Sam Sebastian, President and CEO of Pelmorex

Published by Speaking of Business Podcast on

Transcript

This transcript is unedited.

Goldy Hyder:
Welcome to Speaking of Business, conversations with Canadian innovators, entrepreneurs and business leaders. I’m Goldy Hyder, President and CEO of the Business Council of Canada. Today I’m speaking with Sam Sebastian, CEO of Pelmorex, owner of The Weather Network. I don’t know about you, but that’s how I start my day every day. Pelmorex has more than 60 million users around the world with operations and services that go far beyond local weather forecasts. Sam’s personal journey is a story you won’t want to miss. Born in Ohio, he first made his mark in this country as head of Google Canada. You might’ve heard of them. Then in 2017, he joined Pelmorex as the family owned company’s CEO. Sam has never been afraid to change things up and take big risks. We’ll talk about that. We’ll also explore the reasons behind his decision to apply for Canadian citizenship and how he overcame his introverted nature. I hope you’ll enjoy our conversation. Sam, thank you so much for doing this.

Sam Sebastian:
Great to be here. Looking forward to it.

Goldy Hyder:
Well, let’s just jump right in. Because I think a lot of people will ask the company you currently work for, the name is Pelmorex.

Sam Sebastian:
Yeah, Pelmorex. Yeah.

Goldy Hyder:
Pelmorex. Tell us about it.

Sam Sebastian:
So, it’s the parent company, the holding company of The Weather Network, which I think most all Canadians would know hopefully, and MétéoMédia in Quebec as well as Eltiempo in Spain, Clima in Spanish speaking Latin America. We also run and operate the backbone of the alert system for emergency alerting in the country. So it’s a great business and I’ve been there for two years and loving it.

Goldy Hyder:
Do you think people know that you operate the emergency system?

Sam Sebastian:
So we just tested wireless alerting about a year ago, and we’ve been managing the alert system for about probably 15 years, but only now in the last couple of years with the wireless alerting our folks starting to recognize our name associated with it because we’re waking people up in the middle of the night for amber alerts, although what we love about it because our brand is all about safety and keeping folks informed is, this is a perfect example. We woke folks up at three o’clock in the morning, but the two kids were identified by the police through the amber alert. So it’s something we’re extremely proud of. We’ve operated it for the past 15, 20 years and it’s a right within our DNA.

Goldy Hyder:
I’m sure we’re going to cover a lot more ground about the reach that you have, but let’s talk about the company itself. Tell us a little bit about it. It’s 30 years old, has a founder.

Sam Sebastian:
Yup, so Pierre Morrissette started the company, he actually bought The Weather Network, the television station about 30 years ago. Pierre is an entrepreneur but he’s got great vision. He built a board, assembled a board before he even knew what he was going to do. He knew he was going to do great things when he was about 40 years old. He left investment banking and he assembled a board and then said, “Help me figure out what I’m going to go create.” And one of his first acquisitions were some radio stations, but then The Weather Network, and it was more of a subscription service, he turned it into an advertising business and then was comfortable disrupting himself from within over the course of the following 30 years. So he was very comfortable embracing digital, embracing mobile, embracing data, and even though it might put the traditional business a little bit on its heels, he knew where the business was going to continue to grow, and then over the years we’re now the third largest weather business in the world. And it’s a Testament to Pierre and the team that was around them.

Goldy Hyder:
And you’ve got a vision to be a global champion.

Sam Sebastian:
Yeah, so I think why I’m there is to take it to the next level and hopefully leave it better than when I came. It’s a family business, it’s a private business and is going to be in the family and remain private for years to come, and my goal is to grow it outside of Canada. So the first thing I did was set a very big ambition to be number one. That’s our goal. Our goal is to be number one. However long it’s going to take us, we want to be the largest weather player in the world. Our mission is to harness the value of weather to keep the world and make the world safer and smarter, and that’s what we’re plotting along. So we’re going to go into new areas within data, within climate, within analytics, in addition to expanding internationally. So we’re the largest player in Spain, in Portugal, with goals of just continuing to operate well outside of our border.

Goldy Hyder:
Alright, let’s park that thought there because there’s a lot there that you’ve said too and I want to come back to those topics. But before we go there, let’s talk about your life before the role that you now have. You’re an American-

Sam Sebastian:
Yup.

Goldy Hyder:
You grew up in Columbus, Ohio and you studied accounting at Ohio State. How did you end up in Canada?

Sam Sebastian:
So it’s been a crazy ride, but I’m the son of two teachers. So my dad was a tennis coach, a football coach, and a teacher. My mom was a teacher, and I think from the very beginning, my goal in whatever I did was to learn. And so throughout my career, I started in accounting with the goal of learning how a company works. I got bored after a while and I really wanted to go instead of counting the numbers, actually make the numbers and learn how to grow a company. So then I moved over to the consulting side. Then I went back to school at night with the goal of just continuing to build my skills and add more tools to my toolbox. When I was in grad school, everyone was leaving their traditional jobs and investment banking or Procter & Gamble and going to this thing called the web.

Sam Sebastian:
And so I felt like I was maybe going to get left behind a little bit, so I went to a web startup and I’ve been working in the internet ever since for over 20 years. I was at that web startup for about seven years, but then had the opportunity to join a company called Google.

Goldy Hyder:
For the better.

Sam Sebastian:
There was about, yeah, 8,000 employees when I started there and-

Goldy Hyder:
What year was that?

