Five years ago, Mike Ashar blew into Saint John like a breeze off the Bay of Fundy, wafting through the corridors of Irving Oil, the energy giant owned by the powerful Irving family. Mumbai-born Ashar, a transplant from Suncor and the Alberta oil patch, was the first non-Irving to lead the 90-year-old company, which owns Canada's largest oil refinery. He brought a new focus on employee wellness and lifetime learning—including a popular executive MBA program with the University of New Brunswick—that reflected his passions as an educational overachiever and a long-distance runner. He retired from Irving Oil in April, at age 58.
Why leave now?
When I joined Irving five years ago, I mentioned [to the Irvings] that my exit time frame was three to five years. I wanted to leave a bit early, rather than a bit late. It forces a sense of closure when you and the organization know it is a finite time. Even if you do a great job, it's good to get someone else in and there is a renewal, which is necessary.
Will you go to another job?
I wouldn't rule it out, although it doesn't necessarily mean another corporate job. I'm considering the next phase of my life. I think of it in terms of one-third stages—a third finishing my education and getting established, another third having career success and doing good things in organizations and the last third is giving back to society. In India, they have a word for it: sanyas. In the last bit of your life, you go to the forest and meditate. I'm not ready to go to the forest and meditate, but I do want to give back in health and wellness, and in education.
You have a master's in chemical engineering, an MBA and a bachelor's degree in philosophy. Will you add another degree?
I might, and for me, it is about mathematics and physics. My wife and I have two residences—one in Canmore, Alberta, and one in Boulder, Colorado, and the University of Colorado has a fantastic physics department.
Did you find it different doing business in the East than the West?
Yes. Some of the best days for Eastern Canada are in the past, and the economic pendulum has swung west. A lot of the young people are leaving. But I was impressed with the people here and their sense of place. If you go to Calgary and Fort McMurray, that is not as hard-wired as it is in the East Coast. I have not seen a more loyal group of employees than the ones at Irving Oil.
You've now worked for a family company and, with Suncor, a public company. Which model is better?
They both have strengths and weaknesses. Family businesses are run for the long haul. Family members are deeply aware of the history and look at it as a business that will pass through generations. It doesn't mean you can't change it, but you are unlikely to do an about-turn. The public company, in terms of its external brand, can continue to evolve, and often the CEO and the board have large roles in shaping the culture.
Do you have unfinished business?
Senior executives should always leave some unfinished business. I was pleased to work on a pipeline to the East Coast. That idea is unfinished, but it has momentum and it is a game changer not just for Irving Oil, but for the Maritimes. And after I joined the company in July, 2008, the world changed [with the financial meltdown and distress in the refinery sector]. CEOs are like poker players, and sometimes you get a great hand and sometimes you don't. You need to look not just at the financial results, but how you played your hand, and I feel I played my hand well.
Will your innovations survive, such as the company-sponsored MBA?
I hope so. You have to look at costs and benefits. It is designed to create value not just for employees, but also for the employer. The students work on Irving Oil projects. I like investments that pay off as you go, rather than down the road, and that is the beauty of this.
Will you still do a lot of running?
I run 30 to 40 miles a week, and last year I did a marathon in four hours and 30 minutes. I intend to continue running marathons—a few each year—until age 90. It is a passion for my wife as well. Human beings were designed to be in nature and running is natural. What will not happen for me is golfing and drinking. I play golf badly and I drink very sparingly.