CEO of the Year: Calian’s Kevin Ford climbs to the pinnacle of Ottawa’s tech world

A west-end kid made good, Calian boss Kevin Ford has embraced a work hard-play hard philosophy
Kevin Ford
The Calian Group’s Kevin Ford is OBJ’s 2017 CEO of the Year. (Photo by Mark Holleron)

If it’s possible to sum up a person’s essence in a single image, Sandra Cote just might have done it with her photo of Kevin Ford.

In the cellphone shot taken at an office party a couple of years ago, a tuxedo-clad Mr. Ford is a picture of concentration as he strums a bass guitar, a hint of a smile crossing his mouth. Beside him, a woman in the band is grinning broadly, clearly enjoying the moment.

“That is Kevin,” says Ms. Cote, a vice-president at Ottawa-based Calian Group. “He’s the last one to leave the dance floor, but he’s the first one at work here in the morning.”

Work hard, play hard. It’s been Mr. Ford’s lifelong credo, one that’s propelled him from an entry-level key-punch job at a software firm to the pinnacle of his profession as CEO of one of Ottawa’s largest publicly traded companies.

Now, the guy who grew up in Britannia and says “everything about me is Ottawa” has made the final step up the ladder. In just his third year at Calian’s helm, Mr. Ford has been named the 2017 CEO of the Year by the Ottawa Business Journal and the Ottawa Chamber of Commerce.

He'll be honoured next week at the Best Ottawa Business Awards gala, which is being held at the Westin Ottawa.

Since taking over as chief executive in early 2015, Mr. Ford has tackled a host of challenges with his trademark blend of determination and good humour.

He’s led the effort to rebrand a company that many locals still think of as an IT staffing firm long after it branched out into sectors such as providing health-care services and manufacturing satellite components. He’s also continued a string of acquisitions he began when he joined the company as head of its business and technology services division in 2010.

And perhaps most importantly, he guided the firm to the biggest contract win in its 35-year history – a renewed 12-year deal to provide health-care services to the Canadian Armed Forces that could be worth up to a billion dollars. Signed last month, the latest agreement brings the RCMP and Veterans Affairs Canada into the fold, further expanding Calian’s customer base.

Those moves have translated into record annual revenues at Calian, which brought in nearly $275 million last year, and the company’s share price has risen more than 60 per cent under Mr. Ford’s leadership.

The firm also hasn’t had a losing quarter since the turn of the millennium, and he has no intention of seeing that streak come to an end on his watch.

“I’m a visual guy, so I equate it as this ocean liner that’s been steaming out there on the seas for 35 years,” he says during an interview at his office on Legget Drive. “As a leader, what you need to understand is when you push an ocean liner, to make an ocean liner move an inch or two, it takes a lot of work. We have been evolving for 35 years.”

Woodroffe grad

So has Mr. Ford, who graduated from Woodroffe High School in the early ’80s, around the time Larry O’Brien was getting Calian off the ground. After taking a three-month data processing course at a private career college, the kid from Ottawa’s west end entered the workforce as a key-punch operator at software outfit Computel.

When a government job opened up at the Department of National Defence, Mr. Ford jumped at the opportunity.

“While my buddies were all doing computer science degrees or whatever, I was working on one of the largest mainframes in Canada."

“It was the best thing that ever happened in my career because with defence, I was sent on training,” the 53-year-old father of four says. “While my buddies were all doing computer science degrees or whatever, I was working on one of the largest mainframes in Canada. Then they sent me on programming training, COBOL programming at that time. I thought that was a dead art, but I just saw an RFP with a COBOL requirement. I’m thinking maybe if this Calian thing doesn’t work out, I can become a COBOL programmer again.”

That dry, self-deprecating sense of humour has been one of Mr. Ford’s most enduring and endearing traits on his rise to the top.

“I hit it off with him pretty quickly, as most people do,” says former Calian chief executive Ray Basler, who lured his eventual successor away from IBM seven years ago. “He’s an easy guy to like.”

