BC Chamber opts for youthful exuberance at the top

Profile: Val Litwin, president and CEO, BC Chamber of Commerce
Val Litwin, president and CEO, BC Chamber of Commerce | Rob Kruyt

Enrolled in university in the early 2000s, Val Litwin faced the age-old career conundrum: what am I going to do with my life?

“It’s supposed to be such a watershed moment in your life,” said Litwin, 38, the BC Chamber of Commerce’s youngest-ever president and chief executive officer, “but I feel like most of us still have no clue what we want to do.”

The post-9/11 world was in a state of shock, and Litwin had an idea. Travel the country and the continent committing random acts of kindness, and thus he launched the Kindness Crew and Extreme Kindness with a few of his friends.

The movement spread quickly, and the venture resulted in two books, one of which, Cool to be Kind, was a Canadian bestseller.

Litwin and his university buddies ended up raising $200,000 on a coast-to-coast Canadian tour that hit 29 cities in this country and six in the United States. They also landed some major consulting gigs with SAS, Starbucks (Nasdaq:SBUX), Ralph Lauren (NYSE:RL) and Disney (NYSE:DIS) spreading the gospel of kindness.

Litwin said the idea was simple, touch as many of those in need as humanly possible.

“We’d be up on stage speaking to 500 people, but we’d also be out in the community speaking to create projects with impact or execute on projects that create a great impact within the community. So planting trees, helping out at old folks homes …  it was really a project in raising awareness for volunteerism.”

In 2007, Litwin branched out into other ventures, teaming up with the mother-daughter duo of Judy and Devon Brooks. The result was Blo Blow Dry Bar Inc.

The idea was novel in its simplicity: offer a place for women to get their hair washed and styled, in and out in 30 minutes for $30. Judy Brooks had Litwin on staff at ProActive ReSolutions Inc., a management consulting company, and asked him if he’d be interested in helping with branding and marketing.

“When my daughter and I first decided to start Blo,” said Brooks, “we said to Val, ‘Are you interested in getting involved?’ And he said ‘I want to be a partner’. And so he was there from the inception of the business plan, all the way through.”

Brooks was impressed by Litwin’s enthusiasm and his personal and professional acumen.

“He has the ability to relate to everybody and, not being too esoteric here, they see his heart. And they see he comes from a place of wanting to make sure he does the right thing and does right by people.”

Blo Blow Dry Bar was a massive hit, opening 11 locations in under three years. Litwin said although its partners didn’t have direct experience in the field, they knew about launching a successful enterprise.

“None of us knew anything about hair,” said Litwin. “But we did understand marketing and communications, we did understand brand and culture. We knew fast growth, and we decided we wanted to create a world-class brand in a new category that didn’t exist. So it was a first to market concept, and we started with one in the Four Seasons Hotel. Litwin and the Brookses left the company in 2010. It continues to grow and now has approximately 65 locations across North America and the Philippines.

Next for Litwin was working for Nurse Next Door as its vice-president of franchise operations, helping the company expand and drive sales growth.

Branding, he said, is critical to company success.

“The best brands deliver on what they promise. And so while some may think a brand is an ephemeral, esoteric thing, the people that really understand brands, understand how to execute, they understand their product. They hire the right people; they build great cultures.”

Litwin now lives in Whistler, where he snowboards and enjoys everything the resort town has to offer.

In 2013 he was named the chief executive officer for the Whistler Chamber of Commerce, helping Whistler navigate a complex labour landscape that included working holiday visa holders and temporary foreign workers.

Litwin said being an entrepreneur is a unique job and something wired into his DNA. Work is never done, and sometimes making sure there is proper separation between personal and professional time is the most important thing of all.

Now as the youngest head of the BC Chamber of Commerce, one of the things Litwin hopes to achieve at the helm is to keep the chamber relevant in today’s fast-paced technological age.

“All membership organizations, not just chambers, across North America are really grappling with that relevancy piece.”

However none of that will matter unless he accomplishes his ultimate goal.

“The whole footnote of me being the youngest CEO ever will only be of interest if I do a good job.” 

Inside information

Currently reading:

419 by Canadian author Will Ferguson

First album bought:

Probably a Red Hot Chili Peppers album

When you were a kid you wanted to be:

I was never a kid that had a dream to become a specific thing, but I did always want to have an adventure

Profession I would most like to try:

The one I’m about to step into

Toughest business decision:

Making the leap from being a “brand and marketing” guy to a full-on “operations” guy when I began running ops for Blo Blow Dry Bar. The transition felt like walking into a brick wall, but it turned out to be my greatest leadership learning experience

Advice for younger self:

Don’t get caught up in over-managing your career trajectory. Be strategic, yes, but also be mindful of timing and when doors are opening.

What’s left to do:

My personal purpose is “to launch and lead deep projects with brave teams” – as long as I’m living that purpose I don’t need to be looking around the next corner

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