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Jack Poole in Going for the Green

The second year I wrote my Going for the Green column for the National Post I had the good fortune of playing a round of golf with Jack Poole, the force behind BC’s 2010 Winter Games bid. Poole was a lot of fun — interesting, humble — and we had a good time touring Capilano in Vancouver together. When I was writing my G4G book a couple of years back I’d heard Poole had been struggling with cancer; yesterday he succumbed to the disease. He’s the second subject from the 60 or so columns I wrote to die in recent years; former Cara Foods CEO Gabe Tsampalieros passed away earlier this year. I had a delightful game with Gabe at York Downs the same year I played with Poole.

Here is my 2003 column on Poole:

Jack Poole at Capilano in 2003. The real estate developer and Olympic organizer died yesterday.

Jack Poole at Capilano in 2003. The real estate developer and Olympic organizer died yesterday.

Poole knows how to chip – and run a Winter Games bid: ‘I know we’ve done the best we can do’

VANCOUVER – It is a strange time for Jack Poole, he tells me as we head to the first tee at Capilano Golf & Country Club. After all, as chief executive of Vancouver’s bid for the 2010 Winter Olympics, Mr. Poole has spent the past two years putting out fires, dealing with disparate political entities and attempting to convince the world that the city is the perfect host for one of the most prestigious sporting events on the planet. One thing he has not been doing is playing golf.

Now, with the results of the bid to be announced on July 2, Mr. Poole acknowledges that there is little more that he can do to influence the International Olympic Committee’s vote on whether Vancouver will host the event, as opposed to rivals Salzburg, Austria and PyeongChang, South Korea.

“In my mind and heart, I know we’ve done the best we can do,” Mr. Poole, 70, says as he climbs into a golf cart and heads down the wildly sloping first fairway of Capilano’s majestic opening par five. “And if the IOC wants [the Games] to come here, then they will.”

Mr. Poole never intended to become involved in the city’s Olympic bid. As a successful land developer, he was winding down his working days when a headhunter called to ask whether he could suggest a candidate to run Vancouver’s embryonic bid for the Winter Games, an event that at the time was still a decade away.

He gave the search firm some names and was surprised to receive a call later asking whether he’d consider the job himself.

“They said they wanted someone who was fluent in French and liked to travel. I told them I struggled with English, let alone French, and I hated to travel,” he says as we finish the opening hole and Poole putts out for a bogey.

“I thought it was a joke. God, I was like 90 years old,” he adds, though at the time Poole was only 67. “Then I thought about it further and decided I’d like the job.”

With his business affairs largely in the hands of “good young partners,” Poole felt leading the Olympic bid would allow him to give back to Vancouver, the city where he made his career in the real estate development business.

He eventually took the job with the attachment that he would not take a salary (“I’d like to say the job went to the lowest bidder,” he jokes on the second hole, a 404-yard par four where he makes bogey.

A tall man with a shock of grey hair and a self-deprecating sense of humour, Poole said he felt he was up to the opportunity of trying to build consensus around the bid. A life-long Liberal, he also felt his political connections would help with the task, he says on the par five third hole, where I make birdie and he comes in at one over par.

“I don’t really have any enemies in this town that I’m aware of,” he says. “And for the Premier [Gordon] Campbell, I was a person who wasn’t going to provide any political embarrassments.”

Poole, in fact, had the trust of Campbell, given his longstanding relationship with the premier. “I hired Gordon when he was a student to work in the lumber business at $3 per hour. Eventually I ended up working for him at $1 per year. So I ask you, who is the smarter one here?”

While he claims to have been “ignorant of the process” of running an Olympic bid prior to taking the job, Poole soon found it was not all that different from looking after the operations of a large company.

After all, the bid cost around $34-million and employs 70 people full-time. If successful, the budget for the 2010 games would eclipse $2-billion, including capital expenditures of $620-million (including a $110-million endowment to maintain the facilities after the games), an operational budget of $1.3-billion and security expenses of $180-million.

Poole was largely responsible for raising commitments to the cash from the federal, provincial and municipal governments, as well as corporate interests.

