Vancouver Board of Trade chair talks money, police, philanthropy and Ellen DeGeneres

Published in the Vancouver Observer | February 4, 2012 | Circulation 100,000 unique monthly visitors

Wendy Lisogar-Cocchia - hotelier, spa magnate and Vancouver Board of Trade chair. Photo by David P. Ball

Wendy Lisogar-Cocchia is arguably among Vancouver’s most influential women in business. She’s interviewed her mentor, Ellen DeGeneres, on an arena stage. She’s attracted celebrities like Elle MacPherson, Gwyneth Paltrow, Michael Bublé and Zac Effron to her successful spa business. She is in constant touch with the mayor, premier and other movers and shakers.

“You’ve got a whole group of 37 A-type personalities,” she said of her role as chair of the Vancouver Board of Trade (VBOT), in an exclusive interview with the Vancouver Observer. “They’re just dynamic – people who are really engaged. We all share the same challenge for time.

“It’s a higher level of engaged discussions – you have to do your homework beforehand.”

Needless to say, Lisogar-Cocchia knows commerce in Vancouver. As Chief Executive Officer of Absolute Spa Group and the Century Plaza Hotel – and for the past year, chair of the VBOT – the hotelier and spa chain magnate has carved out a path of influence which could lead her to positions on prominent city committees and boards long after she finishes her VBOT term this year.

But the way she describes her path to success – in particular her passion for philanthropy, persistence, and ‘daily random acts of kindness’ – says as much about her personality as it does about an emerging new paradigm in economics, business and even political power.

Last week, the VBOT celebrated its 125th anniversary as representative for Vancouver’s business community. The 5,000-member organization’s activities include hosting high-profile speakers such 60 Minutes‘ Lesley Stahl, former U.S. president Bill Clinton, as well as a regular cast of federal and provincial government cabinet ministers.

Founded in 1887, the VBOT’s mandate is to promote the “enlightened interest” of its members – rooted in its firm belief in the free market system (“the only system that works effectively in the allocation of scarce economic resources”), reducing “government involvement in the business sector,” while declaring support for public services such as health care and education.

“Governments,” VBOT website states, “should not do what can be done in whole or in part by the private sector.”

On stage to accept a prestigious official proclamation from Mayor Gregor Robertson, Lisogar-Cocchia was, understandably, in good spirits. Robertson, reading the edict, grinned as he added his own, unofficial, note of praise into the proclamation: “… and whereas the Vancouver Board of Trade has a fantastic leader in Wendy,” he said to appreciative laughter from the audience, “we hereby proclaim Wednesday, January 25, 2012 as the Vancouver Board of Trade’s 125th anniversary day in the City of Vancouver.”

“Exciting, hey?” Lisogar-Cocchia said, smiling broadly as she admired the framed proclamation. If anything, the ease and humour she and Robertson shared on the business stage are revealing of their leadership styles: power with a modern, laid-back, liberal face. She hates committee meetings (inefficient use of time), and loves Twitter (highly efficient). Juggling three major professional endeavours, time is of the utmost priority for getting it all done, and the VBOT is no different.

Advice for youth: take initiative 

“Initiative is a great trait – I would encourage young people to be risk-takers and go forth,” she said when asked for advice to young people starting out today. “This is definitely a time in business when you have to be very flexible and adapt to the change with an open mind.

“You see that with younger generations – youth that we hire and defer to – marketing is a learning opportunity every single day. It seems to come naturally to the younger generation. I’m so blessed that my communications manager is 27 – every single day she’s teaching me something and coming up with new ideas.”

Lisogar-Cocchia’s office is a picture of simplicity. No clutter. Mostly bare walls – and what is on the walls is revealing: a photo of her husband and children. Another of her with Bill Clinton. A framed quote of wisdom about motherhood. A windowsill bedecked with glass and wood awards for her business and charitable work.

Most interesting among the decorations, however, is the body outline of a criminal suspect, punctuated by bullet holes, taped to the office door.

Dreams of becoming a police officer

Lisogar-Cocchia, who has been a trustee of the Vancouver Police Foundation since 2004, was invited to a police shooting gallery and, evidently, scored very well. In fact, she revealed, she actually dreamed of being a police officer from a young age.

“I wanted to be one when I was a teenager,” she said, smiling mischievously by the poster. “I wasn’t allowed – and besides, I wouldn’t be good at it.

“But, whatever I can do to help the police force in Vancouver… (I wanted) to serve. It would be fantastic to make that significant difference every single day in peoples’ lives. Could you imagine? They have that opportunity every day, of course as we know, at extreme, great risk.”

