Bruce Carter, CEO of the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce

Bruce Carter’s preference was always wings over sails, but as it worked out, it’s a desk that has become his domain. Instead of a flotilla of ships, a corps of sailors, or a squadron of jets, Carter’s “army” is 1,500 or so business owners.

Born in Penticton, the 49-year-old CEO of the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce (GVCC) was once a commercial pilot flying Cessnas into cloudbanks to seed thunderstorms. His first love was the sky, but poor eyesight kept him from the cockpit of a CF-18. Instead, while working in landlocked Edmonton, he signed up for the Royal Canadian Navy and gained his sea legs on his inaugural posting — Victoria to Halifax on the tall ship HMCS Oriole.

“That was my first time at sea,” recalls Carter. “We went out the Strait of Juan de Fuca, turned left, and kept going.”

Ascending the ranks into officer positions in gunnery and air defence, Carter saw active duty sailing with a peacekeeping mission off Yugoslavia during the early ’90s.

But 220 days a year afloat left him desiring more time at home with his two young kids, so he settled in his adoptive home of Victoria and began looking at options.

“After I left the Navy I had that whole, ‘Well, what the hell do you know?’”

Information gathering was what he knew. The military had drummed it into him. He was good at doing something with the intel, shaping it, and sending it back out as a valuable tool.

So Carter applied his skills to running a web development company that consulted with GVCC. Five years later, in 2004, he was asked to take over as CEO. The job seemed perfectly tailored.

{advertisement} “I call the chamber a suit that fits really well,” he quips.

Carter inherited a staff of 11, a budget of $1.3 million, and 147 years’ history — bringing advocacy, communications, networking, and other services to the membership.

Under his term at the helm, GVCC was one of the first in the country to be accredited with distinction and was the province’s Chamber of the Year in 2006. Last year, Carter himself was named B.C.’s chamber executive of the year.

The GVCC recently underwent a re-branding process. Did it change what the organization does?

We’re progressive, and that’s not normally associated with the chamber. We want to be a little less staid and inclusive, and not an old boys’ club.

What kind of new things will the chamber be doing?

We’ll roll out a business advice service where a stable of successful business people will give an hour of their time, an hour’s worth of advice, to other members. We’ll do a richer networking program and create sectoral working groups, rather than one group for everyone. And there’ll be a monthly economic roundtable to get a take on the local economy.

Victoria’s economic development officer, Sasha Angus, recently proclaimed the No. 1 priority for the business community is expansion of the runway at Victoria International Airport, opening up direct flights to Europe and Asia. Is that what the chamber sees as tops?

No, it’s municipal taxation. That’s the single largest concern for all of our members. The GDP has gone up about 50 per cent since 1989 and municipal taxes have gone up 180 per cent in the same time. We can’t keep that trend. The challenge that municipalities run into is the lure of operational spending and the sheer boredom of capital spending.

What about the runway?

The things we’re interested in from an infrastructural viewpoint, the runway remains the highest priority. But in creating a list of infrastructure priorities, I’d have trouble telling you what Nos. 2 and 3 are.

How about the LRT?

We recognize the incredible economic importance of an efficient transportation system. But you throw LRT into that mix and we don’t have a transportation authority, so if we built it, would we be able to run it? Transit can’t do it and I question whether the CRD’s current governance structure can make the right decisions.

Is it just too early for us to consider?

The conversation is great, but it’s far too early to decide one way or another. The chamber isn’t prepared to take a position.

You’ve drawn a line in the sand on a number of controversial projects — the Blue Bridge, safe injection sites, and the Inner Harbour marina — has this been Bruce Carter talking over the voice of the chamber?

In those circumstances when Bruce has been controversial, that’s a reflection of the board of directors taken after very careful consideration. Those were three stands, and the HST would be another, in which we took a stand that would be seen as unpopular by some.

Two recent articles in the chamber magazine Business Matters refer to transparency in government as well as prudence to keep spending from growing faster than what taxpayers can afford. Yet you endorsed the clumsy, behind-closed-doors way the city handled the bridge replacement. Why?

We were confident that when that [review] process was done, recognizing the importance of that bridge economically, that the bridge would need to be replaced. As businesspeople, we didn’t like the final number the bridge would cost, but we knew that was the cost of doing business.

What about the contentious luxury yacht marina project?

Moorage is the hardest thing to get on this coast. The lack of moorage has a detrimental effect on the entire boating industry. It can be difficult to sell a boat if there’s no place to park it. Our discussion was: this is approved zoning in an area where this is appropriate, subject to safety and environmental concerns. If someone buys a lot zoned for a marina, they should be able to put up a marina. We actually never spoke in favour of a marina. We spoke in favour of the principle.

The GVCC has applauded the recent establishment of a municipal auditor general. Why is that important?

What you get is value-for-money audits, not “Did you spend the money in the right spot,” but instead, “Was it a good investment?” You can compare audits between municipalities and identify best practices. And then share those best practices. For example, let’s say Surrey’s road maintenance costs are so low compared to everyone else’s, or they’re better at running their libraries. This is how we can share them in a transparent way so everyone can see.

How will businesses cope without the HST?

Unfortunately, tax policy will influence consumer behaviour, like home renovations. Why should I do my reno now and pay another seven per cent? I’m just not going to do that until March of 2013. And that’s jobs — contractors, electricians, etc., who just aren’t going to work.