A true Canadian at heart, Amiee Chan likes to lace up her skates and play ice hockey with a women’s league from her university days, run half-marathons with her husband and spend time with her two kids.
Listening to her speak about her life at home, it’s almost easy to forget that I’m not only talking to a woman who’s a wife and mother, but also a winner of the Women’s Executive Network Top 100 Canada’s Most Powerful Women Award and President and CEO of Norsat International Inc., a Vancouver-based company that provides innovative communication solutions that enable the transmission of data, audio and video for challenging applications and environments.
Think satellite systems and remote network solutions for NATO; the United States Department of Defense, Marine Corps, Army, Navy and Air Force; CBS News; Boeing; Reuters and others.
Co-op student to President and CEO
It all started during Amiee’s university co-op term when she was working for a subsidiary of Telus, stuck in a room with 400 orange boxes.
Replacing the circuits of these boxes may have been boring and repetitive, but she remained energized, aware of the importance of her job.
“My supervisor felt sorry for me,” she laughs, “and so he comes up to me and tells me, the work you’re doing is actually really, really important, that it was a search and rescue beacon, and he told me a story about the search and rescue beacons that are used by fishing vessels.”
There was an incident off the coast of Alaska, she remembers him telling her. A family-owned fishing boat capsized, and a unit – very much like the ones she worked on – detected the accident and immediately sent out a rescue beacon, saving the entire family.
“[Communications] is just as basic as food and water, and communications can really help save lives,” says Amiee. When disaster strikes, Norsat is able to provide communications technology to co-ordinate rescue and supplies of food, water and aid. With that knowledge held close to her heart, it’s no wonder why she stayed in this industry for so many years.
After obtaining her Bachelor of Applied Science in Electrical Engineering in 1992, she returned to her former employer and became a full-time Engineer, then an Engineering Manager, a Director of Engineering, the Vice-President of Engineering and Operations, and eventually the President and CEO of Norsat.
As if that wasn’t impressive enough, Amiee worked her way up while simultaneously completing her PhD in Electrical Engineering part-time. After earning her PhD in 2000, she went on to also complete her MBA part-time, allowing her to enter management and executive roles at Norsat. She has also been published over a dozen times, holds three U.S. patents, and has been involved in high-level research teams such as the NASA ACTS Terminal Program.
Challenges and success
When Amiee was appointed CEO in 2006, Norsat was in a dire financial situation. It was one of the biggest challenges she had to face and overcome throughout her career, she tells me over the phone from her office in Richmond, B.C.
“The board said, you know Amiee, you have one chance to turn the company around otherwise there will be no more company left,” she recalls.
“At the time I had to juggle our cash position,” she explains, “I had to work with our customers to deliver product on time and actually we even had the customers help us.”
Customers helped by paying them in advance of product delivery, and suppliers gave them longer terms, helping Norsat turn back into a financially viable company. In 2008, Amiee was named Ernst & Young’s Turnaround Entrepreneur of the Year. Norsat is consistently ranked among the top technology companies in Canada and the top 100 public companies in British Columbia. Recently, the company was also named as one of the fastest growing companies in British Columbia.
She attributes her success over the years to always keeping her customers front of mind, focusing on how the company can better serve them, knowing that Norsat’s success is derived directly from their ability to continue bringing value.
“By looking at the whole picture, and the importance of the communication technology we make, I’ve been able remain focused on bringing value to customers instead of getting caught up the dollars and cents discussions,” says Amiee.
“It’s easy in executive management to lose this focus because you’re pulled in so many directions, from employees, investors, partners etc., but really it’s about the customers and the value we provide to them.”
Try something different
Amiee encourages students and recent grads to take the chance to try different environments and activities. While you’re young, find your strengths and interests and you never know where it might take you, she says. She ran the gamut of student jobs herself, from a donut bakery to an arts studio, but it was technology that really spoke to her.
“I think, given my career, I just didn’t expect to be where I am today,” she says. “But if you continue following your passion, do what you think will help you make the greatest impact. That’s more important than trying to figure out, oh is this job going to pay more, or you know, is that more prestigious than being a doctor or a lawyer.
“You know, follow what your heart tells you and I think you will become more successful and you will enjoy your career more.”
Can you picture yourself becoming a tech executive like Amiee one day?
Photo credit: kris krüg