The new job took Poole away from his golf game. Though he has been a member at the esteemed Capilano since 1969, he did not actually start playing until the early 1990s. “I thought one day I’d want to play golf, so I joined,” he says.

Capilano, designed by Stanley Thompson, the architect behind most of this country’s best golf courses, is a world-famous private course with a remarkable setting overlooking Vancouver.

It first opened for play in 1938 and is a feast for the eyes, with the city posing in the distance as a scenic backdrop for some of Capilano’s best holes.

With its large pines, meandering fairways that plummet down hillsides and sloping, lightning-fast greens, Capilano is one of Canada’s best courses, ranking next to the likes of Cape Breton’s Highlands Links and Toronto’s St. George’s.

Poole’s road to running British Columbia’s Olympic bid was long and varied.

Having grown up in Saskatchewan, Poole went to school to become an engineer. When his attempts to crack Calgary’s fledgling oil industry stalled, he ended up as a Fuller Brush salesman, pitching products door-to-door.

“I was pretty good at it too,” he says on the sixth hole, a 399-yard par four with a terrific view of Vancouver in the background. “I thought maybe I’d make more money if I had a bigger product.”

That product turned out to be real estate. And when a real estate company Poole once worked for ran into money problems, the upstart entrepreneur offered to find a partner and buy a British Columbia development from the struggling business.

Poole’s turn in real estate development has lasted to this day, though he’s seen his shares of peaks and valleys.

As interest rates soared in the early 1980s, Poole saw his development business falter, owing 47 banks $2.3-billion.

“I saw my net worth go from $150-million to owing $5-million,” he says on the short par-five 10th hole. “It was a character builder, I’ll tell you.”

Facing bankruptcy, he offered to work to fix his company’s financial problems and the banks agreed. But when one financial institution became impatient with the progress and threatened to pull the plug on Poole and his company, the developer fought back.

“I told him I was a guy who was raised in Saskatchewan and came from nothing, and I could just as easily go back to that life. On the other hand, the banker wanted his money.”

The banks eventually got their cash, though it also meant they took control of Poole’s company.

He worked his way back, never fully regaining his fortune (“It was only on paper anyway,” he says as we tackle the short, but tricky 12th hole.) Despite that, he still has business interests all over North America (“I find it hard to say no to a deal that excites me,” he explains).

Despite an athletic swing that belies his age, Poole struggles with his golf game throughout the day, often blocking drives towards the right side of each hole. Though he shows a nice touch around the greens and hits several strong approach shots, he’s rarely rewarded on this warm, sunny day in June. He shoots 98, while I card three birdies and shoot 78.

As we head up the 18th hole, I ask Poole what he plans to do after the results of the Olympic bid become known on July 2.

Since the games won’t take place until 2010, when he’ll be 77, he says it would not make great sense for him to play a central role. Insiders close to Poole say he could be enticed to continue with the project, despite the time commitments it would take.

Either way he’ll keep busy, he assures me, before heading to chip his ball onto the elevated green of the final hole at Capilano.

“On July 3, maybe I’ll find the time to spend with my wife and my dogs,” he says, carrying a sand wedge to the side while walking towards the left side of the green.

“And maybe I’ll find some more time to spend out here as well,” he says as we walk towards Capilano’s 19th hole.

 

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Robert Thompson

A bestselling author and award-winning columnist, Robert Thompson has been writing about business and sports, and particularly golf, for almost two decades. His reporting and commentary on golf has appeared in Golf Magazine, the Globe and Mail, T&L Golf and many other media outlets. Currently Robert is a columnist with Global Golf Post, golf analyst for Global News and Shaw Communications, and Senior Writer to ScoreGolf. The Going for the Green blog was launched in 2004.

2 CommentsLeave a comment

  • Thanks for the article. Nothing to do about Jack Poole but one thing that stuck out in the article was the estimate for security costs for the olympics. I understand that cost has now risen from $175mm to $1 bn since the article was written – how times have changed.

    Colin

  • Thanks for the article. Nothing to do about Jack Poole but one thing that stuck out in the article was the estimate for security costs for the olympics. I understand that cost has now risen from $175mm to $1 bn since the article was written – how times have changed.

    Colin
    BTW I love your blog!

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