and takes people down single-handedly piece by piece and tears people apart, jumps all over them, swarms them, ruins their lives because of things they did 10 years ago or 20 years ago when those things were acceptable then or were at least not called out. I think, “Oh my God. I’m sure I had leadership moments were I was a real bag and I said terrible things. I was frustrated and I left a room and I slammed a door.” I just go, “That could happen to me.”

Goldy Hyder:

Is there any good in social media?

Dawn Farrell:

I think dialogue is good and I think people having diverse perspectives is good. I think the name calling and the compartmentalizing and the putting people in buckets and the swarming is actually overtaking [crosstalk 00:21:02]-

Goldy Hyder:

It’s becoming [crosstalk 00:21:02]-

Dawn Farrell:

The dialogue.

Goldy Hyder:

It’s become a big part of business life, though, now, when you think about… Particularly in your business, the need for public engagement, the need for that so-called “social license”.

Dawn Farrell:

You know, Goldy, I think we were raised at the same time where you have to be responsible for what you say. You shouldn’t just be able to say whatever you want to say just because it happens to come to your mind. I think there is having really good dialogue but being responsible for it, and so I do find on social media there’s this drive-by shooting mentality. I’m not sure how that contributes to a constructive dialogue about change and how we can all move ahead.

Goldy Hyder:

Now, you operate in, I’m sorry to say this, but it’s a pretty man’s world still in-

Dawn Farrell:

Yeah.

Goldy Hyder:

The space that you’re in. You and I were just in a meeting of business leaders the other night and it struck me, “There’s only one woman in the room.” What are we going to do about that? There’s obviously a lot that people are starting to do about that and bringing more representation on boards and in C-suites. Do you think that way? Or do you just go pure merit?

Dawn Farrell:

Well, I mean, it’s 200 years before men and women can share the podium together. I’ve operated on two management teams where I’ve had 50-50 split. One, because Bob Elton at BC Hydro insisted on it and really taught me what that looks like because I do think men and women together are unbeatable. It’s an unbeatable combination. Then, I made that happen at TransAlta.

Goldy Hyder:

You didn’t need anybody to tell you to do that? You just did it?

Dawn Farrell:

Bob showed me the way. He was very clear that it had to be done and he was very clear about it was a quota. It was quota and merit and he just sought to find the best women. Then, I took his lead and kept going and I did it on the board as well. We have lots of women on our board, too. Not 50-50 yet, but we’re getting there. I really believe in the power of the male and the female. I think we were put here. There’s two of us here on the Earth and it’s probably good that we share the leadership podium, but we’re a long ways away from that. We’re a long ways away because the men have to move over, for sure. They have to help with the children and they have to help with the housework. They cannot put all of that on their wives. They cannot do that anymore. If women are going to share the podium, they can’t take on everything at home.

Dawn Farrell:

On the other hand, women have to give up some of the ground as well. They have to share the children and they have to share the house, and then they have to go into the workplace and they have to quit fussing so much about things not being the way that they should be. They have to figure out how to get into the workforce because it takes a different kind of personality to lead and to run things. You can’t have a heart attack every time somebody looks sideway at you. You can’t leave the room and feel bad about yourself because you didn’t get your own way. You have to actually learn how to fight, learn how to lose, learn how to fight, learn how to win, learn how to fight, learn how to lose, and keep on trucking. I think women have a lot… Women have never had power. We’ve never worked together in power. We have so much to learn.

Goldy Hyder:

Are women tougher on other women?

Dawn Farrell:

I’m tougher on other women.

Goldy Hyder:

Why?

Dawn Farrell:

I want them to succeed. I’m tougher [crosstalk 00:24:15]-

Goldy Hyder:

You’re doing them a favor?

Dawn Farrell:

Well, I feel like I am. I don’t think they feel that way, but I really, really, really want them to hang in there and succeed. If I lose a woman to another company, I’m happy because I got another woman out there, but if a woman leaves here because she doesn’t feel like she got her spot her, I’m really unhappy.

Goldy Hyder:

Let’s talk about TransAlta. You obviously know it as well as you know anything. I mean, it’s a power company from 1911. Surely it’s gone through all kinds of transitions over the years, and that evolution continues to this day. How has it changed over the course of your career? Where, more importantly, are you taking it as CEO today?

