Dr. Richard Currie (BEng '60 NSTC)

Education: the way out

Dr. Richard Currie is the ultimate proof point of his personal philosophy

He may be one of Canada’s most decorated CEOs, but when you get right down to it Dr. Richard Currie owes all his success to his modest upbringing and forward-thinking parents.

“My working class parents always believed that education was the way out,” says Dr. Currie, who grew up in Saint John, New Brunswick.  “Not only did they encourage me and work very hard to provide me with an education, they also emphasized the need to do more than simply scrape by in life.”

Fortunately for the young Mr. Currie, he possessed natural ability combined with a good work ethic. The scholarships began to flow during his undergraduate years at the University of New Brunswick (he received financial support from the Lord Beaverbrook Foundation and the Canadian Mathematical Congress) and he soon found himself heading for Halifax and the Nova Scotia Technical College (NSTC), where he pursued a degree in chemical engineering.

And while he was not particularly enamored of his chosen profession - “engineering is not simple, it requires perseverance and can be long and exhausting,” he says, Dr. Currie does acknowledge that the skills he learned at NSTC certainly helped set the groundwork for a highly successful career. “I hated labs, but they taught me that it is not about what you want to do, but what you must do. There is not a lot of free time in an engineering degree, which emphasized to me the importance of a necessary skill – time management.”

Upon graduating from NSTC in 1960, Dr. Currie went to work for Atlantic Sugar Refineries as a process engineer and was promoted to Refining Superintendent in 1963. However, his career was soon to take an abrupt turn away from engineering and into the world of business. Upon Receiving an MBA from Harvard in 1970, he went on to take a position as a senior associate with McKinsey & Co. in New York.

Just two years later, he was back in Canada, having taken on the vice-presidency of Loblaws – a struggling Canadian supermarket retailer on the brink of bankruptcy. Four years later he became president – a position he held for 25 years – increasing the company’s shareholder value by 28 per cent per year, bringing its annual profits to $14 billion and making it one of Canada’s largest private-sector employers before he retired in 2000.

“I had little fear of failure,” says Dr. Currie of those years. “I worked hard, took on challenges and ran like hell because there was no turning back. I was always twice as prepared as anyone else in the room – that was important.”

That fearlessness – and his willingness to take calculated risks – has earned Dr. Currie numerous awards and accolades. He is an Officer of the Order of Canada, is a member of Canada’s Business Hall of Fame, and was ranked one of Canada’s Top 10 CEOs of All-Time by The Globe & Mail. He also holds no fewer than three honourary degrees, most recently an Honourary Doctorate of Letters from Dalhousie University (May, 2010) – a unique degree to be granted to a businessman.

“If I had been born a rich man’s son, I would have been a history professor, but that was not the case,” he says. “I have a passion for reading so it was an honour to receive this degree.”

Recently retired from his position as chairman of Bell Canada Enterprises (BCE) Inc. (2000-2009), Dr. Currie keeps himself busy these days as Chancellor of UNB. He also maintains close contact with his scholarship recipients and drives his grandchildren to school each day. A true philanthropist, he has also been involved with several educational and charitable organizations, and recently donated over $20 million to UNB’s Richard J. Currie Centre, named in his honour.

“I have always felt a responsibility to work hard and give back,” says Dr. Currie of his philanthropy. “Winston Churchill once said, ‘you make a living by what you get; you make a life by what you give.”

“Education teaches you to think clearly from all sides of an issue in an unbiased fashion,” he continues. “Like so many others, I was not automatically entitled to an education. It was a privilege that I had to work hard for and I always keep that front-of-mind.”