ADGA Group grows to 700 staff under CEO Françoise Gagnon

Françoise Gagnon

Most people approaching their 50s start thinking of retirement. Embarking on a new career in a new domain was not part of the master plan for Françoise Gagnon.  

All that changed when she took over the reins at ADGA, a professional services and consulting firm specializing in defence, security and enterprise computing. The company was founded in 1967 by Denis Gagnon, her father.

“My background in public affairs and communications didn’t seem to me to be the natural fit in what was then a traditional engineering company,” said Françoise, who is now CEO of the ADGA Group.

“But I had a strong sense of duty to carry on this company, which my father had built from the ground up. Carrying that legacy forward was important to me.”

During a recent interview at the company’s headquarters on Argyle Avenue, Gagnon spoke of a poignant family transition.  

“Not only did I leave my career, but I convinced my husband to do so,” she said.

John Jarvis managed the Westin Ottawa for 15 years and worked for Starwood Hotels and Resorts, a Fortune 500 company, for 30 years.

Gagnon and her husband joined ADGA in February 2014, she as executive vice-president and he as vice-president of finance.

Court battle

Gagnon remembers with vivid detail the day the news broke that her father was taking her and her husband to court to regain control of the company. The story hit the front page of the Ottawa Citizen on Oct. 4, 2016.

“It was, hands down, the worst day of my life,” she said. “To have a private matter exposed in such a public way was heartbreaking.”

Early-morning messages of support from friends and co-workers immediately came flooding in, but it was the advice from fellow businesswoman Barbara Farber, president of Leikin Group, that stuck with her. Farber was familiar with the pitfalls of family business.

“Oy,” began Farber’s message, using the Yiddish phrase to express dismay. “There is probably no one better to empathize with your situation than me. This kind of situation happens more often than we ever thought. Just keep putting one foot ahead of the other with your head held high.”

And so Gagnon did, although the experience was difficult. She got through that period with the support of family, friends and no shortage of discipline, hard work and perseverance.

The parties reached a confidential settlement in the spring of 2017.

Gagnon takes pride in the fact that ADGA is strong, growing and diversifying in new and innovative directions. The company has grown from 500 employees to 700 under her leadership.   

Male-dominated industry

When Gagnon joined ADGA, she found herself in an industry that was largely male-dominated.

“Being a newcomer to the industry and being a woman probably led to my being discounted by some,” she said with a wry smile. “There had never been a woman in an executive role at ADGA. The leadership style I brought as a woman was, in fact, my strongest asset. Companies with gender diversity perform better.”

“There had never been a woman in an executive role at ADGA. The leadership style I brought as a woman was, in fact, my strongest asset. Companies with gender diversity perform better.”

Among her organizational objectives is her commitment to empowering and developing women at ADGA.

When reflecting on the past few years, Gagnon credits working with her husband as the secret to her success.

“We had never worked together before, so it was the great unknown,” she said. “John holds expertise in areas where I don’t, so we complement each other very well.

“Running a business this size is all-consuming,” she added. “We both understand the demands of the role and the hours required. Most importantly, the person that you trust the most is literally two office doors down and always has your back.”

About half of ADGA’s business is derived from the defence sector, where it provides expertise and technology solutions to clients.

Among its major customers is the Canadian Armed Forces. Former chief of the defence staff retired Gen. Ray Henault leads the company’s strategic advisory council and has been a mentor for Gagnon.

“The learning curve for me coming into ADGA was significant,” she said. “Surrounding myself with trusted experts was key to ramping up.”

Another area of expertise for ADGA is security. The company has made two acquisitions to address the rapid growth in this market: Extravision specializes in developing and designing security technologies, while Presidia focuses on areas such as executive protection, risk mitigation, emergency preparedness, investigations and security program management.

“Every day we hear news of cyberattacks and breaches in security. Protecting and securing our assets and infrastructure is critical,” said Gagnon.

ADGA also provides professional services across the public sector in Ottawa and Toronto.

Five things to know about Françoise Gagnon

  1. She’s an introvert. “If Uber Eats delivered to my bedroom, I would be a happy, happy girl.”
  2. Gagnon considers herself a mother first, followed by a wife and CEO. She and Jarvis have a combined seven children – six sons and one daughter. They also have two pooches who accompany them to the office: an old English sheepdog and a Newfoundlander.
  3. Gagnon has set a goal to lead the first defence security company in Canada with an equal number of women and men in influential roles at the executive and senior management levels.
  4. Gagnon and her husband love travelling, cooking and spending time outdoors skiing, cycling and boating.
  5. She is Ottawa-born and raised and graduated from Carleton University with a degree in Soviet and East European Studies.