University of Calgary

Incredible Impact

Submitted by alumni on Thu, 11/06/2014 - 00:55.

Incredible Impact

Meet Geoff Cumming — the alumnus behind one of the largest single investments to a Canadian university and discover how his gift will transform medical research.
by Deb Cummings, Mike Fisher

Geoff Cumming, Photo by Carlos Amat

And Now for the Public Part
Who, exactly, is the man behind the university’s groundbreaking gift of $100-million? And what areas of research will the money fund?

Geoffrey A. Cumming, BA(Hon)'74, was not a campus name before he took to the stage last June at the university's Foothills Campus, thanking Premier Dave Hancock, University President Elizabeth Cannon, his 91-year-old mother and a crowd of 600 guests for attending.

Within a few minutes, his legacy at the university would become one for the ages.

After giving a groundbreaking gift of $100 million — matched by the Government of Alberta’s $100-million investment — to spur research at the university’s medical school, this economics grad elicited a standing ovation that lasted close to nine minutes.

Cumming’s response to a certain degree of celebrity, however, has been a measured one. Yes, there have been a handful of interviews, but, as the international businessman is quick to stress: “You will find very little about me or my family in the papers, or on the Internet. And that’s been deliberate. There are people who love the limelight; I am not one of them.”Last June, the University of Calgary received a total investment of $200 million — a $100-million gift from Geoff Cumming, matched by $100 million from the Government of Alberta — to fund medical advancements. This represents one of the largest single investments in medical research to any Canadian university.

So, while I wait for him in the lobby of his elegant Eau Claire office, I am not sure where the conversation will wander. Will the son of a physician choose to chat about growing up in Kingston, Ont., with four siblings? Or, will he prefer to discuss his network of retirement villages in New Zealand and Australia?

Perhaps it will be about the influential years he worked for Peters & Co. Ltd., or the impact that George Gardiner had on his life, when Cumming was top dog at Toronto-based Gardiner Oil and Gas, and Gardiner Group Capital?

Then again, perhaps we’ll talk about due diligence — about the dozens of universities and hospitals he visited before selecting the University of Calgary’s faculty of medicine as the recipient?

Will this very private man, whose historic gift will undoubtedly change the face of medicine in Alberta over the next couple of decades, set rules that define forbidden topics, ones we can’t discuss? Will a preprogrammed call ring 45 minutes later — the time he has agreed to give me?

At that point, the elevator opens and an impeccably dressed man strides forward, hand extended, apologizing: “If I seem tired, I am sorry. I was on a conference call until 4:30 a.m.”

The conversation moves quickly beyond talking points to the importance of privacy (the gift was initially going to be anonymous); to hiking (he loves the ridge walk along the Skyline Trail in Jasper); to travel (his record was 400 flights in one year, and, yes, he’s given away millions of loyalty points to charities); to road biking (one of his top rides is Highway 66, just west of Bragg Creek); to favourite books (including Markings by Dag Hammarskjöld); heroes (Lee Kuan Yew and John Maynard Keynes); to the future of his gift (“I wanted to give to something that could impact the whole world and when the province decided to come on board ... well, that was a huge win”); to his barometers of what makes a “good” society.

“I call it the short-skirt rule,” quips Cumming, leaning across a glass coffee table, laden with heavy art books. “Can a girl who’s been at a party until 1:30 a.m. walk home by herself, say 10 blocks away, in a short skirt and high heels, and feel safe?”

Cumming answers his own question: “You can in Singapore and Scandinavia and, generally, in Calgary.

“And the second test involves a mother with a 14-month-old baby,” he adds, admitting to having asked these questions at dinner parties (which, by the way, he much prefers over large, posh affairs). “Let’s say she’s at a park and wants to get a latte from a nearby stand. Can she leave her baby in the stroller for six or seven minutes in order to get a coffee? Will her child be safe?

“The first test of any society is about personal security ... for everyone, not just the privileged ones: is it safe?”

It turns out that safety, and luck, are areas of interest for the man with investments in oil, health care, hospitals, hotels and real estate. To hear him tell it — remember, this is the guy who has sat on innumerable boards in his working life, and has multiple homes around the planet — it’s not about his slavish work ethic, chutzpah or intelligence. It’s in large part ... luck.

“I am very interested in luck,” admits the uncle of 13 nieces and nephews, dimples deepening. “And I’ve had a lot of it — my family, education, world travels; a lot of that is luck. I can think of people who would have done better in life, but they had an unlucky break at a pivotal time. Of course, it’s not about luck alone, and luck isn’t permanent, but, if you organize your life, if you are focused and determined and surround yourself with bright and principled people — well, that’s often an incredible combination. And I’ve been lucky to have that.”

Has he ever felt unlucky, perhaps not so safe?

Many times. Such as the night in his 20s, when he was descending Mt. Thunderbolt in Jasper National Park at 2 a.m. in -38°C temperatures when his headlamp ran out of juice — he and two climbing buddies were stranded without a bivouac sack in a void of wind-whipped, bitter darkness. “We were very, very lucky not to die,” Cumming says. All he could do was keep moving while chanting: “Don’t give up, don’t give up, don’t give up.”

Cumming has repeated the same mantra during gut-roiling times in small sailboats, when he’s been lost in mountainous seas, left to wonder if he’d make it.

“Those episodes, when you really push yourself physically, turn out to be critically important,” he says, replaying numerous rubs with nature that have become life’s litmus tests. “You learn to become unflappable — whether it’s with boards of companies or in your personal life. You learn determination and conviction. You discover who are you are ... your strengths and, more importantly, your weaknesses.”

By Deb Cummings