How Eric Axford is Changing the Future of Business

Eric Axford's longstanding commitment to the future of business in Alberta is transforming how first-year students learn.

Madisen Gee - 16 January 2023

The ability to drive change is one of the ways Eric Axford, ’95 MBA, was able to climb to the top of his field. Even though he’s now retired, his days of creating an impact are far from over. 

This fall, first-year University of Alberta Business students and business alumni participated in the inaugural Axford Impact Series, a four-year program to help students gain hands-on experience working in the community. The program partnered with the City of Edmonton to address downtown vibrancy. Students met with stakeholders in the community, including groups like business owners and those who work and live downtown, creating proposals for initiatives that were then presented to a panel of judges.


The Impact Series aims to push students beyond what they would normally do in a classroom. It can be intimidating to someone early in their career to jump into these conversations, says Axford, “but you realize people are human. And if you're trying to help them, usually they will be very open and collaborative.”

For Axford, this level of engagement is where the learning truly begins.

You can’t put yourself in someone else's shoes if you never speak to them, says Axford. “Understanding the complexities of the community you're a part of is central to being a strong leader. The ability to build relationships with those around you is vital to success, and can help differentiate yourself in any field.”

Axford, who was Chief Sustainability Officer at Suncor Energy, has stayed closely involved with the university since completing his MBA more than 30 years ago, working with the Business Advisory Council for almost a decade. It was in conversation with Leo Wong, associate dean at the Alberta School of Business, that they developed the idea for a program to help expose first year business students to concepts like sustainability and management early in their undergraduate degree. 

He hopes the impact series will be an opportunity for students to build a foundation of knowledge they can carry throughout their degree, and into their careers. 

“When thinking about sustainability, it's important to think about the triple bottom line,” Axford says. He wants students early in their careers to understand how environmental and social performance can be just as important as financial performance.

More than 200 projects were submitted this fall, with the two winning teams both embracing Axford’s passion for sustainability and local businesses. 

An app partnering with local businesses to host a city-wide scavenger hunt, YEG75, was the first winner. Engaging Edmontoninans with 75 local activities or locations downtown,YEG75 would bring new audiences — and revenue — to the area.

The second winning team proposed a tourist destination called Axford BLVD, to complement the existing Ice District. With nightlife, restaurants, shopping and city events that would capitalize on the preexisting crowds for Oilers games, Axford BLVD would encourage others to visit the area with festivals and events throughout the year. 

On the heels of the pandemic, the timing of the series could not have been better. Getting students together, collaborating with one another and within the community, was ideal to get people engaged again. Axford also shares that there were many third and fourth year students who volunteered their own time for the events.


“Engaging with the students is so motivational for me,” says Axford. “They're so smart and so sharp. Even a first-year student has such a broader and wider view of things than I did at that stage of my life.”

In the early days of his own career, guidance and mentorship were pivotal. Especially from his thesis advisors Royston Greenwood (who was inducted into the Royal Society of Canada in the fall of 2022) and Bob Hinings. 

“They're legends in the business faculty,” says Axford. “I  don't think they’ll ever realize how impactful they were on my career.”

For Axford, the highlight of his time at the U of A was going from the traditional student-teacher relationship to feeling like he was a true collaborator. It was like a switch flipped, and he understood how he as an individual brought value to the team. Axford hopes to recreate that same feeling of collaboration and innovation for students with the Impact Series, instead of the traditional “hierarchy” of academia.

As he reflects on the last 30 years, Axford credits U of A for laying the groundwork for a successful career.

“I got to the top executive team of one of Canada's largest companies. I've done great, and I think back on my journey with the U of A as such an important part of that. So it's fun at this stage of my life and career to be giving back now that I'm retired from Suncor.”

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Sarah Kowalevsky
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