Sam Sebastian:
That was, I think, well, I was there for 12 years, so that was probably 17 years ago. And it was a crazy ride.

Goldy Hyder:
And today it’s like 100,000 employees.

Sam Sebastian:
It’s 100,000 employees. Yeah, so I was at Google for eight years in the US out of Chicago, and then I had the opportunity to be the country manager and run the operation in Canada about five years ago when we made the move, and that’s what brought me here.

Goldy Hyder:
All right, when you talk about your interest in business, what was your role of your grandfather in that?

Sam Sebastian:
Yeah, great question. So my grandpa was a vice president at Nationwide, which was one of the only headquartered companies in Columbus, Ohio.

Goldy Hyder:
Insurance.

Sam Sebastian:
Yeah, insurance. And he was retired and he lived a block from our high school. And my dad was a school teacher at the high school and so we would drive together to school every day and then he would go and have lunch with his dad, my grandpa, and I would join him all through high school. And every day when I got to lunch, my grandfather would have an article or two from the Wall Street Journal cut out and it was underlined in pencil with just some things for me to think about because he knew I was interested in business, but it was stoking that flame a little bit and then it just took off from there. And then I’m this 16 year old reading the Wall Street Journal every day, and then once you do that, you just get very interested in all the various different types of businesses and how they make money and which markets they reach. My dad was a tennis coach and so he was my sports guy [crosstalk 00:07:17].

Goldy Hyder:
Because it’s for tennis player.

Sam Sebastian:
With a football. Yeah, he was a big guy, but my grandfather was the one that got me inspired on the business side.

Goldy Hyder:
I hear he may have given you a book written by a current president.

Sam Sebastian:
Yeah, so the first business book I read other than just the Wall Street Journal was Art of the Deal by Donald Trump.

Goldy Hyder:
Who knew it?

Sam Sebastian:
Yeah, who knew?

Goldy Hyder:
Who knew?

Sam Sebastian:
Exactly. And again, that just inspired me to a certain extent as well because I just liked the combination of math and finance. And at first, I actually wanted to go move to New York City and be a stock broker. I was a tennis player and I played tennis at Ohio State and I live with all the tennis team. So we had players from Brazil and Hungary, and then we had three guys from New York. I loved them to death, but they were nuts. And I was like, “You know what? New York might not be for me. Maybe I’ll go to Chicago or another big city.” And so eventually when I graduated from Ohio State, I moved to Chicago, but, yeah, Donald Trump and my grandpa were some early influences, strangely enough.

Goldy Hyder:
And by the way, you weren’t just playing tennis. I read you were two time captain, Big Ten champion and an Academic All-American.

Sam Sebastian:
Yeah, I started playing tennis when I was 10 years old and that was how I was going to get into school. My dad was a high school teacher, so we didn’t have a lot of money. So if I wanted to get an education, I was going to need to get to earn it and get a scholarship. So that was his job in the summers and throughout the year was just drilling me for two or three hours on the tennis court and I fell in love with the sport. I was reasonably good at it. I worked super hard.

Goldy Hyder:
Still playing?

Sam Sebastian:
Not really, no.

Goldy Hyder:
No, [crosstalk 00:08:49].

Sam Sebastian:
Once I started to just get busy with business and family, it just dropped. And I tried to get back into it a few years ago, but once you can’t hit that shot that you could when you were 19, it frustrates the heck out of you. So I pretty much hung them up.

Goldy Hyder:
All right, so you… 2014, you were asked to come to Canada by Google and become the managing director, country manager for all intents and purposes, did you know very much about Canada before you made the move?

Sam Sebastian:
I didn’t. I had been up here maybe once in my life before that and I didn’t know a soul up here. I moved with my wife and my kids, I had a 12 year old at the time and a 10 year old, and we were all anxious and scared frankly. I knew Google very well and that was obviously a support system to help me get through it, but no, I was coming in blind. I knew a bit about the business here and I knew I could add value, but all the other part of living in a new country and a new culture, we just jumped right into.

Goldy Hyder:
And it’s not uncommon to see people go both ways on the border. Do you mind if we talk a little bit about your family?

Sam Sebastian:
No, of course.

Goldy Hyder:
So you mentioned you’ve got two kids, a daughter and a son. Tell me about them and tell me about their reaction to moving to Canada.

Sam Sebastian:
So yeah, I have a 17 year old daughter, Sophie, and Will is 15 years old, and-

Goldy Hyder:
And he’s adopted, right?

Sam Sebastian:
Yeah, he’s adopted. Yeah, we adopted him-

Goldy Hyder:
I wanted to talk about that after but tell us about the move on.

Sam Sebastian:
I wanted to. It’s a great way to build our family. So I’m a bit of an introvert. I fought that my whole life. And I say fight it only because for whatever reason, I decided to push myself out of my comfort zone a few times when I was younger and every time I did that, it paid off and I got all this wealth of new experience and it was just an unbelievable ROI, pushing myself out of my comfort zone, and that was the story of every move I made in business as well, was pushing myself out my comfort zone as soon as I was getting comfortable and complacent.

