H+K Strategies CEO Mike Coates on how business should talk to government

Too few companies include political risk in their planning

 
Career Path, a continuing CB series in which top innovators and entrepreneurs explain how they got there
Hill+Knowlton Strategies America CEO Mike Coates
Mike Coates: “Too many firms come to government when it’s too late, when they’re ready to announce something.” (Erik Putz)

In July, Mike Coates was named president and CEO of global communications firm Hill+Knowlton Strategies Americas region. Here’s how a kid from Dartmouth, N.S., came to oversee 29 offices in Canada, the U.S. and Latin America, and what he learned along the way:

1974 to 1979: Merchant mariner, summer job

“I come from five generations of sea captains and I thought it would be neat to pay my way through school by going to sea. At 17 I was working with a diverse group of real men, from engineers to former cons. The advice my dad gave me was to keep my mouth shut and my ears open. That was an important lesson.”

1979 to 1984: Parliamentary aide to former MP Henry Perrin Beatty and former senator Lowell Murray

“I managed to build a lasting network of friends, which has served me well in my career as a consultant and lobbyist. It helped me to identify different business opportunities and access the corridors of power when lobbying on behalf of clients.”

1995 to 2014: CEO, Hill+Knowlton Canada

“The year I took over, our revenues had declined almost 50% and I was too preoccupied with the people who were saying the company was going to go down. At the time, we owned Decima Research, and I fought like crazy to prove I could resurrect that brand. At a certain point I realized there was just no way to do that. We sold Decima and never looked back.”

2000

“PR had a great run in the 1990s, because we were promoting a lot of startups. We crashed just like the tech industry did and there was pressure to remove head count. I decided to resist that so we were ready for the turn. When the business began coming back, I had a team ready to go. I think we had 38 straight quarters of growth after that. You have to think one or two moves ahead.”

2004, 2006 and 2008: Debate team leader for Stephen Harper

“I don’t model my style after anyone, but I admire Mr. Harper’s discipline and determination. Sometimes when I watch him give a speech, I can see he’s anxious to finish up and get back to the office and govern, which is atypical for a politician. For an introvert to be so successful as a politician and overcome that character trait is something I respect.”

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2010: Government relations adviser on the failed BHP Billiton/PotashCorp merger

“Until that time, people largely took Investment Canada for granted. Political risk wasn’t something company boards assessed in a consistent fashion. People would say, ‘I know the minister of finance. I’ll talk to him, and everything will be OK.’ I wasn’t angry at the government for the decision. I was disappointed we weren’t successful. I go in to win, and we did not win this.”

2013: Government relations adviser on CNOOC’s purchase of Nexen

“Too many firms come to government when it’s too late, when they’re ready to announce something. CNOOC had made a small investment in the oilpatch before and it gave us a year to share the company’s interest in investing in Canada with the very people who would adjudicate on the takeover. That may sound a little manipulative, but we’re just helping government understand the CNOOC story.”

2014: President and CEO of Hill+Knowlton Strategies americas region

“When I was appointed, one of my close friends said, ‘Congratulations. You’ve just been promoted to the Yankees. You are in the big leagues now.’ The job description of agency management in the Americas is no different from my Canadian job, except the scale is much bigger.”

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