New Calgary Chamber of Commerce president hopes to break through negative noise

Sandip Lalli took over the top chamber job in March, and has since weighed in on several major business issues.

Sandip Lalli wants to change the narrative around local business environment

Sandip Lalli is the new president and CEO of the Calgary Chamber of Commerce. (Rachel Ward/CBC)

Calgary's business community is at a key moment, and Sandip Lalli, the new head of the Calgary Chamber of Commerce, says she wants to improve how business talks to government.

Lalli has worked in a variety of industries, from oil and gas to agriculture, throughout Alberta and around the world.

Now she's faced with helping to guide the city's business community through a time of transition.

Calgary is trying to make sense of what its business landscape looks like: which industries work, and how should workers retrain following the slump in oil prices three years ago.

Meanwhile, governments of all stripes are fighting over the Kinder Morgan pipeline development, threatening legal action and economic sanctions.

Making sure business has a voice — that those in power hear — is a key goal for Lalli.

"We have a fractured voice in the business community. This side will say, 'we want permits done,' this side will say, 'actually we need those environmental standards,'" she said Thursday.

"It doesn't matter. For us at the chamber, bringing that alignment [is the goal] ... because business is business at the end of the day."

Lalli took over the top chamber job last month, and has since weighed in on several of these major business issues.

She spoke with CBC Radio's Calgary Eyeopener host David Gray about her plans.

Q: Why do you want this job right now?

A: I think this is a critical point for us and I want to be at the chamber to change the narrative that is happening around Calgary business and what Calgary business looks like. I think it's a great place for me.

Q: When you say change the narrative, what is the narrative right now?

A: The narrative is "down and finished" almost. It's not how I grew up. I grew up here in Alberta and I can tell you, it doesn't feel right.

To fight a bully province, Calgary (pictured) and Edmonton must build city identities that offer more than the parochial anger that’s being stoked outside of it. (Leslie Kramer/CBC)

I know the business community has a lot of hustle in it but we're just not getting recognized for it or we're not saying it right. We know how to do this yet we're not getting any recognition for it.

Q: What's happening that we don't know about? What should we be talking about?

A: We should be talking about things around having a purpose that resonates, having a catalytic voice that aligns the business community with the education systems with the three levels of government.

Calgary Chamber of Commerce CEO Sandip Lalli says she'll be looking to align government and the school system with the needs of businesses. (David Bell/CBC)

We can move things forward and create a marketplace that people want to invest in, want to grow their businesses, scale them and then have a vibrant community around that

Q: Let's look at some practical solutions if we can. What's the main issue facing Calgary business right now in your mind? What needs to solved first?

A: The first thing for me is to be listening to the business community and getting a pulse because I've been a frustrated business person here in Calgary, along with other places.

When the systems of your government and your education-run workforce don't align, it's hard for businesses to kind of go, "OK, so now I'm going to go do that? And then you're going to get in my way while I'm on a path? And then you derail what I'm doing?"

Q: To be clear, you're from the construction industry, right? Excavating?

A: That's part of my background. Agriculture is actually a larger part of my background and I actually started out in High River in agriculture, which is fantastic for me.

Then I moved over into financial markets and then to a service company in oil and gas.

So I actually have quite a broad experience, which tells me, having changed between those industries, there's multiple parallels between the industries.

A worker carries an air filter during wheat harvest on a farm in Alberta. Sandip Lalli has worked in the agriculture industry. (Todd Korol/Reuters)

We keep talking about specifics about oil and gas or ag or the tech sector, utilities. There are so many parallels that we're getting in the way here.

Investment isn't coming, business owners are choosing not to scale their businesses, not create more jobs. It's very frustrating.

Q: This attention on Kinder Morgan, will they or won't they, will the pipeline get through or will it not, what effect has that had on the investment side of this, on new dollars coming into Calgary?

A: As an investor previously, I can tell you, I'm sitting there going, "It's not worth my effort. There they go again. I knew that was going to happen." Things like this.

When you're an investor or you're in business and someone keeps changing the rules — for example, tax rules, investment rules, those things — that makes that investment risky.

Crews work on construction of the Trans Mountain pipeline. (Trans Mountain)

This Kinder Morgan noise, it's amazing to me how far this can get.

Now at the 11th hour, it's like, "You know what, we're ready to pay taxes, we're ready to build, we've got the material but we can't get the governments aligned."

Q: But that's where we are.

A: That's where we are. That's the frustrating part of commerce.

And that's where the chamber can be that catalytic voice.

If we were there through the process, and other organizations working closely with the government instead of getting blindsided, I think that would temper a bit of this investment issue.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Calgary: The Road Ahead is CBC Calgary's special focus on our city as it passes through the crucible of the downturn: the challenges we face, and the possible solutions as we explore what kind of Calgary we want to create. Have an idea? Email us at

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With files from the Calgary Eyeopener.