But married to Mr. Ford’s down-to-earth demeanour are a burning ambition and a willingness to take risks.

While many others would have simply played out the string and counted down the days to retirement, he abandoned the secure world of government in 1996 and jumped to the private sector, becoming a sales executive at IT consulting firm DMR. Three years later, he moved to competitor LGS, which was eventually bought out by IBM.

“To leave government was a big decision for me,” says Mr. Ford, who had a young family to support at the time. “To go into a sales job, it was obviously a bigger jump for me. But I did it.”

Over the next decade, he blossomed as a salesman, eventually leading IBM’s global defence sector.

“The innovation that IBM brings to the market all the time, it was fascinating to be part of that engine, frankly,” he says. “I think I grew up a lot at IBM. My boss, Stan Roy – he’s just one of those guys that if you look back on your career, you always look at those three or four people that have helped mould you. He was one of them, for sure. I also learned how to manage some pretty big programs. The scale of what IBM does is not insignificant. You don’t get that in a small company. It was a huge growth opportunity for me.”

Then in early 2010, Calian came calling. The firm’s top executive in Ottawa was retiring, and a headhunter recommended Mr. Ford for the job. It took six months of convincing for Mr. Basler to finally pry him away from Big Blue.

“I tend to overanalyze these kinds of things,” concedes Mr. Ford, who’s even been known to use a spreadsheet when car-shopping. “I wasn’t looking to leave IBM. I was happy. I was an executive at IBM, like how cool is that, right?

‘I’ve been very fortunate’

“I’ve been very fortunate. Marlene, my wife for 31 years now, in every one of these milestones, she’s actually been the one who convinced me to go. One time she said, ‘I’m never worried about your ability to find a job. If this doesn’t work out, you’ll find something else.’”

Once again, Marlene’s intuition was razor-sharp.

“I would never have the opportunity in a big company like IBM to be part of the board or be the CEO or anything like that,” Mr. Ford says. “Once I understood the Calian story and actually got to know it, I said, ‘I’ve got to be part of this.’ There’s a lot of things that we do here. I think some of it was just me getting comfortable with who Calian was. That took time.”

Once he’d made up his mind, he was all in.

“I was just so impressed by all the things Calian was doing as well as the growth opportunity I thought existed,” he says. “The company was the best-kept secret around, and my job was to come on board and tell the story. That’s what turned the switch for me. It’s like, man, how can you not be part of that? I have no regrets and I haven’t looked back, frankly. It’s been a blast.”

Guitar
Mr. Ford still loves to play guitar when he gets the chance. (Photo courtesy of Sandra Cote)

The company he joined was a multifaceted enterprise with more than 2,000 employees and operations in both Ottawa and Mr. Basler’s home base of Saskatoon, the site of the firm’s systems engineering division that manufactures satellite components. As head of the Ottawa-based business and technology services division, Mr. Ford oversaw a large group of employees who provided everything from medical services on military bases to aircraft maintenance training.

He instantly became the firm’s chief evangelist, promoting Calian to the world. As usual, he jumped in feet first.

“We needed a champion,” Mr. Basler says. “We had gone a long time at Calian with basically the same management team, the same book of business, more or less, not a huge amount of growth. Kevin gave us that outward-facing role that we really needed in that division.”

As CEO, Mr. Ford has tried to redefine the firm’s mission in the eyes of the public. Last year, the company changed its name from Calian Technologies to Calian Group, part of a marketing effort that aims to put the focus on why the firm exists rather than the myriad of products it offers.

“If we can connect that to our core purpose, I think it will be very powerful, not only for us but for our staff,” he says. “We’ve spent a lot of time on this. We’re going to define the Calian Group by why we exist, not what we do: (helping customers) communicate, innovate, lead healthy lives and stay safe.”

Not long after taking over from Mr. Basler, Mr. Ford hit the road with chief financial officer Jacqueline Gauthier to spread the gospel of Calian.

