Devenny and McDonald: Life partners at home, rivals in the workplace

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Grant McDonald and Carol Devenny have had a successful 35-year marriage despite being top executives at rival firms. Photo by Caroline Phillips

Here’s a question you’ll never hear asked over dinner between Carol Devenny and her husband Grant McDonald: “So honey, how was your day at work?”

That’s because they each hold the same position as office managing partners in Ottawa at two different global professional service firms that compete against one another for business every day. She’s with PwC LLP. He’s with KPMG LLP.

“We don’t talk about work,” says Ms. Devenny in one of the boardrooms of PwC Ottawa’s newly renovated offices, which take up the seventh and eighth floors of the Sun Life Financial Centre at 99 Bank St. Just a few blocks away is KPMG, which occupies the 16th to 18th floors in a landmark office tower with Shopify at 150 Elgin St.

The secret to this Ottawa power couple’s 35-year marital success is that they understand the demands and pressures of the job, whether it’s out-of-town travel, late nights or work that spills into the weekend. As well, neither has ever tried to hold the other back.

Coincidentally, their careers have travelled on similar trajectories. They both made partner in 1995, at age 35. He was promoted in 2011, and she in 2012, to office managing partner.

That’s the highest formal job title given to a senior partner in charge of a firm’s local practice, management and day-to-day operations. They serve as the “face of the firm,” which means it’s their job to build customer relationships, grow the market and win new work. It’s a career that’s been rich in both variety and new challenges, they say.

They’ve also both received the highest mark of distinction for a chartered professional accountant (CPA): the Fellows designation by CPA Ontario for demonstrated leadership, contribution to their profession and community involvement. Only about three percent of CPAs have been named Fellows.

Never a dull moment

“There’s just never a moment to be saying, ‘Boy, am I ever bored today,’” says McDonald, who has for many years been national leader of KPMG’s aerospace and defence sector, travelling to cities such as Washington, London, Zurich and Madrid.

“I always joke that by the time I retire, I’ll have worked 40 years, but I’m sure it will feel like 60 or 80 because the intensity level is very high.”

In OBJ’s latest Book of Lists, PwC is ranked as the second-largest accounting firm in Ottawa, followed closely by KPMG. The subject of the firms’ ranking leads to a passing disagreement between the pair. They resolve the issue like pros, agreeing that the standings are virtually tied.

McDonald and Devenny, both 57, first met during their second year at Queen’s University while travelling over the Thanksgiving weekend from Kingston to Ottawa on a student-run discount bus service. They realized they were in the same commerce program (it was their matching university jackets that tipped them off).

McDonald, who was born and raised in Ottawa, was the first member of his family to attend university. For Devenny, it was a family tradition to attend Queen’s stretching back three generations. She grew up in Alberta but had roots and relatives in Ottawa.

Their first date was going to a Harry Chapin concert.

Each joined their respective firm straight from university. They graduated in 1982 and married the following year. Devenny remembers colleagues asking whether she planned to become a homemaker once she became engaged.

“Some people said, ‘I suppose you’re going to quit now and stay at home.’ Can you imagine? That’s when I said, ‘No, I plan to be a partner,’” says Devenny, pounding her fist on the boardroom table for effect as she tells the story.

Devenny was only 21 at the time. There were no female partners at PwC across Canada. Although her graduating commerce class was split evenly between men and women, there were very few women in the workforce when she first entered the accounting profession.

“I knew that I wanted a career, and it was really important to me that I had a spouse who supported that,” says Devenny, who is passionate about women in both her firm and business overall. “Work-life balance is one of the biggest challenges for women. It’s so hard if they don’t have the support network.”

Big commitment

McDonald says he and his wife understand better than most the commitment required in each other’s jobs.

“While you’re not always happy about it, you get it,” he says. “In a professional services firm, it’s often about responding to client needs first, then balancing the other demands in the office and home, after.”

While still a manager, McDonald had an exciting opportunity to launch his career by becoming an expert in U.S. and international tax. It meant temporarily relocating to southern Florida and maintaining a long-distance marriage until his return eight months later.

By 1993 – two years before they each made partner – there was a new development in the couple’s marriage that would curtail their workaholic ways of coming home late. They had a son, Braden.

Devenny took three months’ maternity leave before returning to the office and resuming her demanding work days. She might have continued on that schedule if not for a friend who bluntly asked her why she regularly had their nanny feed her son dinner. This got Devenny thinking, and resulted in her changing her habits for much better work-life balance.

Motherhood did not slow Devenny down, however. She won 1999 Ottawa Businesswoman of the Year and was named one of the Women’s Executive Network’s top 100 most powerful women in Canada in 2014. She’s also earned herself every professional designation imaginable.

Interestingly, Devenny originally took her husband’s surname but reverted to her maiden name 20 years into their marriage, purely for professional reasons when it became evident they would start competing more and more.

Some people didn’t know what to make of the change and assumed the worst.

“Sorry to hear the news,” stated condolence notes sent by people who figured the couple had broken up.

Five things you should know about Carol Devenny and Grant McDonald

1 In their free time, the couple likes to get away to their vacation properties. They have also attempted ballroom dancing lessons several times, including while at Queen’s and in Ottawa.

2 McDonald is on the board of the National Arts Centre Foundation, Canadian Club of Ottawa, the National Judicial Institute and the Ottawa chapter of the American Chamber of Commerce in Canada. He’s also been involved with the Michener Awards Foundation, Thirteen Strings Chamber Orchestra, Rockcliffe Park Foundation and Viennese Winter Ball. He was awarded a Diamond Jubilee Medal for his volunteer work.

3 Devenny is on the board of the Ottawa Community Foundation and on the executive of the Ottawa chapter of the International Women’s Forum. She’s also been involved on the boards of the Women’s Business Network of Ottawa, Alzheimer Society of Ottawa, Ashbury College, CHEO Foundation and Invest Ottawa’s forerunner, OCRI.

4 McDonald considered studying music at Queen’s before opting for business school.

5 Their son Braden, 25, is a management consultant with PwC in Toronto. He’s not interested in accounting, though. After graduating from Ashbury College, he took liberal arts at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and was executive editor of his student newspaper, The Hoya.