Dawn Farrell:

Well, when I started in ’85, we were a regulated utility. We were the largest generator here in Alberta. We had 80% of the generation in the market. Very small distribution, very small transmission, but we were the big generator. We started in 1911 with hydro. We built coal plants in the ’50s and the ’70s and the ’80s. We’d opened up an IPP business in the ’90s, which I ran. We’d just started deregulation and we set up a trading business in ’95, which I started. We always came from the regulated cost of service side of the business, so we have this incredible sense of values to the community. We’re a service company.

Dawn Farrell:

We’re the type of company if there’s a snowstorm, everybody at TransAlta would be out digging everybody out. We have a very strong service mentality, but we also have a very strong regulated mentality, which is very, very slow moving, very bureaucratic, very set it its ways, very engineering and technical-focused. We’d gone through several near-death experiences in a hundred years. We almost died several times.

Goldy Hyder:

Yeah, you talked about that recently as 2015.

Dawn Farrell:

Well, in 2015, we were presented with a climate policy from the NDP that had you had to be off coal by 2030. We’d just finished building and investing $900 million in a brand new coal station [crosstalk 00:26:17]-

Goldy Hyder:

Based on a long runway of paying for that investment [crosstalk 00:26:19]

Dawn Farrell:

For six years. Off coal by 2030, 5,000 megawatts will come into the market, which will pound the prices to zero and a carbon tax of $30, and so the market took our stock from 12.50 to $3.50. Investors, I’m sure, were trying behind the scenes to get me fired. It was a disaster. It was a mess. When you talk about getting down and getting dirty, we had to get down and get dirty and figure out how to do the [crosstalk 00:26:47]-

Goldy Hyder:

How hard was that [crosstalk 00:26:47] for you?

Dawn Farrell:

Oh, it was terrible. How hard was it? When I say terrible-

Goldy Hyder:

Some people thrive on the crisis, right?

Dawn Farrell:

I’m a woman, so I laid awake and I was desperately worried about losing everybody’s jobs, everybody’s pensions, all our shareholders’ money. It was terrible. It was just like, “If you don’t find a way through here-

Goldy Hyder:

Was this the [crosstalk 00:27:13]-

Dawn Farrell:

So many people-

Goldy Hyder:

Burden of-

Dawn Farrell:

Are going to be hurt.

Goldy Hyder:

Was it that? Or was it even more than that? Like this, “I can’t fail as a woman. I can’t fail as-

Dawn Farrell:

That I didn’t care about so much. I did use that to get some things done, like, “I’m not failing as a woman, so you better help me here or I’m going to take you down because I have nothing to lose.” It wasn’t that. It was more that I had started in this company in ’85. We have retirees that I go to the retirees luncheon who are people who sat in the next cubicle to me in ’85 who are the sales manager, who are the head of regulatory, the head of planning. I’ve got all our retirees, I’ve got all our employees, I’ve got all our shareholders. Our shareholders were widows and orphans. I have letters from women who are like, “You are the worst person in the world. You have destroyed this company.” I had those letters.

Goldy Hyder:

Do they motivate you?

Dawn Farrell:

Yeah, yeah, because at the end of the day, it was in service to those people that we had to find a way to save this company. The company was in serious trouble.

Goldy Hyder:

What did you do?

Dawn Farrell:

Well, we first of all did an analysis of our debt situation and the bankers came back and said, “Well, we got good news and bad news. Good news is you’re not going bankrupt. The bad news is you’re not going bankrupt. You can actually pay your debt off but you can’t do another thing, so start going on a debt diet.” We put ourselves on a debt diet. We had floated TransAlta Renewables, so we took some money out of that to continue to pay down the debt at TransAlta. We had a team and we worked on government policy, so our first thing was to get some sort of compensation from the government for closing out coal.

Dawn Farrell:

We got that deal done a year later, which helped us start to recover. Then, we changed our strategy. We decided to get off coal. No one believed us, so we went out and we did all the engineering to convert our coal plants to gas. We built a gas pipeline, which we just commissioned this year. We started doing gas deals, and then we went and got some money. We went to Brookfield and did a deal with them to get some cash so that we could fund our strategy. We just put all of the pieces in place piece by piece by piece. Basically, what we did is we said, “Okay, climate change is a problem. Canadians believe it’s a problem. There will be policies for carbon taxes in this country forever. It’s never going to change. It won’t matter if there’s conservative government or liberal government, and NDP government. This is what the Canadian people want, so we have to evolve our strategy to that.”