I ask about last year’s Stanley Cup hockey riots, which damaged hundreds of businesses she represents.

“Personally, I’ll say very strongly that I felt great compassion for the police,” she said. “It was complete instability that they faced.

“No human should have to do that. It’s just incredible day in and day out what these men and women do getting out of bed every day to protect us and serve us. They were obviously instructed to show great restraint. The riot was shut down in three hours – that’s incredible, considering how many people came so quickly into the downtown core.”

There are few spa chain owners or hoteliers who have as keen a personal interest in the police as Lisogar-Cocchia, who becomes animated – even passionate – when talking about public safety, service and philanthropy. But her role-model comes from a different world – the world of television.

Meeting Ellen DeGeneres

That hero is Ellen DeGeneres – acclaimed U.S. talk show host, prominent advocate for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, and volunteer for special needs children and animals. When DeGeneres visited Vancouver last year, Lisogar-Cocchia interviewed her on-stage in Rogers Arena, and the two shared a tearful moment backstage discussing their shared charitable causes.

“She cares a lot about special needs – it’s both of our passions,” Lisogar-Cocchia recalled. “She makes you laugh, cry, think.

“She would be my top person in the world that I would want to interview if I could have anybody. She’s been a complete trailblazer for our generation for the century to come in regards to accepting people regardless of their differences.”

Part of what DeGeneres inspired in the VBOT chair is her message of acceptance of diversity.

“We absolutely – in our society, in this day and age – should accept everybody for who they are, the way they were born,” she said. “She ends every show with, ‘Be kind to one another.’

“What a message! I like doing a random act of kindness every day – staying an extra 30 seconds to hold a door for someone.”

She showed me around her sparse office, which overlooks Burrard Street with large tinted windows. The floor is carpeted, white, and perfectly clean. Her desk is nearly empty – featuring only two plain sheets of printed notes for our interview – to which she never refers, in the end. The conversation flowed freely and easily. She laughed often, maintained eye-contact, and shared personal stories.

One of them is how her own father, Roy Lisogar – owner of the hotel she inherited – fired her. She had gone behind his back, as an 18-year old restaurant worker, and redesigned the menus with the chef (“at great expense,” she admits). She went home crying to her mother, who comforted her, but convinced her to sleep it off and re-apply for her job. Sure enough, the next day she drafted a curriculum vitae and approached her father behind his desk. She got the job.

“I did not make that mistake again,” she laughed. “It was about not using the company’s money without permission.

Lessons for business success

“Be passionate about what you choose to do. You’re going to spend more time on that than your own family. Never give up. Set yourself realistic goals – they can be lofty goals. I think it’s the persistence factor that’s most important.”

This trademark persistence lies behind the “serendipitous” turn of events through which Lisogar-Cocchia founded a women’s golf tournamentwhich has raised $2.9 million for B.C. special needs children’s charities. In 1987, her father was to participate in a charitable golf tournament but suffered a stroke.

His daughter stepped into fill his shoes. There was one problem: she was barred from entering the golf course because it was a men-only tournament.

“I thought it was funny, but knew it wasn’t right,” she recalled. “So I just grabbed a bunch of ladies – I phoned them.

“Well, you’d never guess what – (Our tournament)’s been a smashing success. Twenty-five years ago things were very different for female executives!”

Has the corporate world actually changed much for women in the last few decades? After all, the faces around board tables and governments are still largely white and male – despite much talk about workplace equality, diversity, and new opportunities, barriers remain.

“I speak to different women at really high levels,” she said. “We don’t actually acknowledge and pay attention to (the barriers).

“If you were to encounter a challenge, frankly, the only thing to do is ignore it, work hard, and move on.”

As she glanced out the window facing downtown Vancouver – its bank towers, condominiums and offices jutting skyward – Lisogar-Cocchia pauses as I inquire about her philanthropy and business awards. Setting the award in her hand down, she glanced at the northernmost wall of her spartan workspace – to a photo of her family.

There’s something more to her story that is essential to add, it seemed.

“My husband is my partner in crime for everything,” she said of Sergio Cocchia. “He’s my business partner. He’s a co-founder of the spa as well.

“You wouldn’t know it – because he’s a big, rough, handsome Italian guy with a beard, six-foot-two – but he and I had been doing special needs fundraising when we met,” she said.

“It’s just something that we’ve been raised with. It’s a great quality to pass onto the next generation.”

Wendy Lisogar-Cocchia - hotelier, spa magnate and Vancouver Board of Trade chair. Photo by David P. Ball

Wendy Lisogar-Cocchia - hotelier, spa magnate and Vancouver Board of Trade chair. Photo by David P. Ball

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