Profile: Downtown Surrey BIA CEO Elizabeth Model

Elizabeth Model, CEO of Downtown Surrey BIA, completed her 50th Ironman this year. Photo:

Elizabeth Model, CEO of Downtown Surrey BIA, completed her 50th Ironman this year. Photo:

Powerful, energetic and ambitious: three attributes to describe Elizabeth Model and three to describe the city she’s helping to build.

As CEO of the Downtown Surrey Business Improvement Association (DSBIA), not only does Model have a front row seat as the city attempts to recreate itself as an economic powerhouse on a provincial and world stage, but she also has a strong hand in shaping Surrey’s economy – now and into the future. She is drawing major players to its burgeoning business centre, while ensuring that existing downtown businesses don’t get lost in the shuffle as the city grows up around them.

At nearly 10,000 new residents annually, Surrey is one of Canada’s fastest-growing cities. While it expands, and with Model’s help, it’s working hard to revamp its image and leave its checkered past behind.

And it’s succeeding. Mainly because, according to Model, it has had “proper leadership, proper vision and really strong city and government officials that moved it forward in the right direction.”

With its expanding economic portfolio and rising real estate value, Surrey appears to be increasingly headed for urban economic leadership in B.C., and Model, a self-professed “Type A” personality, is happy to be at the centre of it.

“It’s a really exciting position,” Model said, now over four years in at the DSBIA. “Because where else do you get to work with a city that is building a brand-new downtown core? Having worked in the Tri-Cities and in Delta and Burnaby, Surrey is just different. It is very collaborative, and let’s face it, it’s a city that’s really had to struggle for its identity.”

She is used to challenges – thrives on them, in fact. Model just completed her 51st Ironman competition – a 2.4 km swim, a 180 km bike ride and a 42.2 km run – in eight years; she is modest about the achievement but asserts that her worldwide racing experiences have provided her with a special perspective on Surrey and the development of its downtown. She believes that events and public spaces are going to be key to making Surrey a metropolitan centre.

“You see a lot when you do 180 kilometres on the bike in different countries. It gives me a real appreciation for what makes cities and countries work, and how events create spaces, special places that people want to go back to.

“Like Switzerland, where everything moves so well, and Germany is so organized, and villages where millions of people come out to support the event. Different things that make different countries work, how transportation is so seamless in Europe. People can move around so easily thanks to trains and proper transport. … You see that, you see what works and you bring it back.”

She uses her varied experiences racing around the world (all seven continents, after Antarctica next year) and at work to the advantage of the city she is passionate about, and she’s making such events a reality; Model created the Surrey International World Music Marathon after running the California International Marathon and seeing the economic and social benefits it brought to the area.

“I wanted to be part of a community that was collaborative, forward thinking and on the cutting edge of things. I felt Surrey was all of that. I did a lot of research, and it was a perfect fit for me. Just based on my set of values in life and my marketing and background, it’s been a good fit from every standpoint.”

Judy Richards was director of the DSBIA when the organization started the hunt for a new CEO who could effectively raise the association’s profile.

She thought immediately of Model, whom she knew from years of rubbing elbows at the Tri-Cities Chamber of Commerce, where Richards was a director while Model was running the show.

“She’s a great ambassador for them,” Richards said. “At the first meetings, she brought a new outlook to where the DSBIA should go. She brought new ideas; she brought change. She’s such an achiever; I hold her in the highest esteem.”

Before her 13 years as executive director of the Tri-Cities Chamber of Commerce, Model owned and operated several businesses with her late husband, and before her current position at the DSBIA, she spent a decade as general manager of a multimillion-dollar land development company. These years taught Model that people are the key to success, and if she has anything to do with it, that’s what’s going to set Surrey apart and bring it onto the world playing field.

“It’s important that we still have that emotional connection to other people and our community, and I think that’s one thing that Surrey does really well,” said Model. ” The growth that they’re experiencing, and their youth, and their basic demographics, it’s a real Canadian city, an ethnically diverse community, and I think that’s healthy for a city, moving it forward.”

Model plans to take the DSBIA at least another five years into this crucial time, but she also believes in the power and necessity of change, evidenced by the 180-degree turns she has so far taken in her own career.

“I’m very much about challenging oneself and thinking outside of the box every so often,” she said.

“I think it’s healthy, that change is important in one’s life. If you don’t feel like you’re progressing or doing something constructive, just believe that you’ve got to take a step up and do something different.”

Published in Business in Vancouver magazine.

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