At first, he wasn’t all that keen to do the story. “It shouldn’t be about me,” countered Andy Szocs, when I suggested he’d make an ideal candidate for an Alta States profile. And when I insisted, he just laughed. “There are far more interesting people in this valley to present to Pique readers,” he said. “Besides, who wants to read about some old guy promoting the benefits of giving?”
But the youthful 67 year old finally relented when I reminded him that if he didn’t speak out publicly, who would? “So — if I do this,” he said, “I want to make sure we don’t lose track of the message. OK?” Another self-deprecating chuckle. “After all, we all get taught in Grade 1 that ‘it’s better to give than to receive’. But some of us don’t realize just how powerful a message that is until we reach our 60s…”
Andy Szocs is a highly successful businessman from West Vancouver. Now retired, and living full-time in Whistler, Andy rose from humble roots in Flin Flon, Manitoba to become the founder and president of Norpac Controls Ltd., a process control firm that virtually dominates its sector of the business world. How dominant? When Szocs sold the company to his employees seven years ago, Norpac held a 70 per cent market share of its core business in B.C. and had annual gross revenues of $30 million. The company has also been included a number of times among the “50 Best Managed Private Companies in Canada” — one of the most prestigious business awards in the country.
“Retiring wasn’t easy for me,” he says. “I had to work hard at it. I still miss my people. Still miss the challenges. But life goes on.” This from a guy who admits he was a bit of a micromanaging boss. “I knew where every paper clip was in the office,” he says with an embarrassed smile.
But this was also a guy who planned his every move with meticulous care. “Back in 1990,” he tells me, “I told my people I was going off to Tofino for a month — and that I would be totally out of touch during that time.” He smiles. “While this was partly to start training my staff to take charge, it was really about training me to let go….” He says he must have dialled the office number dozens of time during his month away. “But I managed to put down the phone before hitting the final digit,” he says proudly.
For years, Szocs’s mantra had been simple: “The most important assets in any business are the people you hire to work there, OK.” he says. “And recognition is huge! Never hesitate to let people know they are doing a great job.”
And he was one of those rare business people who actually walked their talk. Through good times and bad — through recessions and industry consolidations (even when the business dropped by 50 per cent — twice!) — Andy always managed to find a way to retain his staff. On retiring, his final legacy to the company was a $250,000 endowment to allow employees’ children to attend university. “I know how difficult it can be for families to ensure that their kids get a post-secondary education,” says the University of Saskatchewan-trained engineer. “So I thought I’d make it a little easier for them…”
Lest you think that finances and business have dominated his life, let me disabuse you of that notion. Whether it was the values instilled in him by his immigrant parents or just a natural-born inclination to generosity, Andy has never hesitated to give his time and energy to worthy projects. While living in West Van, he volunteered at Collingwood School, the United Way and the West Van Library. A homeowner at Whistler since 1980 (his son Shane is considered one of the founders of the new school skiing movement), it took Andy very little time to get involved in volunteer work once he retired here in 2000.
“I had a friend in the city who lost a son to depression-related suicide,” he recounts. “So when Kerry and Ginny Dennehy lost Kelty to the same disease I decided to phone them up. And they said: ‘We’re starting a foundation. Would you like to help?’ That’s when I realized there was a real opportunity here to make a difference. So I decided to get involved.” He sighs. Chuckles. “And like anything I do, I got consumed by it…”
By all accounts, Szocs was like a volunteer superman. Whether it was leadership, vision or even providing more structure for the fledgling organization, Andy was there. When he stepped down from the board last year, the Kelty-Dennehy Foundation had become, arguably, the most successful foundation to be started from scratch at Whistler. “We raised over $2.5 million,” says Szocs proudly. “Pretty impressive for a little town like Whistler. And it really shows what can be done when you set your mind to something.”
Adds Kathy Podborski: “Andy and I were both founding board members of the foundation. And while he was with us, he was the driving force of fundraising. He is passionate about everything he does, and can move mountains. He dreams on a grand scale, and then accomplishes what he dreamed. He is a delightful man, and I am honoured to call him a friend.”
Powerful words — and even more significant given the source of those words. For Kathy Podborski does not suffer fools. But are people like Szocs and Podborski a fading breed in Whistler?
A study on the evolution of volunteerism in Canada presented some very sad conclusions recently. “Canadians are connecting less with others. They are reaching out less often to help others,” wrote the researchers of the groundbreaking Graff-Reed study, “Who Cares?”. What’s even more disturbing, says head researcher Linda Graff, is that the ongoing decline in volunteers is already eroding Canada’s quality of civic life. And it’s only going to get worse before it gets better. For according to Graff, the current volunteer work force (estimated to provide over $10 billion worth of services) is old and nearing the end of its involvement, while younger Canadians are not volunteering at nearly the same rate as their ageing parents.
And in small communities like Whistler, those trends could substantially alter the way that people go about their daily lives. From kids’ sports to seniors’ support, from local politics to environmental issues, a declining volunteer base could spell serious trouble for this fledgling Coast Mountain culture.
So what to do?
It’s all about leadership, says Andy Szocs. “We all know that in this world there are leaders and followers, OK. But you never know where your leaders are going to come from. That’s why it’s so important to keep the door open to everyone. The bottom line is that we need people with drive and passion and the ability to mobilize others and inspire them to get involved. At Whistler, I believe there is a huge pool of leadership talent to be tapped. We have an opportunity here to show young people the benefits you get from giving. We just have to find the right way to get them to truly understand that…”
It’s amazing how powerful the gift of giving is, maintains Szocs. And it’s truly inspiring to see just how personally rewarding volunteering can be. But you have to be proactive in getting that message across. “Times are changing,” he says. “Now more than ever, you have to make people understand that giving back is not only an honour and a privilege — it’s also a responsibility! And if you do it right, it’s a win-win situation for all concerned.”
Below are a few of Andy’s thoughts on how to stimulate and grow your local pool of volunteers (interestingly enough, they can be applied successfully to just about any human resource situation):
1. Leadership — The organization has to provide a winning "Can-do, Will-do" attitude and atmosphere; everyone wants (and needs) positive motivational leadership.
2. Recognition — You can never thank your volunteers enough and it can be done in many ways: verbal, hand written notes and/or small recognition gifts.
3. Always remember that your people are VOLUNTEERS — and be totally aware of what the benefits are to them for volunteering.
4. Identify the potential role you expect the person to fill and try to match their personal skills, needs, and wants to the role. Be sure to monitor and encourage their participation for the win-win situation.
5. Be proactive in asking individuals to volunteer — never assume the person will not be a top volunteer — some of your "write-offs" can become your treasured performers.
6. Measure your progress — Your perception or gut feel can be vastly different than the actual measured results.
7. Feedback — Provide feedback to the individual and keep in mind it should be in the ratio of 6 positives to 1 opportunity to improve.
“This is just straight common sense stuff,” says Andy, almost apologetically. “And it’s not all that profound. But if you keep these suggestions in mind, you should have no trouble in keeping your volunteers motivated, happy and fulfilled.”