Sam Sebastian:
And the same was true when I had been at Google for eight years and I just felt like I was starting to plateau when I wanted a new challenge. But we were hesitant in ever maybe moving because of the kids. But I was watching my 12 year old daughter who in many ways was at the time, was just like a bit of a mini me, and she never had a huge obstacle to get through. And she too was a bit of an introvert and a bit safe and anxious. And so Kathy and I still remember when we made the decision over some wine said, “There’s two reasons we’re going to move to Canada. Number one is it’s a great job opportunity and every time you’ve pushed yourself, it’s paid off. But this is, it’s going to pay off for Sophie. She needs this. And it’s going to be hard, but she’s going to get through it and it’s going to be a life defining moment for her.”

Sam Sebastian:
Will is unbelievable probably because he doesn’t come from any of my DNA, and he just effortlessly rides through life. I am so jealous of him often, but Sophie, this was going to be a great opportunity for her to learn a life lesson. And I’ll tell you what, it was the hardest thing I’ve ever gone through, certainly it was the hardest thing she has ever gone through. The first six months for the most part, she didn’t talk to me. She didn’t say, I love you for a year and we’re a very close family, but what was encouraging is lots of other women came up to me and said, I would tell this story, and they would say, “I went through the same thing with my dad. I punished him, but, boy, it was the best decision we ever made was that move to wherever because it forced me to make new friends, move out of my comfort zone, and I look back on it now as a life defining moment for me.”

Sam Sebastian:
And it’s been five years and now Sophie’s looking to stay here and go to university in Canada and she’s just so much more confident. And we were talking about what she was going to write her university essay on, and this will be the story of how this move pushed her out of her comfort zone and the ROI has been fantastic.

Goldy Hyder:
And you’re all applying to be Canadian citizens I hear.

Sam Sebastian:
That’s right. We’re permanent residents now and we’ll probably be dual citizens in another year, year and a half.

Goldy Hyder:
Obviously, our listeners will need to understand this, but if they were to visit your Twitter handle, there’s a picture of your beautiful family and it’s not what one would expect when you first go to your Twitter page.

Sam Sebastian:
Yeah, yeah.

Goldy Hyder:
And we talked about you adopting. Tell us the story about that.

Sam Sebastian:
So, it’s a story I’m extremely proud of and I love to talk about when people ask. So my wife and I had trouble having our first child. So we went through in vitro fertilization, et cetera, and we just, it didn’t work and we just didn’t like the way it made Kathy feel and there was all sorts of other issues associated with that. So we decided to adopt. Took us a while to get there, but we decided to adopt.

Goldy Hyder:
It took us a while or you a while?

Sam Sebastian:
Yeah, it probably mean more, but I got there. And I actually fell in love with the concept of adoption. About a year into waiting for a child, we miraculously got pregnant. And we had Sophie biologically, and it was a tough pregnancy [crosstalk 00:13:54].

Goldy Hyder:
Were in the process already?

Sam Sebastian:
While we were in the process. We had to drop out obviously. We had Sophie and her first birthday I think actually, we started talking about number two, and we said, “We’re going to adopt.” Because we just fell in love with the concept. But what was interesting is we were going to adopt a white baby because we’re a white family, but the strange supply and demand economics of kids in the US, it would have taken us a year or more and $30,000 to adopt a baby within our race. And it was effectively free and quick if we wanted to adopt a biracial or African-American child just, again, because of the various different dynamics there.

Sam Sebastian:
And so when we got back in and decided to adopt, we said, “You know what? We’re not going to put any restrictions on this and let’s go into the African-American biracial program.” And so we started filling out forms. Before we finished filling out the second form, we had a phone call. It said, “We have a two day old young boy, are you game? Do you want to adopt him? And we need to know by the end of the day.”

Goldy Hyder:
End of the day?

Sam Sebastian:
End of the day. So I still remember having this conversation with Kathy in a cab on the phone and we both said, “Yeah, it’s meant to be, let’s do it.” And three days later, we had two kids, Will and Sophie, and it’s the best thing that ever happened to us. And he’s a remarkable kid. And it just changes your life. It changes the way you think about everything because it was different than what you imagined, but what’s been unbelievable was it’s so much better than we ever would have imagined. We actually were going to adopt our third child internationally from Ethiopia, but, and that’s almost a too painful a story to tell, that didn’t happen for various different reasons.

Sam Sebastian:
And so we, for the most part, live life taking signs from the universe, and that was a bit of a sign of the universe saying, “You know what? The four of you are perfect. It’s exactly what you need.” And it was almost when we started to make that decision that I got the phone call from Google to say, “Hey, we think we want you to go run Canada.” And that was like, you know what? Meant to be to clean fresh start the four of us. Let’s move up North and make a go of it.

Goldy Hyder:
Well, from what I see, it’s a beautiful family.

Sam Sebastian:
It is.

Goldy Hyder:
Let’s talk about another area of interest to you and that’s this whole notion of leadership. You’ve hinted at this yourself about the pattern in your career. It’s been every few years, you leave a big established company or a role in which you are pretty well established, and then you go on to something a lot more uncertain, often, smaller. You are leading in these roles. How did you adjust to going from something where you had 150 people that you worked with and all of a sudden there was four in your team?

Sam Sebastian:
Yeah, well, I don’t have a huge ego or at least I like not to think that I do, and so I all-

Goldy Hyder:
You said you’re an introvert. It’s probably unlikely that you have a huge ego.

