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End of an era

As he heads to retirement, longtime professor Ken Wong, BCom’75, MBA’76, talks about his career in the classroom
Kristen Sears
End of an era

Ken Wong first walked through the doors of the business school at Queen’s University in 1971. He never left. Well, almost. Save for a handful of years working at the Conference Board of Canada and studying at Harvard, Wong has been a fixture at Smith.

Of the 45 years he’s spent here, 40 have been as a professor of marketing. Sure, he’s had plenty of chances to go elsewhere, but Wong has always been interested in more than just a cool job.

“The qualities that kept me here are the same ones that brought me back as a faculty member in 1983,” he explains. “I saw then, and continue to see now, an organization with the capacity and desire to be more than it is today and equipped with alumni, faculty and students dedicated to making it happen… Here, I was part of a movement.”

Wong was there to see the business world take notice of the “plucky B-school,” as he calls it, ready to assert itself on the global stage. And he had a hand in launching the first MBA program in Canada to operate completely without a government subsidy.

Now, after teaching thousands of students, Wong is retiring. He taught his last MBA and Commerce classes in the fall and delivered a final lecture at Goodes Hall in March. So, what’s next? What’s his proudest accomplishment? What will he take with him into his next chapter? We caught up with the marketing legend to find out.

You’ve been a favourite teacher of many. As a student, who was your favourite professor?

I truly learned my craft at the feet of some masters, and Smith has had a multitude of masters: Carl Lawrence introduced me to marketing as a way of thinking; Bo Pazderka, PhD’76, showed me that economics was a way to understand human behaviour; Merv Daub, BCom’66, was the renaissance man who encouraged us to develop a philosophy about the role of business in society; Bill Cannon demonstrated the highest level of commitment to his students; and Peter Richardson was the ultimate practitioner of continuous innovation.

I could add a dozen more, including some whose classes I never got to take but who influenced me by their example. And I’ve had amazing deans, who taught me the importance of creating opportunities for others to excel. You see, Smith will never be just one person. That’s what makes this place special.

If you were to go back in time and pick a different career, what would it be?

I love athletics and so sports would be one. I love the arts and so that would be another. And I love generating revenue and making money, so business would also qualify. But I would like to think I could be happy in any career where I felt I could make a difference in people’s lives. So, at the risk of sounding holier than thou, the best part of success isn’t what it does for you but what it enables you to do for others.

What is something you hope your students have learned and taken with them into their careers?

The importance of leadership and teamwork. Most people associate B-school with technical skills like research and valuation. While those skills are important, they can be acquired anywhere, including over the Internet. So, I hope my students go beyond the theory of business to master the practice of business. You cannot do that without learning to lead, motivate and develop your people. People don’t go the extra mile out of duty as much as they do out of loyalty.

What is something your students taught you that you’ll take into your next chapter?

The students I sense are personally happiest and professionally the most successful approach each day, albeit possibly unconsciously, with a growth mindset. I used to think it was merely the naïve optimism and energy of youth, but I now see it is a deliberate choice. They choose to see opportunity instead of challenge.

In this sense, they have taught me that retirement is not the end of a career but rather the next chapter ... and a chapter to be seen as a new beginning with all the optimism of youth. I may not know what the future holds, but I am excited to find out.

What’s on your bucket list in retirement?

I have always tried to do whatever struck me as worth doing in the moment. As a result, there are no milestone activities or achievements on my bucket list. But career demands often had me on the road and away from family and community, so I plan to spend more time doing things dedicated—exclusively—to that. And my golf game.

What’s your proudest accomplishment?

Personally, it is my family. Because we remain tight and committed to each other. Professionally, I have been absolutely blown away by the outpouring of best wishes on my retirement. They have validated my professional choices and, at their best, suggest that in some small way I made a difference in their lives. It doesn’t get any better than that.