Exciting things are in the pipeline at FORREC Ltd. As from October, Cale Heit takes over from Gordon Dorrett as President and CEO of the Toronto-based international entertainment design firm.
Ahead of the transition, Blooloop talks to the duo about how FORREC will ensure continuity when it comes to company ethos and customer service.
Gordon Dorrett (right), who has been with FORREC since 1985, will remain as Executive Director and board member when Cale Heit steps into the role of President and CEO in a few months’ time. For nearly three decades, Dorrett has driven the company’s growth and established a strong corporate structure. Nurturing in-house talent and growing new leaders – such as Heit – have been a key part of his succession model. Yet Heit is no newcomer. He has been part of the FORREC team since 1993. During that time, he has taken on various roles, providing him with a deep well of experience.
The Early Days – Identifying a Gap in the Market
Gordon Dorrett recalls his first few years with FORREC. “When I got involved in 1985, FORREC was barely a company,” he says. “It was a notion, set up to look at a couple of specific projects. Nobody at that point had any idea the company would become what it is today.”
As the work continued, FORREC found that it was pioneer within the industry. “People would come to FORREC saying ‘Who did that job?’ And we would meet with other people in the development industry who said ‘We’d like to do this, but we don’t know anybody who does this kind of work’.”
Over the next decade, Dorrett and his colleagues worked on various projects, including two he identifies as pivotal to FORREC’s development. “One was the West Edmonton Mall in Canada, and the second was Universal Studios Florida. This was the first time Universal Studios had purpose-built a brand-new park.”
Based on that work, the company discovered that there was, in fact, a business to be had and it was worth pursuing.
“When I became president, we realised FORREC was a recognisable brand on an international level,” says Dorrett. “We came back to the shareholders to look at how we could really grow that reputation. We then changed from a flat model with everybody doing a bit of everything to create a structure that allowed us to grow. Since then we have grown by over four times our original size, putting emphasis on becoming masters of what we do.”
The Succession Model (AKA Stepping Down at 60)
Aside from the new corporate structure at FORREC, Gordon Dorrett introduced in-house human resources, business development, IT and marketing teams. At the same time, the core team was expanded and focused specifically on the business of design.
Dorrett also brought in a forward-thinking succession model. He credits Ray Braun with the initial idea. Braun was at that time head of the entertainment practice at Economics Research Associates (ERA). He is now a founding principal of Entertainment + Culture Advisors (ECA).
“Braun said that he had something we might be interested in. We took a look at it, and we loved it. We then modified it to suit our company and our long-term goals. Most architectural and engineering design firms, certainly in North America, rise to the point where they are run by a small group of partners. They all grow old together, and then what do they do? They sell to one of the big companies. Instead we built this model where, at age 60, we don’t expect anybody to retire, but they have to sell their shares to make room for the next generation. And, lo and behold, I turned 60 this year.”
Dorrett and his fellow FORREC board members worked with an external consultant to identify how the firm should progress as he prepared to step down as president and CEO. The next step was to identify someone – preferably within the company – with the skills, strengths, experience and ambition to lead the company.
Dorrett’s New Role
By staying on as an Executive Director at FORREC, Gordon Dorrett will take on initiatives that help refine the company’s structural and business approach. He will also provide support to Cale Heit, to create a sense of continuity in the early days of the transition.
Letting go will not be easy, Dorrett concedes. “This is a difficult decision for me. This company has been woven into my life for most of my life. But I am looking forward to making a contribution in a different way. More as a mentor to young designers who want to learn about the industry and possibly even end up as leaders in the company. There is something really gratifying about that.”
All Hail Cale
Dorrett relates that Heit expressed deep interest in the role of President and CEO of FORREC. “We looked at him, at what he is capable of doing, and we said ‘Yes: we think Cale is our guy’.”
For the last year, the outgoing and incoming presidents have been working side-by-side. “Cale has been here for almost 25 years,” confirms Dorrett. “He has done every aspect of the business, so he is incredibly rounded, and he has a sincere eagerness and ability to learn. He is also well regarded in the industry, and by our staff. It makes perfect sense.”
