Ivan Duvar (BEng '62 TUNS)

Focused and balanced 

Ivan Duvar, (B.Eng, TUNS, 62’) the former President and CEO of Maritime Tel & Tel dropped by the Faculty of Engineering to look back at a career that not only helped shape him, but Nova Scotia and the region as well.

Mr. Duvar, who received an honorary Doctor of Laws from Dalhousie at convocation this year, was also Chairman of MT&T after he retired in 1995, serving until 2000. The lifetime member of the Association of Professional Engineers of Nova Scotia currently serves on the boards of various companies, including Oxford Frozen Foods Ltd. and Wajax Inc. and has served on the boards of Intact Financial, Crossley Carpets and the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce to name a few. He is the former Chairman of the Board for the Technical University of Nova Scotia (TUNS) and has served on the Board of Governors at Dalhousie.

Other activities include Chairman of the Halifax Board of Trade and the 1996 United Way Campaign and director at the IWK Hospital and IWK Foundation, Symphony Nova Scotia and the Arthritis Society of Canada.

How did you become interested in engineering?

I became interested in telecommunications engineering in the Royal Canadian Signal Corps when I was in the army in Singapore.

When you joined MT&T in 1966 as a transmission engineer, did you envision rising through the company as you did – eventually to President and CEO?

I didn't. I was interested in management and had taken some MBA courses in Montreal when I came here I told them I was interested in management and in 1969 when I was 29, I was asked to manage the IT department. I was a bit reluctant, but the vice-president said, “Well you wanted to go into management didn’t you?” That how it all started.

What type of lessons did managing that department teach you in climbing up the ladder at MT&T?

The experiences in management are people oriented. You don’t succeed in management unless you develop a team of people who want to work with you. That was something that I was able to do. I also had to learn diplomacy, tact and how to get people to participate. Successful projects are the ones where the end users participate.

You were president of both The Island Telephone Company in P.E.I. and MT&T. What prepared you for those roles?

I had really good people outside of the company working with me. They weren’t part of my management team – I called them my Kitchen Cabinet. There was a PR guy, guys from our law firm, two accountants and more. I tested ideas on them to see what they thought. They weren’t working directly for me and brought a whole lot of experience and knowledge. What did I know about buying and selling companies? I took some courses, but my lawyers knew about it, the accountants knew.

How did you deal with the challenges you faced during your career?

There were a lot of challenges and problems, some of monumental nature, short-term and long-term. I used to tell my management team that to succeed we had to stay focused, but, you can be over-focused, so I'd say, “You have to stay focused and balanced,” When I retired my team gave me a plaque that said “Ivan, stay focused and balanced.” I guess the heard me.

Are there any achievements you're especially proud of?

Raising three children to successful adults – that's one. But one of the greatest achievements I was involved in was the merger of TUNS and Dalhousie when I was chairman of TUNS. Enrolment was declining, particularly in NS because of the five-year course compared to four-years in other provinces (which I would have known if I had listened to my own son). The best we could get with accreditation was four and a half years. The government wanted us to do something with Dalhousie, and when we looked at it, that was the best option. While a lot of us wanted to keep TUNS, I said look, it’s not what we want, it’s about what’s best for students. So I mean didn’t do it, but I was part of it, and I’m proud of it.

Given your leadership in the telecomm sector, what do you think of where it is now? Did you envision the current landscape?

No. For me, the game-changer was the conversion from analog to digital. Digital now drives everything from planes to clocks. We didn’t even think about that until the 80s and 90s.

I remember we were nervous when we brought in cellular. It was very expensive and we didn’t know if people would buy it, but it took off like a scalded dog. I remember one time walking with my wife in New York and seeing ads for cell-phones at $999. I said to my wife, “they’ll be under $1000 in Nova Scotia soon too.” Well, haven’t things changed?

There is seemingly no end to your community involvement and contributions. What drives you?

Well, it keeps me from being bored, ha! But to some extent it’s part of an executive's job. Everyone in NS was my customer and part of my job was to be involved, but yes, I guess I did more, but I’m not sure why. I mean, you need to keep your brain active, especially when you retire. Some things I wouldn’t do until I retired, because of what’s involved, like leading the United Way campaign in 1996.

You’re involvement in so many organizations gives you a unique perspective on Atlantic Canada. What are your hopes for the future of NS?

I feel strongly about helping Nova Scotia develop. That’s why I help out in education. I feel it’s critical to advancing our community, and building a strong community. Halifax is a great city; just the right size and the advantages of a big city, but you still know the people. If I'm asked to help in advancing Nova Scotia, I’ll probably do it.

Is there anything you do in your spare time that you're passionate about?

One of my hobbies was participating in community activities. It occupied a lot of my spare time and I enjoyed it, meeting people and talking with them.

I was a downhill skier and it was a superb activity for my family and I really enjoyed it. I've been into boating all my life and sailing was a great passion of mine. It was relaxing for me, but I didn’t race, I had enough of that at work. Now I have a power boat, but I’m still always on the water, I love the water.

When you reflect on what you’ve accomplished and all you’ve done, what do you think about it?

There were so many good organizations that I was involved in with good people. I got a bit of a reputation for bringing companies back to budget stability though, and I would like to think I helped a few organizations. Crossley Carpets is a good example. When I was on the board and we decided to sell it, most companies wanted to buy it, then close it and take the customers. We didn’t want to see it leave Truro so we worked and found an American company would would buy it and keep it in Nova Scotia and it’s still there today.

Any advice for up-and-coming leaders today?

I don’t think I ever dwelled too much on things that didn’t work. Just keep one foot in front of the other and keep your nose to the grindstones. Do interesting things and good things will happen.