Sam Sebastian:
And so I could check any of those things at the door and again, because primarily my goal in all of these moves was to learn, I was comfortable and I knew that if I made the investment in learning, it would pay off and the universe would bring other opportunities on to me that I’d be able to take advantage of. And that’s exactly the calculus I did when I, at this web startup, I had 150 people reporting to me. I was on the senior management team, I managed groups in Chicago, in California. We had just acquired a company, but I knew what I was doing. I was good at it and so I wasn’t learning as much anymore. I had this opportunity after about 15 interviews to get into… get a chance to go to Google, and there I had four people reporting to me.

Sam Sebastian:
But to be on the ground floor at a place like Google, it had just gone public that was going to be in the center of this revolution. I pretty much expected that I was going to pick up some things over time and learn and be able to grow in my career. Now did I realize it would turn into what Google turned into? No, but again, it was just another example of putting myself out there a bit with the focus on just gaining new skills and then having the self confidence that things would work out. And at some point I’m sure something won’t work out, but you’re always exactly in the place where you’re supposed to be. So if you live like that, then you just recognize, “All right, I’m supposed to learn something from this current experience.” And that’s how I’ve approached both my moves is to a certain extent, leadership as well when I’m in these jobs.

Goldy Hyder:
I feel that in these podcasts, we often talk about the disruption that businesses are facing, but when I look at your career, and I think you’ve literally said this about yourself, that you’ve “learned to disrupt myself” seemed like a very deliberate strategy on your part. Is that the advice you give young people today?

Sam Sebastian:
It comes naturally to some folks and you have to know what your limits are. If you put yourself too far out of your comfort zone, then you lose your confidence and you just lose a bit of your stride and your edge. And so over time, I got a sense of what that limit was. Like at one point before I was interviewing for Canada, I lost in the finals to run in Australia to someone that was local in Australia from Procter & Gamble. They said, “Well, why don’t you go over and potentially look at running China at the time?” Now, we have been kicked out of China, so it was going to be a very complex thing. But both Kathy and I talked and said, “Listen, we’re putting ourselves out there. That just might be too far for our family and for you.” And I just, I don’t know about safety out there and all those kinds of things because Google was the enemy obviously there, and that’s some of the example-

Goldy Hyder:
That have reached you far.

Sam Sebastian:
That you’ve got to know where your limits are, but at least my personal experiences, every time I put myself out there, it’s paid off. And it’s been that experience for my family. And so I try to impart that on folks, but everyone lives their own life and you have to know what you’re comfortable with. But I’d say for the country as well, we just have to be a bit more aggressive, a bit more ambitious, put ourself out of our comfort zone and I bet you it will pay off.

Goldy Hyder:
Right, it struck me that the sport you played was tennis and that it was as a single, not doubles, right?

Sam Sebastian:
Yeah.

Goldy Hyder:
And it fits the introvert mold that you talked about, and you described it as a sport that helped you become self-motivated.

Sam Sebastian:
Yeah.

Goldy Hyder:
What about team sports? Did you play team sports?

Sam Sebastian:
I did. So growing up, when you play tennis and you’re a singles player, you’re right, you’re on an island. It’s up to you. And then you get to high school and you actually start playing on a team. Now you’re playing singles, but you’re part of a team.

Goldy Hyder:
Sure.

Sam Sebastian:
And then when I got to university, I played on a team. I love tennis the most. When I was in high school and university playing on a team. There was nothing like it.

Goldy Hyder:
It’s not the same as playing basketball or soccer.

Sam Sebastian:
It’s not, but you… It’s not but it is because you, every time I watch or listen to a player retire, they always talk about what I’ll miss the most is the comradery with your teammates and how you rely on them in the support system and playing for them. And that was what drove me those probably last five years of playing tennis was not letting my teammates down and doing everything I could for them. And then the feeling when we won the Big Ten, we’d won the Big Ten on Ohio State for the first time in 46 years, that was like the highlight of my sports career, but not for me individually. I went five in all six in the Big Ten Tournament, I didn’t care about that. It was the fact that we as a team for the first time in 46 years won the Big Ten.

Sam Sebastian:
And I’ll never forget that because it was a team that had a common goal that had clicked halfway through the season, had been through some adversity, had come back, and then we got it done. So that was great because it balanced both me being on an island and being an introvert, but then I was forced to connect with these folks. That was a life changer because then since then in business, I’ve always wanted to work with teams.

Goldy Hyder:
Well, let’s get back to your current job. You are doing great things at Google here in Canada. We first met when you were at Google, now you described the role of country managers as becoming one now more of regulatorily focused and government relations oriented and less about-

Sam Sebastian:
The customer.

Goldy Hyder:
Customer.

Sam Sebastian:
Yeah.

Goldy Hyder:
And then this opportunity came to you. Tell us about how it came about.

Sam Sebastian:
Yeah, so when I moved up to Canada with Google five years ago, one of my, if not my first customer meeting pitch, partnership meeting was with Pelmorex. And I met with Pierre and we started talking and we just hit it off from the very beginning. He mentioned he lived in Oakville. I said, “Oh, so do I. Well, what street do you live on?” “Elton park.” “So do I, what’s your number?” “It’s this.” And we’re like, “Oh my god, we’re neighbors.” And so we just built this great both professional and personal relationship that even though I had this great career at Google Canada and was there for three and a half years, I was just watching this other company, Pelmorex, continue to build behind this unbelievable entrepreneur, and we had shared so many common values.