Dorrett elaborates on the qualities Heit will bring to the role. “We believe that to run a design business, you have to be a designer. Cale is a damn good designer. But you’ve also got to be left brain/right brain. You have to have some business acumen, and some entrepreneurial skills. Cale has those. I believe he can make hard-nosed decisions. That is one of the toughest things about this job. Plus he has a strong sense of learning. I believe the company is in good hands.”
Filling Gordon’s Colourful Socks
As incoming FORREC president and CEO, Cale Heit is understandably positive about his new role. He’s also appreciative of the work that his predecessor has done over the past 30 years at the company.
“I joked with the staff that instead of having big shoes to fill, it’s more like I have colourful socks to fill,” smiles Heit. “Gordon is a colourful personality here. He’s very charismatic, known both in the industry and externally. I have learned a lot from him over the years.”
But Heit is planning to forge his own path. “I will do things based on my natural ability and character. That’s how I’ll be the president. I have a different approach. People will compare, inevitably, but also, people will see the differences and I think that’s exciting.”
Heit’s Many Hats
Cale Heit’s grasp of FORREC’s workings is both broad and very detailed. He has been Project Director of the company for a number of years, leading projects and teams both internally and externally. He has also served as Executive Vice President of Operations. In a three-month window when the company was without a Finance Director, he volunteered to take on the job. This gave him a detailed insight into how this important part of the business functions. Other roles over the years have included Landscape Architect, Master Planner, Project Manager, Acting Practice Leader, and Sector Leader for Theme Parks.
“The transition for me is maybe not as big a leap as it would be for someone who was more project focused,” says Heit. “I’ve really been fortunate to wear many hats here at FORREC. It has made it very interesting for me over the years. But it has also given me a lead up to understand the business, and hopefully, to seamlessly move into the role. I feel that I’m prepared.”
Vocation and Reputation
“I love where I work and I wouldn’t change it for the world,” says Heit. “I am inspired by our team and the work we do, and the results. It’s something that I never imagined when I was in school. It sounds such a cliché to say that it’s a big family, but it’s really something here. I have grown up with people, spent a lot of time with them, over the years. We have travelled together, we work on the same projects together, we work late on deadlines together – that brings camaraderie and friendship.”
The incoming CEO is equally energised by the work and the clients. He feels that the client relationships that have been forged over the years make FORREC what it is. “We have been trusted by some of the biggest brands in the world to handle some truly impressive projects. I want to build on that legacy, ensuring that we deliver what our clients need and help them realise their goals.
Noting that this industry is continually changing, Heit says he plans to be flexible in outlook. “I think to succeed you have to be open to change and to capitalise on opportunities when they arise. The history of FORREC is about seeing things that way: we have adapted our business as the marketplace changed.”
Heit has high praise for his company colleagues. “I’m inspired by how our people put in the extra effort to ensure that a project is executed flawlessly. There are a lot of moving parts on every project and our teams really come together to ensure that no detail is missed.”
Taking FORREC Forward
Rather than formulating specific plans right away, Cale Heit is using this time right now to talk to people within FORREC. “I’m going to be sitting down in a meeting with our team here,” he says. “And also doing some one-on-ones. I want to see what people think and believe, how we can improve things; identify things we should be looking at. We have some time now before October so I can put my head together with others and make decisions on how we roll that out in the company. It’s not a revolution; it’s an evolution, a continuation of the great service we provide today.”
Yet life at Forrec isn’t all work and no play, insists the incoming President and CEO. “The other thing is making sure that people have fun,” he says. “After all, we design fun projects and fun environments for people to experience. It’s very simple. I come in here every morning excited about what’s going to happen. I want to ensure that people working at FORREC have fun, and feel really engaged in what they do. Because when they enjoy what they’re doing, it makes for a better product in the end. They are happy, and the client is happy.”
The old order may be changing, but for FORREC it’s business as usual.