Our Campus: From submarines to puzzles, UBC VP Finance and Operations Peter Smailes' work goes beyond just numbers

Apart from being a lover of travel, cooking, hikes, and biking, Peter Smailes has recently been appointed UBC’s Vice President Finance and Operations, after acting in the role since January. Despite how they may seem scattered, Smailes compares his diverse professional and educational experience to pieces of a puzzle.

“They all have slightly different areas of focus," said Smailes. "Bringing all of those together is what helps me to do my job.”

A graduate of Carleton University with a degree in economics, Smailes began working at UBC in 1992 while he was completing his accounting designation. After leaving briefly to do private consulting, Smailes returned to UBC in 2001 when he had the opportunity to work in debt management.

Since then, Smailes has applied the fundamental principles of economics to his work at UBC, working first as UBC’s associate treasurer, interim treasurer, and then finally the official treasurer, a position he has held since 2007. His experience consulting taught him how to be responsible for every decision he made and to take responsibility for its impact.

Despite his long history at UBC, Smailes didn’t always imagine himself as a university employee. “When I was in university I was very interested in developmental economics and working in developing countries around some of the economic models.”

But, he wisely points out that sometimes the things that you want to do don’t always turn out. “I think I probably have an equally or even more exciting job in the university than what might have been.”

One of the reasons that Smailes has been happy at UBC for so long is his commitment to education.

“I like the idea that it contributes to society, and just the excitement of contributing to people’s education," said Smailes. I’m a big believer in education and I like the fact that, in some small way I hope I make a difference to people and improve their lives.”

Another part of what keeps Smailes loving his job is the opportunity to learn something new and different every day. “You only have to go talk to a researcher about what they’re working on, and their excitement is infectious.”

“I worked with a professor who wanted to buy a submarine. I didn’t know the first thing about submarines! Anyways, we had to learn sometime about submarines, and what would that look like, and why would he buy it as opposed to rent one and that sort of thing.

“Where else are you going to get a question like that in an accounting job?”

His enthusiasm for the position is not limited to interactions with faculty members looking to purchase underwater vessels. “It’s that engagement with people and that opportunity to connect with people whether it be faculty or students or staff," said Smailes. "They’re always very excited and passionate about what they’re doing. That part of it is very rewarding.”

Smailes’ focus on people extends to everyone he interacts with, including his own staff. One of his goals as VP Finance and Operations is to make sure that employees are satisfied and advancing.

“We have the opportunity with the integrated renewal program — that’s the big HR, finance and student systems change — to allow people to have different experiences in different areas to help build their careers and encourage people to stay. It takes time, but if you work at it, it can make a big difference in the teams.”

Smailes looks forward to working with students in all capacities, whether it be through the AMS, budget consultations or more casual interactions. “I’d love the students to reach out to me,” he said, noting that one of the the hardest questions he has ever received at a Board of Governors meeting was from a student.

While most students won’t be perplexing Smailes at meetings, he still encourages them to learn a bit about the budgeting process and the finances of the university, even if the university’s finances can be “a little daunting for some.”

“Accounting is more than just the numbers,” he said. “When I look across the university at what many of the accountants do, I see the way that they contribute to all the areas of the university in financial strategy … they work with their deans and others in the faculty to provide financial knowledge and support them so the faculties can achieve their goals.”

Smailes himself isn’t daunted, even while having to manage a budget of over two billion dollars.

“You break it down into manageable pieces,” he explained, noting that his team is one of the reasons he feels confident as he takes on this new role.

“It’s a really great team of people, so the opportunity to work with them and lead them and continue on is actually very exciting for me.”