Dawn Farrell:

We actually took what had been pushed on us, we embraced it, we turned it around, and we decided to build a strategy around it. Now, we’ve got this great strategy on gas and renewables and it’s fantastic. People love it. Unfortunately, a lot of people had to lose their jobs. We’ve had to downsize our mine. We lost a lot of jobs out of the mine. We had to downsize our corporate. We had to do a whole bunch of things that in the end hurt some of the people, but we were able to save the company, save a number of the jobs, ensure the retirees still have their pensions, and build the stock price back up.

Goldy Hyder:

Now, we’re here in Alberta and this province is really hurting right now.

Dawn Farrell:

Yes.

Goldy Hyder:

It’s hurting a lot. What’s the way forward?

Dawn Farrell:

Well, you know, Goldy, we do work together on policy at The Business Council of Canada and we’ve just started a new Alberta Business Council because it turns out that every province in Canada has a business council and has had for 30 years, but Alberta finally woke up and decided to get one, which is great.

Goldy Hyder:

Might be a sales tax like that one day.

Dawn Farrell:

Yeah, and they probably need to think about that, too, but I think, first of all, Alberta companies do a lot of great work. There’s a number of us that have been on this ESG, it’s a big thing. Well, a number of us have been doing sustainability since 1988. Suncor has, we have, Mbridge has, so I think we, first of all… I don’t think it’s a marketing thing. I think we just have to show the world that these are the kinds of things that we’re after, number one.

Dawn Farrell:

Number two, I think we have to get off of the… This is going to be controversial for my peers here, but we can’t build a province on a megaproject mentality. We have to build them on making sure that the stuff that we’re taking out of the ground today is sustainable, it’s environmental, and making sure that our companies have the ESG values in them, which in my view, includes 50% of women at the top by 2030. That’s what I’d like to see my colleagues start to talk about here in Alberta because I think that puts a whole new flavor in terms of who these companies are.

Dawn Farrell:

I think we’ve got work to do to profile what the companies have done so far and what they’re going to do as they go forward and they build their strategies around making what they’re doing better. I think they can expand, for sure, but I don’t think Alberta can live off of megaprojects anymore. We have to show what our companies can do in that ESG framework [crosstalk 00:32:04]-

Goldy Hyder:

Is diversification happening? I mean, I’m an Albertan as you know. We’ve heard about it almost every crash and then we forget about it as soon as the price of the barrel goes back up. Is it actually happening here now? People say it is.

Dawn Farrell:

Yeah. I mean, I don’t see it as much as people say it is. Just trying even in our business council, if you look at the GDP, unfortunately, I’m not an economist, so if I look at the facts, the answer is no. I do fundamentally believe that… I said this at our business council meeting yesterday. I said, “Listen, guys. If we do this right, people should be guilty about not buying their oil from Alberta.”

Dawn Farrell:

They should feel guilty about buying oil from anywhere else in this world, and gas as well because we have the best companies, we have the best ESG track record. We pay a carbon tax, nobody else globally does. You and I were just in Japan. Nobody is doing anything about climate outside of Canada. We are doing the best job and we’ve got to make sure that we ensure that when it comes to purchasing oil globally, which will be purchased, by the way, for probably another 30 or 40 years, people should be saying, “Oh, you got to buy the Canadian oil. Those guys do it right.”

Goldy Hyder:

Have we had it easy being Canadian? Haven’t had that adversity or crisis that you had to deal with at a corporation to turn things around?

Dawn Farrell:

No, I don’t think we’ve had it easy, but I do think we have done a very good job of running this country. When you look at the statistics of Canadians in terms of debt to GDP, there’s a lot of… If you just look at all the rhetoric, one group will say this and another group will say that. Just practically look at it. Canada is well-run. It is well-run. The challenge is we could actually burn up the credit card for another 20 years, for sure, and still not really feel the pain. We can actually be like that frog boiling in the water and 20 years from now we’ll wake up and it might not be the way it is.

Dawn Farrell:

I think we are well run and I do think we spend too much time complaining and whining. We have to stop that. Take our very well-run country, take our federation and be proud of it, and work to support each other’s back. We’re kind of a bad family where it’s like we have great manufacturing and great financial sector and great IT in Ontario. We have great energy business here in Alberta. We’ve got a great forestry business in British Columbia. A great real estate business across the country.