“We spent time with every investor who wanted to talk to us,” he explains. “Not to talk about some marketing fluff in the context of what we want to be, but more importantly who we are. At that point, we had 60 consecutive profitable quarters, 4-5 per cent dividend yield, no debt, strong balance sheet. I didn’t understand why we weren’t on everyone’s radar.”

Those efforts are beginning to pay dividends, he adds.

“We had one analyst (covering the company) at the time; we now have four. So the story’s getting out there. We still have a lot of work to do, but we’re getting there.”

In addition to growing the firm’s client base and redefining its brand, Mr. Ford also kickstarted a drive to expand through acquisitions. Since he came on board in 2010, Calian has bought five companies, four based here in Ottawa. Every deal has been a winner, he says, largely because his due diligence goes well beyond the balance sheet.

‘Culture trumps everything’

“He breathes the mantra that culture trumps everything,” says Ms. Cote, who’s known her boss for almost two decades. “It’s not always just about revenue. Sometimes it’s about the people who are at the table.”

Mr. Ford is quick to note he’s passed on potential deals that just didn’t feel right. A longtime minor hockey coach, he uses an NHL analogy to illustrate the importance of following his instincts when looking at acquiring a competitor.

“Some teams are trying to run their organizations by analytics, but they’re not winning Stanley Cups. Why? It’s the heart and mind thing,” he says. “I think leadership is still about 50 per cent, 60 per cent, your gut.

“I think acquisitions are a great example. There’s a very financial lens on an acquisition. You can talk about rate of return, you can talk about multiples. But in your gut, it has to feel right that this company, this organization, is going to be able to fit into our organization for not only us but for them. The success rate of acquisitions is quite poor, if you actually look at it. I’m not sure the gut’s getting involved enough in these decisions.”

“What I love about Kevin is just he’s one of those leaders who genuinely leads. He’s always teaching and coaching people without them even realizing that he’s doing it.”

To ensure his gut has its say, he always makes a point of getting to know the faces behind the business in a social setting.  

“We have dinner, we have beers. I just want to know that they’re thinking the same way, that these are people I want to work with.”

Mr. Ford’s gift for inspiring colleagues to find common ground and work together extends beyond his day job. After realizing that companies in his neighbourhood lacked a strong voice to represent their interests, five years ago he spearheaded the drive to create the Kanata North BIA and served as the organization’s first chairman.

“He was really one of those visionaries who saw a need and helped to actually make it happen,” says Jenna Sudds, the association’s original executive director. “What I love about Kevin is just he’s one of those leaders who genuinely leads. He’s always teaching and coaching people without them even realizing that he’s doing it.”

Mr. Ford’s talents are such that OBJ and the Ottawa chamber aren’t the first organizations to tap him as CEO of the year in 2017. He received the same honour from the West Ottawa Board of Trade in early April, and Ms. Sudds says his words of thanks that day spoke volumes about the character of the man.

“His acceptance speech was nothing about himself,” she recalls. “It was all about the team and how the team got the company to where it is now. He’s so humble, and he’s always building up the people around him.”

Even when he’s not at work, he remains a mentor to the core. His four children – Cody, 27, Tristan, 25, Skyler, 22, and Liam, 19 – might be all grown up, but Mr. Ford still relishes standing behind the bench on a Wednesday night at the Metcalfe arena, coaching a new batch of hockey youths.

“I do it because it’s a passion,” he says, grinning. “I’m always excited when somebody stops me on the street and says, ‘Hey, coach,’ and it’s a kid I coached when he was eight years old. There’s just so many good life skills there, it’s just awesome. I’ve always felt, if I’m going to be at the arena, what the hell, I might as well be on the ice having some fun with the kids.”

Work hard, play hard. It’s the Kevin Ford way.

Best Ottawa Business Awards

Help honour Kevin Ford and all the 2017 recipients of the Best Ottawa Business Awards by coming out to the BOBs gala on Nov. 15. Click here for more information.