Don Smitten looks out over Peru's Machu Picchu after the 2013 AMA Travel President's Cruise to the Galapagos

A New Day for Don Smitten: The Legacy of AMA’s Longest-Serving CEO

By Misty Harris

Since AMA’s start in 1926, there have been many firsts. First membership dues, at a whopping six dollars and fifty cents. First tow, for a charge of three dollars and seventy-five cents. And first AMA Road Report, broadcast with the power of 100 watts. But the biggest game-changer of all came in 1980 with the arrival of Don Smitten.

As AMA’s first internal auditor, Don came to AMA at just 24 years old. He admits he didn’t plan on staying longer than five years—even then, Don had designs on the next big thing—but he quickly became enamoured with the organization and its culture.

“What attracted me to AMA 41 years ago is the same thing that’s kept me here all this time. And it’s really very simple,” says Don. “For me, AMA was an organization that had core values and a sense of purpose that I wanted to be a part of. Over the years, that’s become clearer and more obvious to me—perhaps even more now than in 1980.”

With his innovative vision of the future—and meticulous plan to get us there—Don catapulted the club to be a leader across the CAA federation. It’s because of his commitment to serving members, and his extraordinary ability to inspire those around him, that AMA achieved such success during his time as president. But Don was conquering mountains long before taking the mantle of CEO.

In his first decade at AMA, this natural-born leader left an indelible mark on every project he touched. Don’s dauntless work ethic, head for numbers and strong leadership earned him the titles of internal auditor, man-ager of financial accounting, controller of AMA Insurance and vice-president of finance—all in the blink of 10 years.

The victories were varied, but one thing remained constant: Don never took credit. For him, it was always about the group effort. “Success is a team sport,” says Don. “I credit mine to the relationships I’ve built and the diverse perspectives that shape our strategies. There’s tremendous value in putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and really listening when they speak.”

From 1990 to 2000, Don helped AMA navigate a decade of formidable change. New technologies like cellphones and the internet changed the way AMA served Albertans, with Don leading the charge for the club’s first website. He oversaw the launch of a game-changing loyalty program—now known as AMA Rewards—that to this day connects members with deals and discounts at more than 165,000 partner locations. He also doubled down on AMA’s traffic safety advocacy, with a series of awareness campaigns that helped significantly reduce casualty collisions on Alberta highways.

For Don, it was always about looking well down the road and ensuring AMA was positioned to respond to evolving member needs and trends. In fact, he reads more than 100 books every year—a testament to his voracious curiosity. “I never want to stop learning and questioning,” says Don. “I’m always trying to understand other people’s experiences and what makes them tick. It’s hard to be part of a community if you don’t know who’s standing next to you.”

Don Smitten standing beside Santa and teddy bear mascot with smilling kids in foreground
Don with AMA School Safety Patrollers in 2016

Don was appointed chief operating officer in 2001 and chief executive officer just a year later. It was a watershed moment that kicked off nearly two decades at the helm of the organization—the longest tenure of any AMA president. Recognizing the importance of diversification to financial stability, Don led AMA’s acquisition of our mortgage lending business, and was instrumental in the decision to get a federal bank licence for Bridgewater Bank. To this day, AMA is the only club in the CAA federation to operate a chartered bank—a critical cog in Don’s vision for helping protect the things that matter most to Albertans.

In good times, Don remained intensely focused on the big picture, never resting on his laurels or growing distracted. And in difficult times, he was fearless in steering the organization with tenacity and values-based decision-making.

“Adversity presents us with a unique chance to rethink old approaches, identify new opportunities, look at processes with fresh eyes and build on achievements,” says Don. “Every challenge represents a chance to do better.”

By 2008, Don’s leadership had helped AMA achieve unprecedented membership growth, with nearly four in 10 Alberta households being part of the club. But for Don, it was never about flashy numbers—even with his passion for them as an accountant. More members simply meant more opportunities to make a difference.

Indeed, he stopped at nothing to ensure AMA was there for Albertans through every kind of challenge. From 2010 onward, Don helped employees and members alike navigate everything from devasting wildfires to floods to economic hardship like the province hadn’t seen in decades.

It’s because of his guidance that AMA has held firm through COVID-19’s challenges and boosted Albertans at the same time. In fact, Don’s final months as CEO saw our Fill Our Fleet campaign virtually double its historical record for donations to local food banks.

“The year 2020 saw suffering and grief and need, and yet it was a year that drove home just how important we all are to one another—and how, when we come together, we can achieve remarkable things,” says Don. “Most people think about AMA as boosting cars, but we want to boost communities, people and lives as well.”

Group of smiling people dressed in 1950s-style attire
Don with his AMA colleagues at “Sock Hop Night” in 2010

Unsurprisingly, Don affords his success to the relationships he’s built with the people he’s had the pleasure of working with over the years. It’s no wonder he was so passionate about creating an internal culture of collaboration, not competition; of holding each other up when things go wrong; and of treating one another as we would our own friends and relatives.

And he did everything in his power to ensure AMA members, too, felt like practically family. Don’s leadership saw Albertans’ twice vote AMA as Canada’s most trusted brand. His vision for protecting “what matters most” sparked the introduction of Kids Go Free, making sure children can get roadside assistance no matter whose car they’re in. And he played a pivotal role in the development of travel technology that ensured our customers’ access to a best-in-class booking system—one so efficient, it was adopted as AAA’s preferred platform in 2020.

Leading with the courage of his convictions, Don always made his teams believe that anything was possible—then went ahead and proved it. He’s truly been the beating heart of AMA. His unrelenting pursuit of excellence (both for himself and AMA), and abiding love of this brand, have contributed to a legacy that will inspire us for years to come.

With hearts full of gratitude, we wish our fearless leader a restful retirement—no doubt with lots and lots of books. Some things never change.

1980-1990: Early Growth
Don joins AMA as an internal auditor but quickly moves up the ranks—to manager of financial accounting, controller of AMA Insurance, and then vice-president of finance.

1990-2000: New Tech
Don oversees the launch of AMA’s first website and a member rewards program, while continuing the club’s important traffic safety advocacy.

2000-2010: More Members
After being named chief operating officer, Don is appointed president in 2002. He leads the club to unprecedented growth, with AMA reaching nearly four in 10 Alberta households.

2010-2021: Practically Family
Don introduces Practically Family, our commitment to treating members like friends and family. He guides the club and its members through flood, fire and pandemic.