A Crash Course in Hospitality

Justin Burwash (Photo: Adele Frizzell)

While learning on the job, Justin Burwash successfully positioned Banff Lodging Co. for new growth through careful refinancing

Located in the middle of the Canadian Rockies, the town of Banff, Alberta, surrounded by Banff National Park, offers stunning, postcard-perfect views at every turn, and sprinkled throughout the town are Banff Lodging Co.’s nine hotels, seven restaurants, a series of rental shops, and a spa and ski school. The company has become integral to both the local economy and to the many tourists who descend on the area each year in search of adventure and a place to rest their heads.

At the helm of the massive operation is Justin Burwash, the director of operations and finance. He joined as controller in 2000 but was quickly promoted to the dual roles he holds today, where he has learned much while helping consolidate the company’s books and making plans for its future expansion.

When Burwash joined Banff Lodging, the company was on an entrepreneurial streak, having just finalized a series of acquisitions. It was a successful time, but it was clear that unless the company restructured to accommodate its growth, there would soon be trouble. Burwash was a major player in the reorganization, the bulk of which required streamlining the company’s finances, including condensing its 20 checking accounts.

Dos & Don’ts

Justin Burwash’s take on the hospitality industry

DO

Keep in constant contact with your lenders. If you keep them up to date on what’s going on with the business, they’ll be flexible when you need them to because trust has been developed.

Have a good and dependable cash flow. If you’re hit with a sudden 20 percent drop in your business, you need to rely on your cash flow for weeks or months at a time.

Be flexible. Each day in the tourism industry is different, and sometimes you can’t do what you planned on doing because an important issue comes up. You’ve got to be flexible enough to deal with issues as they arise.

DON’T

Be afraid to get your hands dirty. Patience and hard work are things you have to remember. Success comes when you’re willing to put in the work.

Overleverage yourself. World events can have a dramatic impact on business, and if you leverage yourself too much, you won’t weather the storm.

“I like to say that the transition was the ‘big bang’ that happened,” Burwash says. “Prior to the streamlining, all facets of our business—including all of the hotels—were set up as separate ventures. We worked to centralize as much as we could and put systems in place to make our processes more efficient. This allowed us to continue growing with ease.”

Burwash had an interesting career path to his current position, first as a senior associate at PricewaterhouseCoopers and then as a controller at Cott Beverages. After joining Banff Lodging, he also became a member of the local city council, and he has been highly active in the community in other ways as well, as a member and as treasurer of the Banff Rotary Club, as treasurer of the Banff-Cochrane PC Association, as chair of the Banff Housing Corporation, as director of the Banff Public Library, and as director of the Banff Lake Louise Hotel Motel Association. Little of his knowledge and familiarity with the community could prepare him for his current role, though.

“When I jumped into this industry, it was entirely new to me, and I had no intention of ruling with an iron fist,” Burwash says. “I didn’t think I had all the answers. In fact, I knew I didn’t. When you step into a new role, you have a lot to learn, and those I work with knew a lot about the industry. I consulted with them—and continue to, when it comes to the direction we’re headed in. To boil it down, I lead with a team approach, and I’m not afraid to ask for feedback.”

Burwash has picked up a lot in his time on the job, and particularly surprising to him was finding out just how much of an impact international news has on tourism. Banff could be having an amazing year, but a dramatic world event would still completely shut it down.

“It’s nothing I could have understood until I was in the industry, and it was a hard lesson to learn,” Burwash says. “Though it’s completely out of your control, being prepared for the unexpected puts you ahead of the game. That’s why it’s so important to be flexible. Structure is good, but if you’re too structured, you won’t be able to bounce back from any surprises—and in this industry, there are many.”

In the coming year, Banff Lodging will be breaking ground on a new hotel, and the company’s existing properties will undergo significant renovations. And, amid all this, there’s a bigger plan in the works: Burwash says the company is looking to expand outside of Banff. The director sees it as the next logical step, and though it may be years away, the wheels are already well in motion toward a bright future.