Mark Southern learned the airline business from the ground up, rising from an entry-level position to become Air Canada’s managing director of airport operations for North America.
He’s made a lot of connections over the years, but the 1988 Business Administration grad credits Red River College with launching his high-flying career.
“It was a good experience for me. It was exactly what I needed at the time,” he says, adding it was just what his parents, Dawn and Oakley, needed too.
“Both my parents were teachers; my dad was in administration for years. I think they were a little concerned that their son was playing a lot of hockey with no clear career plan.”
Southern was intrigued by leadership even as a teen working for Pacific Western Airlines, one of the companies that amalgamated in the late 1980s as Canadian Airlines, which itself merged with Air Canada in 2001.
“It’s one of the most interesting topics for me, leadership. It’s what I’m kind of passionate about it, and so that’s why I chose Business Administration,” he says.
“In that moment in time, the first big step was I had to get a management position and I thought, ‘Well I need to get some education.’ ”
The RRC program gave him a solid grounding in the broader business world, and as a union lead hand at the airline, Southern was able to put some of the lessons of organizational behaviour into practice right away.
“The other part that I thought was really cool was a lot of the instructors were business guys who were passionate about education,” he says.
One of his favourite instructors was a frequent flyer whose path crossed with Southern at the airport in Winnipeg many times. After final exams, he was eager to apply for a management position, so he approached the instructor to ask if he’d made the grade.
“He was gracious enough to say, ‘You passed,’ and I applied for the job,” says Southern. “I literally said, ‘Look, I’ve got a piece of paper now, give me that management job.’ And it was great, I got this incredible opportunity and got an entry-level management position.”
From there, he moved on to new positions every two years, relocating to Edmonton, Calgary, Toronto and Vancouver, which is home base today.
In the early 2000s, his job brought him back to Winnipeg as Air Canada’s general manager for the prairie region. The move was a homecoming for Southern’s wife, Melanie, as well. They both grew up in Selkirk and they maintain strong ties to the community, including retaining ownership of the farm Southern’s late father ran.
“My dad was a huge fan of farming, although he was a teacher. It was his passion, and his vision was if anybody in the family wanted to farm they needed some property to start,” he says.
“It’s rented out now, but if any grandkids or any of my relatives are interested in farming then we’ve got a farm, it’s ready to go.”
Southern says he wouldn’t rule out running the farm himself one day. It’s a beautiful spot with an 80-acre pasture where his parents kept a herd of about 85 cows at one time.
“We put up a lot of hay, which was great training for hockey season — we threw a lot of hay bales,” he says.
Since his latest promotion in April 2015, Southern has spent more time in the sky, which kept him off skates for most of the season. But hockey is still his game, and he plays with a men’s club as often as he can.
“I’m hoping next year things will settle down and maybe they’ll let me play one more year with the team — although I think I’m the oldest guy, not only on the team but in the league!”
While he lives in Vancouver, Southern also has offices in Montreal and Toronto, and he deals with airports everywhere Air Canada flies in North America. In an average week, he spends 12 hours flying — and no, he doesn’t earn, or need, frequent flyer points. He is responsible for passengers’ experiences from the time they arrive at an airport until they board a flight, as well as their experiences at the tail end. He also deals with regulatory and security issues as well as management at all the different airports.
When he’s the passenger, Southern mixes it up, flying in business, premium economy and economy class, in aisle, window and middle seats. He either checks a bag or times baggage delivery on every flight, noting, “I’m responsible for it, so I need to see what our customers are experiencing.”
In mid-2005, he left his job as Air Canada’s director of station operations for B.C., taking on the role of vice-president of guest services for Rocky Mountaineer Vacations before joining a company that is now called Vantage Airport Group, where he was responsible for operations in Cyprus and the Bahamas.
But in 2009, Air Canada pulled him back in. A friend who was running a department at Air Canada called to ask for Southern’s advice, and after he got off the phone, Melanie said, “you’re really excited about this, maybe you should go back there.”
He scoffed at the suggestion, saying that for starters, the company would never ask him back.
“And wouldn’t you know, the very next day they offered me a job and I thought, ‘You know what, why not?’ ”
He worked as senior director of airport operations for Western Canada until moving to his new role last year.
“As a company, we’re growing dramatically — I’m sure everybody’s seen that,” he says. “If you could visualize a plate in front of me, there’s work always falling off the plate. I’ve got a lot of work to do as we continue to grow.”
As busy as he is, Southern was generous with his time when he was asked to contribute to the RRC Alumni blog. He says he points out the Notre Dame Campus to his kids every time they drive by during visits to Winnipeg and Selkirk, and he wanted administrators to know the impact RRC had in his life.
“They really made a big difference for me,” he says. “It was really what got me my first management job, which is really what got the whole story started, so I give them full credit.”