Dawn Farrell:

Do we talk like that as Canadians? Do we talk about how we’ve got a wonderful thing happening in Halifax in terms of a whole city that’s on fire? Do we talk like that as Canadians? No. We fight among the family and we really have to stop doing that. We are a great country and we have to start being proud of that. We’ve got to talk each other’s book, not shoot at each other’s book.

Goldy Hyder:

That may be one of the best defenses I’ve heard of Canada. Why is it that that’s not the conversation that’s happening? Are you at all worried about Canada given what’s going on in the West?

Dawn Farrell:

No, because I think… You know, I’ve got family everywhere across this country and I’ve been lucky to live in two provinces, which makes you a Canadian. All Canadians should have to live in two provinces.

Goldy Hyder:

They should certainly have to see more than the one they live in, that’s for sure.

Dawn Farrell:

Yeah, that’s right, but I think when I talk to all of our family across Canada and we all feel the same way. I think somehow Canada’s letting itself get manipulated and I think we have to kind of fight back as Canadians.

Goldy Hyder:

By whom?

Dawn Farrell:

I don’t know, I don’t know.

Goldy Hyder:

We’re pretty gullible, right? I mean [crosstalk 00:35:36]

Dawn Farrell:

I [crosstalk 00:35:36]-

Goldy Hyder:

There’s a reason I think [crosstalk 00:35:36]-

Dawn Farrell:

Yeah.

Goldy Hyder:

That Canada has been picked on.

Dawn Farrell:

Yeah, I think we’re easy pickings for… I mean, it’s a competitive world out there. I think when we realize that actually external forces can actually impact more than you know and we start to realize that we can protect our values and our competitiveness and our education and our healthcare and our way of life and we can protect that by hanging together, I think the average Canadian knows that. We just need to start expressing it and I’m going to be expressing that. What I just said to you today is my… That is what I talk about. I’m not interested in talking about what’s wrong with the Alberta oil industry. I’m proud of that industry and I’m proud of it because it is Canadian.

Goldy Hyder:

Well, thank you for doing that because I think that you’ve underscored the culture challenge. You’ve talked about it before. I’ve heard you talked about how when you travel and you see your businesses are in Australia and other places, that is a very different place in that we are… If I remember correctly, I think you said something along the lines of, “We’re very comfortable here in Canada, like a rich family that’s been rich for decades.”

Dawn Farrell:

Rich for decades, still rich, different parts of the family do different things, and we’ve allowed ourselves to play the jealousy and envy game.

Goldy Hyder:

Well, we’ve covered a lot of ground and I really appreciate your candor throughout the conversation. I want to come back to you, if I can. We haven’t talked about your husband, Brendan. I’ve heard you talk about him [crosstalk 00:37:02]-

Dawn Farrell:

He’s my [crosstalk 00:37:02]-

Goldy Hyder:

Many times. For starters, opposites didn’t attract in this case. Or did they?

Dawn Farrell:

Well, so [crosstalk 00:37:08]-

Goldy Hyder:

You often describe him of being…. you’re the same.

Dawn Farrell:

No, no, no, no, no. Brendan’s really, really smart and he has a great memory and I have no memory. He’s a philosopher. He reads big, thick books, probably a hundred a year.

Goldy Hyder:

Are you a reader?

Dawn Farrell:

I’m a reader, too, but I can’t keep up with him. He’s a carpenter. He has a big passion for his seven Syrian families that he helps with and [inaudible 00:37:33] family. He’s got a big passion for young men and he gets young men working in the trades because he wants men to be successful. He does more charity work than any individual you’ll ever imagine. What’s great about Brendan is he’s an intellect and loves to talk. We sit in our living room from nine o’clock to 11 o’clock every night and we talk about everything. He knows everything I’m working on. He’s the person who as I’m going through the 2015, he’s the one who’s going, “Okay”, and I just keep talking and he keeps listening, and then he talks.

