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Cathy Imrie: Staying with the current

Aquarium CFO maintains balance between fulfilling non-profit’s mission and staying financially viable
Cathy Imrie, chief financial officer and senior vice-president, business, Vancouver Aquarium | Chung Chow

Cathy Imrie has the perfect stress reliever at her office. The chief financial officer and senior vice-president of business for the Vancouver Aquarium simply steps out of her office for a little work relief.

“If you ever have a day when you’re feeling kind of crappy, you can just go walk around the galleries and see the children and the families, the awe and joy they have; it just turns your day around. You can stop and chat to people and talk about what they’re looking at. So it’s not your standard office, that’s for sure.”

The Vancouver Aquarium has about 50,000 animals, making up more than 900 species. Each year around a million people walk through the grounds of the facility, which employs close to 500 people – a number that can increase seasonally.

The organization that runs the aquarium recently went through a name change, from the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre to Ocean Wise in June 2017. Imrie said the new name better reflects the aquarium’s role as only one part of a much larger organization, whose key components include aquarium management, education, engagement and research.

Among the many facets of Ocean Wise is its seafood program, which promotes the display of logos beside menu choices at various Vancouver restaurants, letting customers know if their food choice was sustainably caught. The organization also runs the Coastal Ocean Research Institute, which works with scientists to carry out original research on ocean life. One of its most notable projects is the Marine Mammal Research Program, which focuses on whales and dolphins and is the longest-running of its kind in the world. The aquarium first opened its doors more than 60 years ago.

Imrie, who’s been working for the aquarium in various roles since 2003, said last year’s name change was partially aimed at letting people know the organization isn’t merely the management arm of the aquarium.

“Even though we had been doing it for years, we wanted to demonstrate as our legal name that we were more than just a visitor experience,” she said. “So we changed from being a Vancouver-centric facility to a global ocean conservation organization.”

As it has expanded and diversified, the aquarium has also weathered controversies, most recently over keeping cetaceans in captivity. Early this year, the organization bowed to public pressure and announced an end to the practice. However, Imrie noted a recent survey commissioned by Ocean Wise that found that 85% of Vancouverites support the parent organization and the aquarium. But she conceded it’s not always easy to maintain a positive outlook when the headlines tend to focus on negatives.

“It’s challenging,” she said. “I won’t pretend it’s not, but you can’t let it get you down. Because what happens is, you know, the activists and the people who speak out – our critics represent a very vocal but very small portion of the population.”

Imrie said it can be even tougher for the workers who are out in the gallery space on a daily basis.

“When you’re in a leadership perspective, and you see front-line employees having someone yelling in their face, it’s tough. People who are really abusing your staff and really have no basis. And everyone is entitled to their opinion, of course.”

Imrie said the primary challenge of running a non-profit organization that is a registered charity is making sure it remains financially sustainable.

“For me, one of the tough things is always the balancing act of delivering on our mission and focusing on revenue generation, because if you don’t have revenue generation, you can’t deliver your mission.

“So you have to balance those things, and it’s a constant trade-off. Do I spend money on fiscal maintenance of the facility, or do we have a cool new education program that needs $100,000 to get started?” •

Business in Vancouver and the Chartered Professional Accountants of British Columbia will honour the province’s top CFOs at the BC CFO Awards gala dinner, being held June 7 at the Fairmont Waterfront Hotel. For more information or to register, go to