Goldy Hyder:
Was he recruiting you through this or were you just-

Sam Sebastian:
In hindsight, I have to… I would suggest yes. Certainly, maybe after probably a year or so, we got to know each other, but then I bet you maybe he pivoted a little bit to, “Hey, this might be my guy that could take us to the next level.”

Goldy Hyder:
You’re a minus at the setup of the company. It’s pretty privately held.

Sam Sebastian:
Yeah, so it’s a private company. Pierre, who is the majority shareholder, and it’s a family business and he wants it to be in the family for years to come, and he is the founder and only CEO. So it took me a while. Once he did say, “Hey, I think I’d love for you to take this position.” It took me a while to even, “Can I follow a founder? Can I follow the CEO? This guy is epic. His order of Canada, he’s just been this unbelievable entrepreneur in this country. Do I even have what it takes to follow him number one?” Number two, I had to be ready to leave Google. It’s arguably one of the greatest companies in the history of the world and we were still thriving, but I had been there 12 years and I was becoming complacent. I wasn’t learning as much. And so-

Goldy Hyder:
But seriously, any regrets?

Sam Sebastian:
Not one. Not one.

Goldy Hyder:
You were there at 8,000 people, it’s up to a hundred thousand people, it’s pretty much.

Sam Sebastian:
No, I never looked back.

Goldy Hyder:
Never look back.

Sam Sebastian:
Never look back. And I waited a while to leave because I needed to ensure that Google Canada was in a great place. The management team of Google Canada was fantastic. Sabrina, who now runs it, was my top lieutenant and so she was ready. And so everything was there ready for me to depart. And Google obviously is such a big machine that it would do well without any individual, but the team there was in a great place. So I felt very comfortable. The merit of great leaders, how well the company does or the team does after you leave, and they’ve continued to thrive.

Sam Sebastian:
But I had a little bit of time to imagine not working at Google and working somewhere else, and I got used to the fact of what opportunities I would have, what would some of the challenges be? So I think I prepared my mind for what life would be like, and then when I made the switch and I never, I’m this way, when I do things, I just never look back because it’s nothing you can control, and honestly, it’s been that way. And I’ve been back into the office at Google I think twice. And so you get a little bit of tinge of that. All the nice free food and all the other benefits and this amazing people, but I can make my own fruit salad and we’ve got amazing people at Pelmorex. So never looked back.

Goldy Hyder:
So what’s the future? Where does it go from here?

Sam Sebastian:
Well, again, like I mentioned, we’re the third largest weather player in the world. Our features, number one, we’re primarily a business to consumer company where, I don’t know if folks recognize this, but we’re the third largest digital consumer network in Canada behind Google and Facebook. We have 60 million users around the world, we’re the fourth largest app in the country, the ninth largest website in the country, and the beautiful thing about weather in Canada is this symbiotic relationship. We both need one another. And so when you build digital platforms and television platforms around the weather in Canada, it’s a great business with great scale, but that’s not where we want to be. We want to be all over the world.

Sam Sebastian:
And so what’s next for us is international expansion as well as beginning to get into the B2B side of weather. Our core focus, and I always call it our iceberg, our iceberg is weather. That’s our core. And we have all of this opportunity to uncover under the water on this massive iceberg about new businesses we can build outside of the core from weather, and that’s what we’re in the process of doing. So whether it’s a new data businesses we’re launching, new climate businesses we might launch, that will be the future. And you’d be amazed at the types of decisions that are impacted by what’s going on in the environment and outside. And right now, we mostly tell a B to C story, but businesses and how they sell and what they sell are dramatically influenced by weather. And if we can give them the insights to make better decisions based on that, there’s a business there.

Goldy Hyder:
When you were telling me earlier when we were having lunch that this is literally a new vertical for you to be able to go to retail stores and say, “This weather pattern creates this outcome in your store in terms of supply and demand for your food products, for your-“

Sam Sebastian:
We’re building a platform where you can give us your sales data by location, by skew, by service line. We will take our weather data, and this is what we specialize in at a very local level, and we’ll build an algorithm that shows the tendencies-

Goldy Hyder:
When it rains.

Sam Sebastian:
Exactly, when arrange to sell more Frosties or what have you. But our core product, what we do best, and we have 50 meteorologists in the company who do this and they’re phenomenal, is we give a seven day forecast. And we’re the best in the business at this, especially in Canada and Spain, where we primarily allocate-

Goldy Hyder:
You better be okay if five times a day is phenomenal.

Sam Sebastian:
Exactly. I told you, listen, well, maybe we got out and we’re wrong today. I’m not sure. So this is don’t care what happened in the past. I want to know what happened in the future. So if we know what the correlation between product sales is to the weather and we know what the weather is going to be over the next seven days, and we’ve built a platform that puts all this information together, a business person who runs a restaurant in this particular location-

Goldy Hyder:
[crosstalk] hotdog vendor on the street knows when to stack up on hotdogs.

Sam Sebastian:
Exactly, so then you know what your inventory levels potentially could be, what your staffing conditions might potentially be three days out. Huge opportunity for us if we do it right and we will. And what’s beautiful is we have a time horizon, we’re not a public company, we don’t have all of the pressures of a short term time horizon-

Goldy Hyder:
Cordial reporting.

Sam Sebastian:
And we have a founder, and that’s the reason I’m there, an entrepreneur who is incredibly visionary, extremely growth minded, and we’re also patient.

Goldy Hyder:
And long term term thinker. Very long term thinker.

