Game Changer: Jim Landon, President, ATCO Frontec
Jim Landon is President of ATCO Frontec and one of our October/November Game Changers. Mr. Landon has over 30 years of worldwide experience in operations management, leadership development, risk management, strategic planning, and business transformation. He had an extensive career in the British Army, seeing the Berlin Wall come down and serving during the Iraq War before coming to Canada and eventually settling here. His military experience prepared him very well for project management and delivering results in complex, multi-tasking situations. He is a creative, selfless team player who is more than accustomed to high pressure environments. Jim tells us all about his role at ATCO, nurturing long-standing business relationships with Indigenous peoples, where things are going with artificial intelligence, blockchain, robotics and other emerging technologies, some of his challenging times, his a-ha moments, and much more.
1. How did you start out in this industry and how has it brought you to where you are today?
I joined the British Army in 1989, trained at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and was there when the Berlin Wall came down. At first, I wondered whether I had just joined an organization that was about to become obsolete but by the time I graduated from Sandhurst in 1990, Saddam Hussein had invaded Iraq and the British Army was embarking upon a very busy period of operations that endured throughout my career. As an infantry officer who rotated in and out of staff jobs, I found myself on operations in virtually every job from Northern Ireland to Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Iraq, and Afghanistan. In 2012, I came to Canada to command the British Army Training Unit in Suffield (BATUS) for a 3‑year tour. BATUS was a great experience professionally but also an opportunity for my family to see Canada. After a year my wife told me that she thought that I should leave the Army and we should stay in Canada – I was more than happy to agree! I left the Army after a final tour in Afghanistan in 2016 where I ended up commanding a US Task Force in Gardez and joined ATCO in 2017.
My military experience prepared me very well for my current role; not just because it equipped me with leadership skills, an understanding of how to run large organizations, but also because I learned a lot about logistics and how to support remote teams in austere locations. I lived in a lot of camps around the world that were not very different from the workforce housing camps that ATCO Frontec runs today. Although I would say that our camps are rather more luxurious than the military ones!
2. What is your role at your organization today?
I run Frontec, the Operational Support Services division of ATCO. We are a diversified company both in terms of what we do, but also the clients we serve and the geographies in which we operate. We do everything from operations and maintenance of military equipment to fuel services, running workforce housing camps to infrastructure and technical support for government, military, and commercial clients. We operate coast to coast to coast in North America, in the US and in Europe. We played a significant role in running the NATO airfield in Kandahar. We specialize in operating in remote and austere environments with a lot of operations in the Canadian Arctic.
My role also entails developing and nurturing long-standing business relationships with Indigenous peoples. The founder of ATCO, RD Southern, was decades ahead of his time in understanding the justice, fairness, and value of such relationships. We are fortunate to be able to continue these and many of Frontec’s longest running operations, both in Canada and in the US, are joint ventures or corporations where we are the minority shareholder. Nasittuq Corporation, recently awarded the $592M contract for the Operation and Maintenance of the North Warning System, is one such corporation. Nasittuq previously operated the NWS from 2001 to 2014 and we are very happy to see the contract come home to an Inuit majority owned business. We believe this kind of partnership represents the future of development in the North.
3. What was your most challenging moment?
The death of a close colleague and friend in a non-operational environment when I was a Commanding Officer. Although we prepare for deaths on operations, if it happens at home, it can be a huge shock. My Adjutant was killed in a road traffic accident cycling home one night. The sudden and tragic nature of it hit me hard and I struggled to work out how to deal with that for his family, his friends, the Battalion and myself.
4. What was your A-HA moment or epiphany that you think will resonate most with our reader?
When I left the Army and joined ATCO, I was optimistic (but not totally confident) that my leadership, planning and other professional skills would transfer to the civilian world. I was happy to discover after a year that, although I certainly had new skills to learn, my core skills were indeed transferable. People are people, in or out of uniform, and they respond to good (or bad) leadership in broadly similar ways. However, I still find myself explaining to many civilian colleagues that the movie stereotype of the red-faced shouting military leader is not the reality of how professional military leaders operate these days.
5. What is the one thing that has you most fired up today?
In Frontec we are on a journey to grow our company, to deliver for our clients and to do so with our partners so everybody wins. There are certainly challenges in our markets but there are also opportunities out there and I am fired up to find them and make the best use of them. We are a strong team that provides excellent services and I believe we have great potential to build on that.
