A Little More about David Pecaut – Part #1

June 2, 2008

Okay, so we’ve gotten quite a few questions about participants in the book who didn’t get full chapter treatment. If you don’t know what we’re talking about, Kickstart features both extended first-person stories and what we call ‘sidebars’: short quotes (nuggets of knowledge and insight) from other successful Canadians we had the great privilege of interviewing as well.

A lot of readers are asking to know more about these sidebar participants. So here we go. Over the next little while, we’ll be providing short profiles of our sidebar participants – people who could (and hopefully will) fill the pages of the next installment of Kickstart.

Today’s profile: David Pecaut, Toronto’s ultimate man of many hats. He’s a senior partner in the Toronto office of the Boston Consulting Group, the Chair of the Toronto City Summit Alliance, and co-founder of the city’s remarkably ambitious Luminato festival. He’s the man Toronto Life calls the “Shadow Mayor“, one of the most committed voices in the civic arena – and one with a fairly intense Bay Street day job. Though Pecaut still manages to fly under some people’s radar where we live, that’s soon to change. He’s kind of a big deal.

So, how did he get started?

Glad you asked.

Pecaut grew up in Sioux City, Iowa, a city of about 90,000 on the Missouri River.

“My great-great grandfather was the third person of European descent to settle in Nebraska,” Pecaut told us. “He was a Swiss-French fur trader and whose raft got stuck bringing furs down the Missouri river in the 1840’s. He had to winter over and he met a Frenchmen who milked cows and they hit it off. When the thaw cleared, he said to his buddies, “I’m staying here.” So I have these incredibly deep roots in the community, which go back about 100 years from when I was born.”

These deep roots endowed the Pecaut family with a deep sense of civic responsibility in a tight knit mid-western town where virtually everyone was active in one way or another. As a kid, Pecaut was the chair of the city’s “youth commission,” which held concerts and initiated a study into juvenile delinquency. You get the idea. He was a bit of a keener.

Though his father owned his own business, Pecaut didn’t see that many opportunities in Sioux City, so he set his sights on one of the two coasts. He knew he had a natural entrepreneurial streak. But beyond that, he held no clear ideas of where precisely he would go. He just knew he wanted to get as wide a perspective of existence as possible. He wanted the great Liberal Arts education.

He got into Harvard and the world opened up. As a kid who had only really traveled around the mid-west with his debating team, Pecaut was eager to soak up other people’s experiences. Even though he sensed he wanted to go into business eventually, he ultimately stopped attending his economics classes. Instead, he gravitated to the sociology department. Pecaut loved it because the teacher to student ratio was so low (he claims it was virtually 1:1) and because “classes all felt like graduate chat rooms”.

“I’m probably the only person in the Boston Consulting Group who never took a business or economics course in university,” he says.

“I’ve always done things in an unconventional way. Ultimately, people are more interested in you if you do that. It actually gives you power… For a while, it is risky, but pursuing an unconventional tack, but it ultimately makes you more confident and impressive.”

Because he wanted to do an honours degree, Pecaut needed to write a thesis. For a few years, he had taken a keen interest in the community in East Boston. When they had begun desegregating schools years before, a judge ruled that every institution needed a certain proportion of black and white students. That meant lots of busing, as the poor Italian population had to be bused into black ghettoes and vice versa. The communities rose up against the ruling. It did the same thing when Logan airport was talking about expanding its runways into their backyard. This interested Pecaut, because his textbooks told him that they wouldn’t. Poor people weren’t supposed to be able to organize in a sophisticated and effective way.

Pecaut decided to move into the community and study it for an entire summer. He applied to the National Science Foundation, got himself a grant, and hired five friends to live in East Boston and help him survey the community. What they discovered has helped shape his thinking ever since.

“We learned a lot about how networks works,” Pecaut explains. “‘Strong ties’ are the people you know well. ‘Weak ties’ are the people you meet at the market or at your place of employment – and it’s through weak ties that political organizations thrive. The job market works the same way.”

When the research was done, the team decided that they would write a joint thesis. Problem: Harvard wasn’t into it. They begged, pleaded, and explained their case, but the school would only budge in a way that ultimately meant Pecaut and his friends had to write two theses each. The experienced turned him off of academia, but didn’t lessen his love of learning.