Sam Sebastian:
Also patient. So we can build these businesses over time and if a few other folks fail, maybe we acquire one of those over time and continue to build up our capabilities and become number one.

Goldy Hyder:
Now this of course raises an issue that’s being widely discussed these days about data, about privacy, about mischief within the use of data and privacy, where do you fall on all of that? Because it’s complicated, isn’t it?

Sam Sebastian:
It’s complicated, but in some ways, it’s super simple. The biggest asset we have as a company is our 60 million users. You are on our app three times a day. Our average user comes to our app 21 and a half times a month, so that’s a deep relationship with our users. If we violate that trust, we’re toast. We have no business. And so as we launch new products that are based on data, based on usage patterns, based on location, lots of other things that we could build great businesses on but also rely on our user, we have to be transparent, we have to be open, we have to give them choice, we have to offer up lots of permissions on where they can opt in and opt out, we have to be crystal clear. So if you go to our privacy policy, we try to cap it at a certain number of words so that you don’t want [crosstalk 00:29:49].

Goldy Hyder:
Is it in English?

Sam Sebastian:
It’s in English and French.

Goldy Hyder:
No, is it legal gobbledygook item?

Sam Sebastian:
No, it is very straight forward, very folksy, very Columbus, Ohio. Let’s put it that way, where we just tell the folks exactly, here’s what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. And if you don’t like what we’re doing, this is how you can respond. In many ways, it’s simple and it’s fundamental. That’s a core value is that user trust and creating a win-win environment with our users. So now the pressure we have is we have to build great products that protect that value exchange. So we will ask users for their location, but we ask users for their location because we build great products to deliver a dedicated forecast when you’re traveling all over the country.

Sam Sebastian:
And then we ask you, is it okay if we use some of your location information while you’re traveling because we can build some interesting products like that both for businesses but as well as making our products better for you as a user? If you’re not comfortable with that, then opt out. But that’s how we try to operate. We’re in the process of being certified privacy by design by KPMG because we’re trying to put privacy processes into everything that we do when we build our products, and we actually have an opportunity to lead here. So yes, it could be a challenge, it could be an obstacle, it could be a threat, but if you turn it just slightly on edge, it can also be an opportunity to lead in this country and amongst our cohort and do it the right way and create some distance from the competition.

Goldy Hyder:
I think we can talk a lot about data, but why don’t we talk about another thing that obviously comes up when you’re talking about the weather, and that is the issue of climate change. What are you doing about that?

Sam Sebastian:
It’s a big opportunity. We talk about now we say we’re a weather and climate company because that’s where we want to go. Now, we have lots of responsibility to build great products around that, but again, we’re right now a B2C company where we tell great stories and we translate the science of weather to all of our users around the world. We will do that for climate. We’ve already began to do that. We’ll do much more of it. And back here in Ottawa talking to some folks next week about how we can continue to do more of that. We’re great storytellers, but we’re scientists in the end. So we will explain the facts. We’re not going to take a political stance, we will simply lead with, “Here are the facts about climate, about climate change.”

Sam Sebastian:
And we’re credible because we’re in this business. It’s on our iceberg, perhaps a melting iceberg. I might want to use a different metaphor, and so there’s great opportunities in storytelling, but I think there’s bigger opportunities on the B2B side. Meaning we can go to banks, insurance companies over time and all sorts of other organizations and boards, and explain to them the risk that climate change and environmental change will have on their business over time. And I think we’ve got the right brand or we have the right talent, we just have to build the right products.

Goldy Hyder:
Let’s talk a little more about you as a person and as a leader. Tell us how you learn.

Sam Sebastian:
By rolling up my sleeves and jumping in for the most part, and through, I think through listening. So an example, my first two years and now as CEO, I had some great friends who said, “You never get your first 90 days back as a CEO, so don’t waste them. It’s a massive learning opportunity.” So the company was in great shape, we’re doing very well. We were growing, we needed to grow faster, but we are growing, so I didn’t have to go in and turn something around or change it. So I took my time and for the first three months that I was there, I talked to every one in the organization, every single person across all four of our offices around the world, and listen, and I have a binder that I still look at of all of those interview notes and I’m constantly going back because we have folks at the organization who’ve been there 30 years. And their Christmas morning is when there’s active weather outside and it’s miserable in Southern Ontario, that’s when the walls come alive at our place.

Sam Sebastian:
And so there’s a passion and an intelligence level and a level of expertise at the company that here comes this new guy. I don’t know anything about the weather and now I’m going to set a new vision and run the company. There’s no way I’ll be successful unless I’m capturing the essence and the passion and the intelligence of all of our employees. And so I wanted to roll up my sleeves to jump in, but I certainly wasn’t going to make a lot of decisions early on because I had no right to. I really didn’t have any credibility and I wasn’t grounded in anything. And then after three or four months, I gathered the senior management team, I talked to Pierre every Friday morning, and I said, “Listen, this is where I think we need to go. I think we need to build a weather B2B business. I think we have to have bigger ambitions. We have to be number one. I think we have to focus more on international.”

Goldy Hyder:
What did he say to that?

Sam Sebastian:
This is an entrepreneur like Larry and Sergei at Google who just want to grow and change the world. So he was like, “All right, let’s do it. Great.” Again, that was the reason I went there because I wanted to learn and work with an entrepreneur who was growth minded, who wasn’t just going to rest on the laurels of this great company that he had built.

