Evan Johnston could have gone anywhere. He was a promising young attorney at Clifford Chance, one of the top law firms in the world. He was enjoying an adventurous life in London, England, and living comfortably. But he quickly realized something: none of that was worth dying for.
So he packed up and headed for Calgary. He’s now the general counsel for The Churchill Corporation, a burgeoning Canadian company focused on general contracting and industrial construction in Western Canada. He took some time with Advantage to explain what makes him tick.
Advantage: You’re a general counsel now, but you started as something entirely different. What was the beginning of your career like?
Evan Johnston: I started out as a business student at the University of Manitoba, actually. I realized pretty early on that I loved it and that I wanted to someday get to a higher level. And in order to do that I figured I needed to further my education. I wasn’t smart enough to be a dentist, so I went to law school, and things took off from there; I ended up in Vancouver at a boutique corporate-finance firm for early-stage tech companies. Later, I went on to an internship with the United Nations in New York City. While all this was happening, I had this desire to finish my CFA designation and move overseas to pursue more pure, high-level finance work. The owners of the firm I was working for decided to sell the practice, so I took that opportunity to move to London and join Clifford Chance.
What was it like working for Clifford Chance?
It’s in 26 countries—the biggest firm in the world. It’s a behemoth. And what we were doing was repackaging US debt and selling it back into the United States as subprime home loans, credit-card debt, car loans—all that bad stuff.
After a year and a half of it, I realized I was either going to be dead or divorced by the time I was 40—neither of which is all that appealing. The pace at which we were working and the lifestyle were too much. You know, when I was back in Canada I was very outdoorsy. I was involved in athletics. I had a life. I went over to London and realized that in order to succeed at a firm like that, you had to sacrifice everything: family, health, interests. That’s just the nature of the beast. It is a prestigious firm, and people are willing to do it.
So you moved to Calgary.
We looked at a number of spots: New York, Silicon Valley, Vancouver, Winnipeg, Calgary—and I was fortunate to have offers in all of those places. But I wanted to get back to the Prairies, where my wife and I grew up. I wanted to be in a very strong entrepreneurial environment where you can succeed if you work hard. And I really believe that the potential in Western Canada is sky-high, especially in the energy business. It’s hard not to make money here (the low tax rate helps). Out of nine offers in Calgary, I chose to join the securities practice at Blakes, a large national firm. Life was good. I really enjoyed the group and thought that I was probably going to be there the rest of my career.
But it wasn’t perfect?
[Laughs.] Not quite. Eventually, situations changed—like they sometimes do. I ended up taking the general counsel role at The Forzani Group, the largest national sporting-goods retailer in Canada. I loved it. I learned so much there, both personally and professionally. The team was fantastic, and the role allowed me exposure to the business—and that’s what was truly eye-opening for me. In particular, I learned to appreciate the importance of culture within an organization. Technical ability only gets you so far in business. It is culture and people that really drive success. Everyone at Forzani understood, believed in, and lived the leadership culture that existed—it was more than just words on the wall. We ended up selling that business to Canadian Tire, a general retailer in Canada. It was a bittersweet ending. We did the right thing for our shareholders, but it was difficult watching the demise of the management team and saying good-bye to the business.
What about Churchill?
In many ways, it’s the perfect company. My position was created because what should have been done by a lawyer was being done by the executive team. It’ll take some time to educate people about how efficient attorneys can be, and I’d like to see us round out our legal team, but overall this is the perfect place to be immersed in a business that I believe has significant growth potential.
What was your strategy for pursuing this rediscovered dream of being in business?
My strategy was simple: think long-term. What do I need to do today to allow me to achieve my longer-term goals? What is going to get me to that next level? I have set high goals for myself, but I have so much to learn before I can even begin to achieve those goals.
Who will Evan Johnston be in 10 years?
I would like to run a company at some point. To be clear, I have a lot to learn before I get there. I need good mentorship, growth opportunities, and the confidence of other leaders to get there; but I suppose someone has to do it, so why can’t it be me? I want the responsibility of delivering to shareholders, employees, and the other stakeholders. I want to make those 3 a.m. deals. I love the intensity of the transaction, and I want to come into a role where I’m going to get some of that.