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The Persistent Leadership of Kim Smythe

When Kim Smythe, President and CEO of Nanaimo’s Chamber of Commerce, was asked about his leadership practices, the question took him by surprise. Prior to that moment, he says, he’d never “thought of myself as a leader because nobody has come up and called me a leader before and I’m not sure how to handle that. I just continue to do what I think is right for me and for the people around me and for my community and hopefully I’m close to the mark and it’s showing. At that point, I said, I have a responsibility here. These people consider me a leader, so that qualifies me as a leader. I need to pay respect to that responsibility going forwards.”

This sense of responsibility led Smythe to dedicate himself to improving downtown Nanaimo. Smythe recently took the time to tell Leadership Victoria how he did it. “We were asked to organize an event downtown,” explains Smythe. Nanaimo faces the complexity of people experiencing homelessness. Divisions were increasing. There was even “an organized protest against homelessness,” explains Smythe. This tension was affecting local business and residents were divided about how to respond. Smythe recommended a proactive solution.

Smythe believed that bringing lots of people into downtown to enjoy themselves would help businesses weather recent changes. He wanted to bring joy and energy back into downtown, so he got to work. “We put together a plan,” explains Smythe. “We organized some sponsorship from local businesses, the city got behind us, surprisingly, with a couple of thousand dollars to help us out and I went to every farmers’ market, craft market on Vancouver Island for six months,” to spread the word about plans for a night market in Nanaimo.

Plenty of people around him were sceptical, but Smythe kept at it. “That first night we had 60 vendors and we punched it out through the media … but it caught and that week our phones were ringing off the hook with vendors who wanted in at any price.” Energy was returning to downtown Nanaimo and the night market became a roaring success.

Smythe’s interest in events and marketing developed in his young adulthood. Born and raised in Edmonton, Smythe studied marketing communication at MacEwan University. Smythe also developed an interest in photography. “I found out I was good at taking images … pretty soon I was doing big events.”

Smythe’s dad was also a strong leadership role model who was politically involved in Edmonton. He had Smythe type up speeches and brochures that they distributed around the community. Smythe’s father passed down a curiosity and interest in politics. He also gave his son valuable leadership advice, when Smythe faced challenges after entering the workforce. His father told him, “Go out and do it, fall on your face, screw it up, then you can start to be a success.”

Smythe’s own leadership advice is, “Don’t try to lead, just do what you think comes naturally … people look at you and say ‘that’s a good idea let’s do what he’s doing.’” Smythe also advocates planning ahead: “I’m a fanatic about planning details. I think that’s what’s served me well in my years of event and festival planning and production. We end up with a book of excel spreadsheets, which is your Bible – it’s your guide to getting things done. Everything is in there, everything is complete and to the point, well before you drop your first traffic barricade or welcome your first vendor through the door. The devil is always in the details.”

Smythe recommends that leaders should be community oriented: “First of all, I think you have to have a perspective beyond yourself, beyond what’s closest to you and most important to you, and think about what’s important to others. Think about why your community has value and contribute to that value if you can.”

“It’s not about us, it’s not about what we’re getting out of this. It’s about the impact we’re having on the community and the change we can make in the community,” says Smythe. Nanaimo’s night market has contributed much towards making the change that this community needed.

The Nanaimo night market has been put on hold due to Covid, but Smythe hopes it will restart this year. To learn more about past events, please visit:

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