Goldy Hyder:
But you brought a different style to it. I have not met Pierre so I shouldn’t generalize, but my sense is this was the guy who knew exactly what he wanted to do and he was going to do it and everybody was going to be pulled along for the ride.

Sam Sebastian:
Right.

Goldy Hyder:
But you’re not that guy.

Sam Sebastian:
I’m not. I’ve never been that guy and I certainly couldn’t be that guy in this company because I didn’t have the context. I didn’t know exactly what to do. So the approach I took and an example I use is, I got Pierre’s office when I started, this beautiful corner office. Private bathroom, and I’ve never had anything like that. I got so uncomfortable in that office because no one would ever come talk to me. I had no interaction with the rest of the company. And so about three months in, I moved out of the office and I moved to a cube for two weeks all around the company. I would live in a different cube for two weeks to get to know folks, to hear from them, to understand what was working, what wasn’t, and then I built a plan that we collectively all of our employees could get behind as well as execute. It’s more steward leadership. That’s what I’m just more comfortable with, that’s what I grew up with, that’s what I learned, and I do think that it sticks longer.

Goldy Hyder:
You said you meet with Pierre quite regularly. You ever had this type of conversation with him about leadership and…

Sam Sebastian:
Yeah, although we had that conversation when he was probably, unbeknownst to me, interviewing me two years before I took the job. And it was mostly around, “So tell me, what’s your background? How’d you grow up? Oh, you talked to your grandpa a lot. So how do you manage the Google? What’s are things like there?” He knew what he was getting when I got there.

Goldy Hyder:
Yeah, you were set up beautifully, weren’t you?

Sam Sebastian:
Yeah, I was. He’s a master.

Goldy Hyder:
Game, set, match.

Sam Sebastian:
Exactly, so we still talk about it now, but he watches it. So for whatever reason, one-

Goldy Hyder:
Have you gone to him and said, “I’m struggling with something?”

Sam Sebastian:
Oh, again, the only reason I have any chance of success in this job is because I can connect with Pierre on a weekly basis. He did the job for 30 years. He’s got great vision. He’s given me the keys and he’s totally stepped away and I’d be a fool if I didn’t leverage his expertise as well as keep him informed. This is his company, his baby. I need to make sure he feels comfortable with what I’m doing. I learn a lot from him. I ask questions and then he also sees how I manage. I do things quite differently. I sit in a cube versus a big corner office, that’s one, but he knows that I’ll still get results. I’ll still get the job done and I will engage and hopefully inspire and retain a whole new set of employees that we need to attract in order to build technology and AI platforms. That requires a whole new skillset that if I can build the environment that would attract and retain those types of employees, then we can deliver that vision that we’re after.

Goldy Hyder:
Just listening to you, Sam, and just having read about you, there’s such a dichotomy there. You’re American, now a proud Canadian, someone who’s working with people that are very different than you, including your boss, Pierre.

Sam Sebastian:
That’s right.

Goldy Hyder:
How do you explain that?

Sam Sebastian:
So I grew up in a pretty similar community, so we all look the same, Upper Arlington in Columbus, Ohio. And so it wasn’t until I got to Chicago outside of university, that I discovered that, “Oh, not everyone was white and from the middle class,” and it was a revelation and it was freeing and I loved it. And I love being home, I love going home. I was just at our 30th high school reunion and we have some great people there, but I always resisted going back there because it felt too similar and too much of the same and like you wouldn’t learn. Again, it comes back to learning. When I was in Chicago and we lived in the city, you have all of humanity coming at you.

Sam Sebastian:
You can’t help but learn about different cultures, how to get along with different people, how to manage life in a different way, and so that again, had such a great payoff when I was in Chicago that from that point on, I was comfortable with things being a little bit different or foreign in my life because I knew that I’d probably learn something from it and there’d be payoff on the other side. And again, it’s played out positively for me. And now that I’ve got kids, that’s what we try to talk about all the time. And it’s what’s been beautiful about the lesson moving to Canada and being in the Toronto area is the concept of the mosaic here and how it is beautiful and this is a country of a great experiment to see can all these different people get along and work in an environment? It may not work, but the lessons that we’ll learn by putting yourself out there and being comfortable with lots of different things coming at you is invaluable and you’d be a fool not to want to run through that experiment.

Goldy Hyder:
Anything keeping you up at night these days?

Sam Sebastian:
Teenagers. I sleep like a baby for work for the most part because-

Goldy Hyder:
Bet me I’ve done that by the way.

Sam Sebastian:
Yeah, it’s not rocket. I’m not saving lives, we’re operating a weather business and I’m very proud of it and we have lots of work ahead of us, but ultimately, what keeps me up at night is am I parenting my kids in the right way? Am I spoiling them too much? Am I not giving them enough challenge? Am I directing them in the right way but not overloading them? And so luckily, I’ve got the best wife in the world, and so we’re constantly talking and debating how we do it together, but that’s what keeps me up at night. Am I being good for them and providing what they need to live a great career and opportunity in life that I’ve had the opportunity to?

Goldy Hyder:
And what about work life balance? How do you make it work?

