Brian Kingston stood sentry outside Rideau Hall one sweltering Ottawa summer in the ceremonial bearskin hat and wool coat of the Governor General’s Foot Guards.
Even as tourists tried to distract him, and as his fellow soldiers sometimes fainted in the capital’s notorious humidity, Kingston didn’t flinch.
Later, as an economist and vice-president of the Business Council of Canada, Kingston faced a different type of grilling, appearing before parliamentary committees at least two dozen times.
The newly minted president and CEO of the Canadian Vehicle Manufacturers’ Association (CVMA) — he assumed his post Aug. 1 — is no stranger to heat. And during a tumultuous time in the automotive world, Kingston’s calm demeanour and bright outlook could be his greatest strengths as he champions the interests of Ford, Fiat Chrysler and General Motors as well as the broader Canadian auto industry.
“What really fascinates me about the auto sector is just the pace of technological change and transformation that’s under way,” the 36-year old native of Kingston, Ont., told Automotive News Canada.
“I was so attracted to this role because there’s an opportunity to play a part in that transformation.”
CHALLENGES AND OPPORTUNITY
Scott Bell, chair of the CVMA and president of GM Canada, announced Kingston’s appointment in June, citing his expertise in a broad range of policy issues. Kingston replaces Mark Nantais, an auto-sector statesman who retired after 36 years with the lobby group that represents the Detroit Three in Canada.
Kingston, last at the Business Council of Canada, began his new during a pandemic that has infected more than 35 million people globally and crippled the world’s economies. In the process, it also could be hastening the consolidation of the auto industry.
Closer to home, the industry is grappling with the new United-States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, fractious trade relations with the United States and contract talks between General Motors, Ford and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and Unifor, which is determined to stanch the flow of assembly jobs from Canada.
Kingston sees opportunity.
With the USMCA’s new content provisions supporting domestic production and with Canada’s depth of tech talent, Kingston thinks the auto sector can play a big role in the recovery.
But competing with other countries desperate for a postCOVID-19 rebound, he said, will require more effort to draw investment. U.S. reforms have cut into Canadian tax advantages, and this country’s business regulations are seen as costly and cumbersome.
“Canada won’t be alone in trying to be more competitive, attract investment,” Kingston said. “This is an opportunity now to really go after some of those long-standing challenges and make sure we’re highly competitive for every sector, but auto in particular, given how important it is to the economy.”
Just as necessary for Canada to succeed is collaboration between the federal and provincial governments and a “common narrative” from industry, Kingston said.
“I can tell you from my years in Ottawa, if government doesn’t get a very clear set of asks, advice, inputs from a sector, it makes it much easier to ignore,” he said.
Kingston saw this firsthand in the federal government’s accelerated economist training program after he earned degrees at Carleton University in Ottawa — while also serving in the Canadian Reserve Force — and Western University in London, Ont. Participants in the training program rotate through key departments, from the Privy Council to Treasury Board, to gain a close-up look at policymaking.
Kingston’s final post was Foreign Affairs, where he worked on market-access negotiations in which autos were a critical topic.
At the Business Council of Canada, he led the lobbying group’s efforts in trade and had a front-row seat to the talks for a new North American trade pact.
The CVMA offices are in Toronto, but Kingston will stay in Ottawa, and not just for quick access to his treasured Gatineau Park cycling routes. He wants to be close to bureaucrats and politicians to “make them fully aware of the importance of this sector and the role that the CVMA and Canada’s vehicle manufacturers play.”
LEARNING WHILE LEADING
But if he’s not shy about speaking for all, Kingston is also not claiming to be the official auto-sector envoy.
Beyond policy, he is quick to admit he has plenty to learn about how cars are built. He took a “mind-boggling” tour of Ford’s Essex Engine Plant in Windsor, Ont. There, he was struck by the focus on process innovation “and how typically every day, where it could just be a minor tweak and you do something on the floor, it has a huge impact on the overall efficiency of the company.”
That appreciation extends to the value to Canada of heavy manufacturing, a stand that runs counter to calls for an emphasis on investments in R&D as opposed to assembly lines.
The quick response of the Detroit Three and others to making pandemic protective gear at their Canadian plants proved why it’s important to be able to produce at home, Kingston said.
COVID-19 crisis aside, auto factories also are a key part of a healthy auto sector, he said. That position might not be the party line for the Detroit Three, which have cut car lines and entire assembly plants even as they have increased research operations in Canada, but Kingston is unflinching.
“It’s all part of the package. You are not necessarily getting the attention as a place to do R&D if you don’t have that fundamental investment in assembly and everything else that goes on with autos.”