6. What is the best advice you received?
At Sandhurst we were taught John Adair’s leadership model – that a leader constantly balances the demands of the Task, the Team and the Individual. It is a continuous juggling act but if you neglect any one of them for too long, you either won’t accomplish the task, will find your team is ineffective or has nobody left in it! It became so natural for me during my career that I forgot the model but never the lessons that it taught. I have always tried to ensure I am balancing those competing needs so we can attain long term goals in a happy team with loyal and dedicated team members.
7. What is a habit that contributes to your success?
I am a planner by nature. I fully recognize no plan survives contact with the enemy, or reality, but the process of planning is invaluable. I tend to make plans for whatever I am doing professionally or personally and find this helps me to think through what my goals are, the options to reach them and the ability to adjust my actions when the situation changes. This habit was particularly valuable during the pandemic when I worked with my team to anticipate the way COVID would spread globally, to make early plans to work remotely so we had time to rehearse them and then implement them without a hitch a week later. Other organizations may have struggled but we didn’t miss a beat – anticipation, planning and preparation all paid off.
8. What is your parting piece of advice?
Build inclusive, diverse teams of people; train your leaders; listen to your people at all levels.
9. What people or organizations do you believe best embody the innovation mindset?
I think any organization, be it private or public, large, or small, who can take a step back, study the situation, anticipate the future needs of their customers, and then have the courage to make the leap to serve that need. Organizations often get so immersed in the demands of the here and now that they fail to see how things are changing, miss the chance to innovate and get left behind. When they see the competition with a service or product that the customer is welcoming they wonder why they didn’t see it as it now seems so obvious. I think that organizations need to ensure that they are setting themselves up structurally and culturally to have the time and space to do the thinking about the future and not just to keep running current operations. There are lots of examples of this, but Apple is a company that stands out for me as having that structure and culture. They think about what their customers don’t even know they want yet but will do in the future.
Questions regarding the ORGANIZATION
1. How is your organization changing the game within your industry sector?
At Frontec, we try to build a culture of innovation across the whole team by empowering our people to think about new ways to do things, how we can best leverage emerging technology or just different ways to meet the needs of our customers.
For example, the pandemic was a driver of innovation as our teams at every level worked to find ways to keep our operations running despite the challenges of having lots of people in relatively confined spaces. We used mathematical models developed by the ATCO R&D team at the outset of the pandemic to see what would happen if we had an outbreak in one of our camps. These made it very clear to us that we would not be able to contain it so we needed to avoid an outbreak starting at all. We focussed our efforts on prevention rather than containment. This was successful and although we had cases in our camps, we caught them early, isolated them and stopped an outbreak from starting. The pandemic drove us to find ways to serve our customers in a more personally tailored way – for example we put together phone‑based apps that allowed our customers to order food a la carte which not only gave them a hotel-like experience but also reduced waste.
2. What are some of the biggest impediments to innovation in your industry sector?
I see the biggest barriers to innovation being mental rather than physical. Cultures of “not invented here”, “not how we do things”, fear of the unknown, and centralized command and control leadership models can all hinder innovation and progress. Our sector is changing dramatically, benefiting from new technologies and new ways of doing things. We must take advantage of all these opportunities.
3. How has innovation become engrained in your organization’s culture and how is it being optimized?
Frontec derives its name from Frontier and Technology. From our inception, we have a culture of leveraging innovation and technology in ways and areas most of our competitors may not. By empowering our people, we encourage innovation and experimentation. If something works well then we share it across the wider organization. We also look for people with an innovative mindset and put them into roles where they can really let their imagination run.
We have our own in-house Technology and Innovation team dedicated to supporting operations, finding better ways to do things, and staying abreast of leading-edge technology. For example, the team works closely with other teams across ATCO working on renewable energy programs to see if they might have something that would be a fit for one of our own programs. We encourage our people right across the team to ask, “is there a better way?” and to bring their ideas and suggestions to the Technology and Innovation team.
4. What technologies, business models, and trends will drive the biggest changes in your industry over the next two years?
There is no doubt that artificial intelligence, blockchain, robotics and many other emerging technologies will play a big role in our industry in the future. In the near term, we see the impacts of software as a service, cloud computing and the use of mobile devices as the primary user platform having significant impacts now. We also see the rise of citizen developers (non-IT people who write code) across our business, and it is vital that leaders find a way to empower them while managing any risks from the less controlled nature of software development that it involves.
In our business, whether operating and maintaining the North Warning System in the Arctic or operating a workforce housing camp in BC, energy‑saving capabilities are of growing importance. Finding ways to generate, save and distribute clean energy in sustainable ways is an area of focus.