A look back at the adventures of 'Mr Hydro', Norm Olsen

Image of Norm Olsen

Former BC Hydro president, who passed away in June, remembered as a remarkable leader

It took Norm Olsen awhile to get going in life — presumed stillborn, he spent his first minutes wrapped in a newspaper under his mother's bed until a doctor arrived at the family's Mount Pleasant home in Vancouver and revived him. But in his 91 years he more than made up for it with a life of adventure and accomplishment that included more than four decades with BC Hydro, including a 15-year run as president and a later life return as CEO.

The man who, upon his retirement in 1985, was referred to in a newspaper headline as Mr. Hydro, died peacefully at his home on June 20th.

"He approached every task with quiet resolve and gentle humour," said Claire Truesdale, one of his adoring granddaughters. "He was also kind, brilliant and a little bit mischievous. He saw each day of his life as an opportunity for another adventure."

Olsen started university at 16

Olsen's father, an immigrant Norwegian carpenter and construction foreman, found himself without work for five years as his family struggled through the Great Depression. But education remained a priority for the four Olsen kids, including Norm, who shone at King Edward High School and entered the University of B.C.'s engineering school at 16, with the intent of teaching engineering down the road.

Along the way, Olsen's work ethic became apparent through a series of physically demanding jobs that included a job he loved, as an "ice man" for Garvin Ice and Fuel, where he helped deliver two to three tonnes of ice a day to locations all over Vancouver, from gambling dens to seniors' homes. His family recalls that the experience helped him learn a lot about human nature, and about the value of service.

First climb poles, then climb to the top

Like so many leaders at BC Hydro, Olsen began his career with the utility with hands-on experience. After graduating from UBC in 1946, he trained alongside other UBC grads in a district manager in what was B.C.'s newly-formed utility, the BC Power Commission.

He and fellow trainee Donn Wales were first dispatched to Williams Lake for field training, where they lived in an old army tent located next to railway tracks outside the Williams Lake diesel power house. The tent was heated by an oil stove made from a small oil drum. His job was to tend the power house and work as a lineman, climbing 30 to 40 foot poles installing new electrical service to customers in the area.

Olsen's first permanent posting was way up north, in the Village of Alert Bay where he worked as lineman/electrician, meter reader, and bill collector by day, and power house operator from four to midnight, seven days per week. A rapid succession of postings took him to Nanaimo, the Alberni Valley, Campbell River and finally the Comox Valley, where he met his lifelong friend Bob McPhee.

A customer-first approach

While managing the Comox District, he established an open door policy for customers. He positioned his office at the front of the building for easy access for customers wanting to speak with the manager. He followed this open door policy throughout his career, even later as president of BC Hydro; unless he was having a meeting, his door was always open and he always answered his own phone. With staff he maintained "you don't write a memo when you can go speak to the person."

"Norm was the most remarkable person I have ever met," said Nigel Grant, a colleague and friend of Olsen's. "He was a very warm person, both gentle and compassionate. Anyone who dealt with him could not help but like him. His leadership was guidance, rather than directing, and as the general manager and president in 1970 until his retirement in 1985, he led BC Hydro through some very tumultuous times."

Retired? Not really

Upon retiring as BC Hydro's president at age 62, Olsen just kept going. He soon became director and chair of the Health Labour Relations Association and, in 1987, was asked by the Federal Government to investigate the formation of a public power utility in the Northwest Territories: he was director of Northwest Territories Power Corporation from 1987 to 1997 and for a brief time, was its president.

Olson joined the board of Edmonton Power (Epcor) in 1992 and remained a director until 2002. And in 1992, he returned to BC Hydro as its chairman and CEO, then as executive director from 1993-94.

When Olsen was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1994, he told Dr. Larry Goldenberg that he would accept any treatment the doctor suggested, but that it was the doctor's job to keep him alive until age 90. Almost daily he expressed his gratitude for the care of Dr. Goldenberg, and then Dr. Kim Chi, which allowed him to live a full and active life until recently at age 91. Mission accomplished.