Anita Huberman, CEO of the Surrey Board of Trade, is an award-winning community leader and renowned public speaker. She has held the position of CEO for over 14 years and has been instrumental in the first Surrey Labour Market Study and Workforce Strategy and elevating the Surrey International Trade Centre’s portfolio.
The Surrey Board of Trade is a non-profit organization committed to making the city the destination for business support and attraction. They are non-partisan and are supported solely from membership fees and sponsorship. We spoke to Huberman about her career to date, the impact of the COVID-19 on the business community, and how she sees the future for businesses in Surrey and beyond. Starting with the day-to-day operations, we asked what she loved about her role as CEO.
“I like how every single day is different and that I'm able to make a difference and contribute to building the city of Surrey and transforming a business organization. In the beginning, it wasn't well known what the brand was and what our purpose was. That has been transformed now into my 14th year as CEO. We're a border city, so all those connections, ideas, opportunities, being able to connect them in a leadership-oriented way is exciting for me. And the opportunity to build connections, not only locally, provincially, nationally, but also internationally. That's why I've stayed in this position for so long.”
Huberman’s career with the Surrey Board of Trade started with a position as a tourism information counselor as a part-time summer student when she was 19 years old. She describes her early time there as ‘so valuable’, and after a year working at the World Bank after graduation she returned, and her rapid career progression began. Working her way up, she was able to build her reputation at the organization and now sits on several boards and committees.
“I started as their executive assistant, events manager, operations manager, and then I applied for the top job when I was 32. It was very unusual for someone to get this position when I didn't really have any formal CEO experience, I was young, and no one really knew me from a policy perspective. I am honorary captain for the Royal Canadian Navy. I'm in my fourth year of service to the Ministry of Defense for Canada, and I served on the National Film Board for Canada under the heritage minister in Montreal for six years.”
It may seem a straightforward story, however Huberman faced many challenges to get to the position of CEO. Starting with building her ‘brand’, she entered a largely male-dominated industry and faced the task of rebuilding the governance structure and the board. Key to this was ensuring that the diversity of the board of trade matched that of the community they worked with.
“It wasn't easy. You are dealing with a lot of personalities, a lot of politicians and egos, it is a huge city. We are going to be the largest city in British Columbia very soon. I have to say that every year there are a multitude of challenges and of course the pandemic this year has increased that challenge. It's never been smooth sailing for me and that's been my reality.”
The effects of the pandemic on business and the economy have been significant, and while Huberman says that British Columbia has been ‘very lucky’ in compared to other provinces and countries, she speaks with a keen enthusiasm about the recent news of the province entering phase three of the reopening, and seeing people slowly returning to work.
“The health and safety mechanisms are in place, but a lot of our economy has remained open, construction, development. We have the greatest number of manufacturers in British Columbia right here in Surrey, contributing to national international supply chains. We have been very, very lucky, but of course people are scared. Staff are nervous returning to work and so employers must play a new role which is to understand the anxiety that employees are facing and to provide when possible, work at home reconfigurations. But there's accountability for the employee too. To ensure that bottom line productivity and work plan goals are maintained.”
As co-chair of the City of Surrey’s immigration committee, Huberman has been responsible for a multitude of programs that cover entrepreneurial, housing, support, and language-driven initiatives designed to welcome immigrants and also refugees to the city of Surrey. She speaks proudly of the city leading the way as the first organization that asked the federal government to enact legislation to support refugees.
“It was recognized at the time when we first issued it that especially with the whole Syrian refugee crisis, that it wasn’t only a social issue, it was an economic issue. We led the charge from policy development to conversations with relevant government representatives to enact change. To some extent that change did happen, and our prime minister has been very supportive of that trajectory. We continue to work on that because we need immigration, we have another 980,000 jobs, even despite the pandemic that will be available job openings by 2050. And Canadians are not having babies and so we rely on immigrants to fill that labor gap.”
As the figurehead of the Surrey Board of Trade, Huberman is a passionate advocate for business, and says that ‘the heart of a successful organization is the active participation of its members’. We were keen to hear more about the members, and how they have been keeping BC functioning in recent months.
“There are many forestry companies in Surrey that are anxious about the US-Canada softwood lumber agreement. They are anxious about economic challenges that we were facing even before the pandemic. Advocacy in terms of action has been valuable to them, our international connection through our trade center, has been valuable to them as well. We were a concierge of connections for government support programs for our smaller businesses and without those connections, many businesses would not have been able to reopen or to get that support.”
While manufacturing has largely escaped the worst of the economic downturn, the tourism and arts industries have been particularly hard hit. Huberman cautions that the province’s economy will enter a ‘recessionary phase’ in 2021 but will likely bounce back in 2022. With an uncertain future ahead for many businesses we asked Huberman what advice she had for business leaders and startup founders during these unprecedented times.
“I advise businesses of all sizes, small, medium, large to fast track innovation. And I'm not only talking about technology, I'm also talking about creating new streams and taking a risk, looking at what makes sense in terms of what they're selling and in terms of goods or services. Now is the time to think differently. Now is the time to utilize technology, to do things differently."
"You can never replace face to face interaction to build your relationships. And so somehow or another, we need to navigate our way through that. In Surrey, half of our population has the mother tongue other than English. Somehow in a very multicultural environment we need to start thinking differently and that's hard for some people, but we need to collaborate. We need to be respectful of each other in all of the anxiety that we're all facing,”
With over 14 years’ experience as CEO, we asked Huberman how she would describe her leadership style, and how it has evolved over the time in her position.
“When I first started, I had to make a whole bunch of changes. I had to be very driven, I was very ambitious. I had to be very direct and sometimes I didn't always have time to provide reasons and rationale for what I was doing. As things came to be in place, relationships nurtured, as things became more successful, my approach has been more collaborative, but I'm very careful also with the people in my inner circle that I trust in order to get the work done because I remain ambitious or remain driven. I have a great team and I know that I'm respected by my staff. They know that I can be a little bit challenging at times, but I've learned to calm down a little bit. This pandemic has really taught me that it's not all about business. You don't need to be a robot.”
With a successful and long-lasting career to reflect on, we asked Huberman what three key takeaways she has taken from her journey so far.
1. Family comes first
2. You should be driven, and leadership oriented to get things done, to make a difference.
3. Always be respectful of others, even when they are challenging.
Huberman is excited by the ‘amazing opportunities’ for businesses in Surrey to collaborate with the rest of the province and beyond, and the continued win-win economic arrangement that is provided by the Surrey Board of Trade and their partners.
You can learn more about the Surrey Board of Trade here: https://businessinsurrey.com/