Dawn Farrell:

We’re both the oldest in our families so we’ve got big responsibilities in our respective families. We spend a lot of time worrying about a lot of people and fixing up things that we can fix up. He’s just… He is one of the strongest, biggest guys you’ll ever meet who is as fierce and as… He’s my alpha male, basically, but he’s also the kindest person. I’ll phone and I’ll be, “What are you doing?” He’ll say, “Oh, I’m over at the church.” He’s on the funeral committee of the church, and I’m like, “What do you doing on the funeral committee of the church?” He goes, “Oh, I love it. We clean up after the funerals and then the ladies and I sit down and we get to eat the sandwiches.” I’m like, “Oh my God.”

Dawn Farrell:

He is just such an amazing person. He’s so interesting. He’s involved in the community, but he’s an individual. He’s not part of any group. People phone him and say, “Will you take on this family?” He’ll go, “Oh, yeah.” The next thing you know, we’re finding jobs for people and furniture and couches. I mean, if you get to be one of Brendan’s families, my God, you’re lucky. He’s just-

Goldy Hyder:

I ask because he [crosstalk 00:39:17]-

Dawn Farrell:

An amazing person.

Goldy Hyder:

There’s always that sense that you need your partner to be supportive.

Dawn Farrell:

Well, I can tell you if men want their wives to be successful, they should all go sit and talk to Brendan because he has never been in the way of what I wanted to do with my career, never, and he’s enabled it. He stepped back in his career so that we could move to BC because he knew that I wanted to do that. Not a lot of men would do that. He is not insecure about the fact that I’m the CEO. He’s not. He doesn’t care. What he does is he lives his life the way he wants to live it and I live my life the way I want to live it and we share our lives. We share. He is an example of a man who knows how to share and he’s wonderful.

Goldy Hyder:

Now, on your daily book that you carry around, if I observed properly when we were traveling, I think the slogan on it says, if I recall, “Follow your dreams.”

Dawn Farrell:

Right.

Goldy Hyder:

What are your dreams?

Dawn Farrell:

Oh, that’s a good one.

Goldy Hyder:

Are you living it?

Dawn Farrell:

Oh, you know what? I am living the dream. I’m very, very, very privileged to be able to do this job and to do this job for TransAlta. I have a big passion around this company. If I was ever to have my real dream, I’d own this company. It would be mine and I would be able to run it and [crosstalk 00:40:38]-

Goldy Hyder:

The way you want.

Dawn Farrell:

Keep it going forever and I wouldn’t have shareholders. I’d be the shareholder. That would be my only [crosstalk 00:40:43]-

Goldy Hyder:

There’s a trend towards that, you know?

Dawn Farrell:

I can’t really pull that off, but so maybe somebody can in the future. I am living the dream. I think the key question for me now is, as I look ahead, what’s the next phase here? I’ve lived 34 years doing this and I love doing this. I love this. It’s great.

Goldy Hyder:

I’m sure you’re going to be doing it for a while yet.

Dawn Farrell:

For a while, yeah, but you know, there comes a moment, as I said to my husband, because I’m watching a lot… A lot of my friends are 10 years older than me and they’re starting to retire and I do think you can stay too long. I think you can take up space that you have to move aside and you’ve got to let other people come in and live their dream, right?

Goldy Hyder:

Well, Dawn, something tells me the best is yet to come. Thank you.

Dawn Farrell:

Goldy, we collectively all 165 CEOs at The Business Council and [crosstalk 00:41:34]-

Goldy Hyder:

Millions of people that work for us [crosstalk 00:41:38]-

Dawn Farrell:

In Alberta and all of the millions of people that work for us, we do have to collectively change the narrative, as you call it. You’re good at that stuff. We have to change the narrative about who we are as Canadians and what we stand for. I am passionate about doing that.

Goldy Hyder:

Well, you’re doing your part. Thank you for doing this.

Dawn Farrell:

Thanks, Goldy.

Goldy Hyder:

I can just say as a father of three daughters, I’ve always used you as an example of what’s possible in what we can do, and you’re leading the way. Thank you for all that you’ve done, not just as a woman, but as a business leader and as a Canadian.

Dawn Farrell:

Well, thank you. Thanks for this.

Goldy Hyder:

Thanks again to Dawn Farrell for being my guest on this episode of Speaking of Business. Subscribe now for more conversations with Canada’s top innovators, entrepreneurs, and business leaders. Search “Speaking of Business” wherever you find podcasts or visit speakingofbiz.ca., that’s biz with a Z, to join our email list and follow us on social media. Until next time, I’m Goldy Hyder.