After working on a jazz show for the campus radio station, Pecaut wanted to pursue a master’s in the philosophy of music. He received a fellowship and entrance into an interdisciplinary program at the University of Sussex. But he was nervous about remaining in academia. He decided to take a year off and try something new. After barreling down the west coast of the states with his buddies, he returned to Sioux City.

“I had three ideas that I thought would be fun,” Pecaut recalls, “being a cross-country truck driver, running an all-jazz radio station, and just working closely with the CEO of a company. It turns out that you actually need a lot of education to be a truck driver -it’s a 12 week course and you have to pass a lot of tests. The local radio station was interested in my ideas but really couldn’t devote much time to me – I ended up doing it for free in my spare time because it was only like 8 hours a week.

Meanwhile, there were only 3 or 4 big companies around, and most of the CEO’s just didn’t understand what I was talking about. I wanted to work with them in a creative capacity on special programs. Luckily, one guy thought it was a great idea and created a special position for me at his chemical fertilizer company: I was the special projects administrator. I remember I arrived the first day and he said, “I just realized we haven’t talked about salary yet, how about $1000 a month?” I really didn’t care about the money; I just wanted the experience so that was fine with me, but later he told me what a steal that was and that he felt so bad about it.”

As a “special projects administrator,” Pecaut was a designated problem solver. The company gave him a problem and he tried to solve it. As part of his job, Pecaut even got to go to Washington and work with then-senator Bob Dole on a class action suit about fertilizer dumping.

“When I got back the boss called me in and I said, “Aren’t you happy with the work I did?” Of course he was, but what he wanted to talk to me about was my expense account. He showed me a bill from McDonalds for 8 bucks – he told me it was hilarious that I had gone to Washington on business and not spent any money. I had stayed at a friend’s house. He was like, “you can eat a proper meal at a restaurant. You can stay in a hotel.” It was really funny.”

The best part about the job was that it enabled Pecaut to discover management consulting. One day, in the bathroom, he struck up a conversation with a consultant who his boss had brought in. Pecaut couldn’t understand how the man could have no experience with chemical engineering.

“He said the last thing they had worked on were colour tvs,” Pecaut exclaims. “I couldn’t believe it. This guy got to learns something completely new from scratch and then do it all again. Your job was always fresh.”

Pecaut went off to Sussex at the end of the year to do his masters in the philosophy of music, but returned determined to launch himself in business in Boston or New York. But then his mother was diagnosed with cancer. All plans were de-railed. He immediately went to be at her bedside in Wisconsin. For five months, he sat itching to get into the game. Pecaut even started up a small consultancy there, working with three small companies and a political campaign.

While at the University of Sussex, Pecaut had met a woman from Toronto. Things had got serious and, ultimately, it came down to an issue of geography. If the relationship was to work, Pecaut needed to be in Toronto. So, after leaving home, he came to Canada rather than New York. He arrived with no contacts, no papers, no education in economics, but determined to crack the local consulting industry.

All he could do was shop himself around.

“It occurred to me that I had never really interviewed for a job before,” Pecaut admits. “I thought it might be good to practice a little bit. So I started with this smaller firm and the interview was going really well until he asked me what I thought about this guy’s economic theory. I had to tell him that I had never heard of the guy. He was surprised because the guy was from Harvard too and his theory was really important.

When he left the office to take a phone call, I wrote down all the names from the books on his shelf, and when I found out that he was going to have me back for a second interview, I went to the U of T library and read the books that he had been talking about. I totally blew them away when I was able to talk about the stuff I had already done in the context of these new theories I had just learned, especially because they knew I just picked them up overnight. They offered me a spot right then and there, but they were really nice and suggested a couple of other places I should talk to.”

Pecaut wanted to work at McKinsey, because they were a big firm and he had worked with them on the fertilizer suit in Washington years before. But, when he met with them, the firm made it clear that he was an inexperienced rookie. They wouldn’t let him run his own projects. When Canada Consulting did the opposite, and let Pecaut keep his existing clients, he knew he had found a home.

“It was great for me to come here because of a girl and find out that I really belonged here,” Pecaut explains. “Coming to Toronto seemed crazy at the time. My Dad was really negative about my decision to come here instead of going to New York or Boston. Toronto was the big city I never heard of – when I first came I thought I was coming to Cleveland but I soon discovered it was not anything like that at all.”

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