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David McLean

Chairman of the Board at CN Railway

The voice of experience is the most valued voice to listen to.  This adage certainly describes leading Canadian entrepreneur David McLean with roles as founder and Chair of the McLean Group and Chair of one of Canada’s largest national companies, CN Rail.  David has been the driving force behind a number of highly successful businesses –in aviation, film studios, real estate development, and communications — and with his wife Brenda involved in many philanthropic endeavours across Canada.


Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada


Building Blocks to Success Building blocks have taken David McLean to the top of Canadian business. McLean reflects on the lessons we can all learn from his experience in building a long career at the head of a highly successful entrepreneurial family business, and as Chairman of the Board of CN Rail. He maintains there are important building blocks everyone needs to pay attention to in building a career,  whether that be in the business world or the not for profit sector. Mclean also candidly tells the stories of his missteps, and the lessons they’ve taught him. David McLean stresses: “People are rarely plucked from corporate obscurity and placed in leadership roles. Nor do successful entrepreneurs completely “luck into” their winning ideas. So how do you effectively nurture your talents to stand out and realize your ambitions? Everyone “networks”, but how do successful people develop mentors who actively advance their careers? How do you know if an opportunity should be taken, or avoided as a risk too high?” Learning to be a Leader Leadership lessons —  the experiences of a successful and recognized leader in many businesses and community endeavours — is what to expect from David McLean. We often hear the expression “a natural leader” as if it is a gift certain people are born with. Not so, according to David McLean, head of a successful entrepreneurial family business, and Chairman of the Board of Canadian National Railway Company for the past 19 years. As McLean tells it, leaders must develop their values, skills and talents. A master story teller, McLean describes the process of identifying and nurturing leadership skills through successes and mistakes, and how this process led to his own success. He provides the habits and methods successful leaders employ to enable the success of others, motivate a team, make decisions that minimize risk, and seize opportunities.


2014 Rix Center Award for Engaged Community Citizenship

Order of British Columbia

Summary Profile

An outspoken champion of entrepreneurship, education and community service, David McLean is a distinguished leader in the Canadian business and academic communities. He is available for a limited number of speaking engagements as he steps down as one of the longest board chairs of a major national corporation in Canadian history. David will complete his 18th year in 2014 as Chair of the Board of Directors of CN.  This is a company he helped privatize at the request of the Canadian government, a controversial and bold move at the time.  The $2.26 billion CDN initial public offering was at the time the largest ever in Canadian history. Since 1995, the stock has appreciated in value approximately 1400%. CN is also the most profitable freight railway in North America. Alongside the CN management team and the Board of Directors, David transformed the company from a traditional “Canada only” railway company into a leader in innovation in transportation across North America.  With over 20,000 employees, CN introduced many of the practices and procedures that have transformed the North American freight rail industry.  During his term the CN Board was recognized for outstanding corporate governance. David’s entrepreneurial drive took him beyond his traditional business base of real estate development in Canada and the USA into unrelated business sectors and making those ventures a continuing success.  Knowing little about the film industry but seeing an opportunity he launched a large television and feature film production facility, Vancouver Film Studios, one of North America’s largest film and television studios outside Los Angles. When Canadian’s see feature movies or  television series like:  Arrow (Warner Bros); Wolverine (20th Century Fox); The Day the Earth Stood Still (20th Century Fox); Who’s Your Monster(Disney); Bates Motel (NBC/Universal Television);  Saving Milly (CBS Television); Elf (New Line); Battlestar  Galactica I, II & III (NBC/Universal) and many more; these were all produced on location at Vancouver Film Studios. Entrepreneurs take risks to follow opportunities. When an opportunity in aviation appeared David took over a small helicopter company.  Today, Blackcomb Aviation is a growing fixed wing and helicopter company and a key regional player in both Canada and the US. As is characteristic of successful entrepreneurs, there were many other businesses and ventures in his career. Today David and Brenda McLean have evolved the McLean Group into a true family enterprise with their two sons providing the daily leadership and management. On the platform, David has a familiar and open style relating many of the lessons and principles he learned in his successful business career. David has been active in communities across Canada and has received a number of awards and honorary degrees. Brenda and David McLean believe in giving back and are engaged in philanthropy in particular with education, medical research and conservation. David is the author of A Road Taken soon to be released by Greystone Books.