Sam Sebastian:
I don’t make it work. I’m not great at it. It’s a battle. I don’t necessarily believe in balance, I believe in ebbs and flows. So this is a great example. My first two years at Google Canada, I worked way too much. I hit a wall and then I started to… I recognized, “Okay, I got to balance things out a little bit more.” But I wasn’t going to be successful unless I went really all in in those first two years, and Kathy and the kids had tons that they needed to do at school and everything else. So it was the perfect ebb for me to go deep. Same thing at Pelmorex, my first year and a half. I’ve now hit a bit of a wall. Now I’ve got to make sure that I’ve got the right balance, got the right exercise, I’m meditating, I’m sleeping. So it just ebbs and flows and you got to make sure that you’ve always got the right the balls in the air and it doesn’t drop, but it’s, I’m certainly not perfect at it. It’s a, like I said, it’s a battle.

Goldy Hyder:
I have to ask the one thing I think that unites parents around the world, and how could I not have thought of asking you this earlier? How do you deal with social media in your house?

Sam Sebastian:
We let it go. So we now remember I worked at Google for 12 years [crosstalk 00:41:46].

Goldy Hyder:
That’s why am asking.

Sam Sebastian:
Right. And so-

Goldy Hyder:
Is there a button I need to know about that I don’t know about?

Sam Sebastian:
No, we just… If we haven’t instilled the values in our kids by the time they’re 12 and start using social media, we’ve screwed up. The first 12 years. So we watch it and we try to understand if they’re developing new parts of their personality based on being on a phone or social media, but if we try to squash it there, they’re going to find it somewhere else. And what’s always worked for Kathy and I is an open communication at home. We constantly want the kids to talk to us to be as truthful with us as possible. We’ll try not to use it against them. We just try directing them in the right direction, but at this point, they’re 17, they’re 15.

Sam Sebastian:
Kathy’s dad had 30 grandkids and he always said, “Your job’s done when they were about 11 or 12. You just have to make sure they have friends of the right ilk and they’re with the right groups, but other than that, you’ve done your job. Just keep an eye on them, but let them live life.” That has been our philosophy with social media and, I don’t know, hopefully it’s played out pretty well so far.

Goldy Hyder:
Now the question I think everybody wants to know the answer to is Borg or McEnroe?

Sam Sebastian:
So this is interesting. Borg was my idol when I was young until he lost to McEnroe. So my dad and I-

Goldy Hyder:
A fair weather friend, right?

Sam Sebastian:
I know, but what I didn’t like about Borg was he retired after that. And I felt like he gave up. And so I was as an unbelievable Borg fan, he did everything right, he carried himself in the right way. My dad and I would watch all the [crosstalk 00:43:24].

Goldy Hyder:
Introvert.

Sam Sebastian:
He was an introvert-

Goldy Hyder:
[crosstalk 00:43:26].

Sam Sebastian:
Through it, and he suppressed some of the things, but McEnroe wore his emotion on his sleeve, he fought like hell-

Goldy Hyder:
Passionate.

Sam Sebastian:
He never gave up. He was passionate. Sure, he went over the line many times, but I just, he was real and authentic. And I always advise-

Goldy Hyder:
My vice to starting the show here by the way.

Sam Sebastian:
Yeah, and so he became my idol. And I had McEnroe posters even at university.

Goldy Hyder:
So you’re a fighter?

Sam Sebastian:
Yeah, I try to be. You have to be these days.

Goldy Hyder:
Well, thank you so much for doing this and sharing this with us.

Sam Sebastian:
It was a pleasure. Thank you for doing it.

Goldy Hyder:
Now, as you well know, as an avid listener, we like to end the segment with a bit of a word game. And just to warm you up, I thought I’d ask just to start off, what’s the one word that describes you?

Sam Sebastian:
Authentic.

Goldy Hyder:
All right, let’s get to the word game. Sports.

Sam Sebastian:
Drama.

Goldy Hyder:
Interesting answer. Leadership.

Sam Sebastian:
Critical.

Goldy Hyder:
Now remember, you can’t say the same word twice. Too many people do this. So when I ask the next few here, pay attention. Disruption.

Sam Sebastian:
Everywhere.

Goldy Hyder:
Data.

Sam Sebastian:
Complicated.

Goldy Hyder:
Adoption.

Sam Sebastian:
Life changing.

Goldy Hyder:
Family.

Sam Sebastian:
Home.

Goldy Hyder:
Kathy.

Sam Sebastian:
Best friend.

Goldy Hyder:
Canada.

Sam Sebastian:
New home.

Goldy Hyder:
Thanks for doing this, Sam. Really appreciate it. You were great.

Sam Sebastian:
Loved it. Thank you.

Goldy Hyder:
Thanks again to Sam Sebastian for being my guest on this episode of Speaking of Business. Subscribe now for more conversations with Canada’s top innovators, entrepreneurs and business leaders. Search Speaking of Business, wherever you find podcasts or visit, speakingofbiz.ca. That’s biz with a Z, to join our email list and follow us on social media. Until next time, I’m Goldy Hyder.

Sam Sebastian is President and CEO of Pelmorex – owner of The Weather Network.

Pelmorex has more than 60 million users around the world, with operations and services that go far beyond local weather forecasts. Sam’s personal journey is a story you won’t want to miss.

Born in Ohio, he first made his mark in this country as head of Google Canada. Then, in 2017, he joined Pelmorex, succeeding founder Pierre Morrissette as CEO. Sam has never been afraid to change things up and take big risks. We’ll talk about that. We’ll also explore the reasons behind his decision to apply for Canadian citizenship, and how and why he overcame his introverted nature.

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Categories: Season 2