Hydro Ottawa boss charged up about firm’s future

Bryce Conrad initially turned down the offer to apply for utility’s top job, but with his sixth anniversary at Hydro approaching, revenues steadily growing and new innovations emerging, he now feels right at home
Bryce Conrad
Bryce Conrad left the federal government to join Hydro Ottawa as CEO. (Photo by Caroline Phillips).

Bryce Conrad was perfectly happy working as an assistant deputy minister in the federal government. So when he was first asked by an executive recruiter to apply for the position of president and CEO of Hydro Ottawa, he didn’t go quickly searching for his résumé.

“I said no,” recalls Mr. Conrad at the electricity distribution company’s headquarters on Albion Road.

But Ron Robertson asked him again just two days later. He wanted Mr. Conrad to look at the executive briefing, which provided a synopsis of Hydro Ottawa and the job, and then decide.

“He said, ‘If your answer is still no, it’s no.’”

Mr. Conrad did read the briefing, on the weekend over a beer on the balcony of his family ski chalet at Mont Ste. Marie. One particular line caught his attention: The biggest risk facing Hydro Ottawa is a missed opportunity to grow.

“I thought, ‘That’s kind of cool; it’s not about keeping the lights on, it’s about missing an opportunity to grow a company.’ I put my name forward, thinking that surely to God there’s somebody that knows more about this electricity industry than I do. No one was more surprised than I was when they picked me.”

For a job that he didn’t initially want, Mr. Conrad now considers himself lucky. This summer marks his six-year work anniversary with Hydro Ottawa, which is the third-largest municipally owned electrical utility in Ontario.

“I love this company,” he says, speaking in the boardroom, where, hanging on its walls, is a series of paintings of workers repairing hydro lines. Some of them were actually done by a Hydro Ottawa employee.

Mr. Conrad says his greatest source of inspiration is his employees, of which there are about 700.

“When the weather is shitty and storming out, when it’s minus-40C or plus-40C, when the power goes out, my team responds. Everyone else tucks into bed and waits for the lights to come back on, but my team does what they need to do.”

“When the weather is shitty and storming out, when it’s minus-40C or plus-40C, when the power goes out, my team responds. Everyone else tucks into bed and waits for the lights to come back on, but my team does what they need to do.”

Not only that, he adds, but when Hurricane Sandy swept through the U.S. east coast, more than 70 employees from Hydro Ottawa volunteered to go down and help.  

“If that doesn’t motivate you as a boss, then you’re in the wrong job.”

Mr. Conrad was a military kid. His father was in the air force and his family moved around a lot.

He lived in Kingston from his teenaged years right through to his time as an undergraduate student at Queen’s University, where he studied political science. He then earned a master’s degree in public administration at Carleton University and an MBA at the University of Ottawa.

The federal government saw his potential and recruited him into a development program in Ottawa that groomed people for policy and leadership roles.

“I managed to find a lot of really cool bosses who took me under their wings and gave me bigger and better opportunities,” he says.

By 2008, Mr. Conrad – then still in his 30s – was assistant deputy minister of the program operations branch for Infrastructure Canada, where he was responsible for the $4-billion infrastructure stimulus fund.

“I got a massive credit card and a mandate to spend money like water on public infrastructure,” he jokes. “It was a great job.”

When he got hired at Hydro Ottawa, he wondered whether he’d be able to “cut it” in the private sector and how his public service career would translate in the corporate world.

“I’ll let others decide whether I’ve been successful or not,” he says. “I don’t want to write my own obituary, but I think we’ve had success as a company, which has been great.”

Hydro Ottawa’s renewable generation has grown by 500 per cent, while its revenues have been increasing steadily and recently surpassed a billion dollars. It has also partnered with the National Research Council to develop world-class technology to test the condition of buried cables without damaging them. It’s now marketing its innovation to other utility companies in Canada and the United States.

As well, Hydro Ottawa is just coming out with a new mobile app that will make it easier for its 324,000 customers to pay their bills and be alerted of power outages.

The most challenging part of Mr. Conrad’s job is not power failures, however. He has complete faith in his team “to be able to pull it together and do what they need to do” to fix those problems.

Rather, his biggest concern is figuring out how to replace his aging workforce. The company is riding a tidal wave of retirements, with more than 60 per cent of its tradespeople scheduled to leave within the next few years.

Hydro Ottawa is working closely with Algonquin College’s Powerline Technician program to hire new workers.

“You can replace the bodies, but you can’t replace the corporate knowledge that’s going out the door at the same time,” Mr. Conrad notes.

In his free time, the 46-year-old married father of three remains devoted to his daughters: Hayley, 14, Madison, 12, and Avery, 10. He keeps busy driving them to their skiing, swimming and paddling races.

“I live vicariously through them,” says Mr. Conrad.

There haven’t been many career disappointments along the way. Well, maybe one.

“My goal in life was to retire when I was 35. That obviously didn’t work out so well,” he says with a smile.

Five things to know about Bryce Conrad

  1. He went to the same high school, Kingston Collegiate & Vocational Institute, as the members of The Tragically Hip. The musicians had just graduated when Mr. Conrad started there, but they returned to play regularly at his school dances and he’s been a lifelong fan of the band.
  2. He loves classic hip-hop music and listens to it “all the time and very loudly” in the car.
  3. He requires a daily dose of news about the U.S. president. “I’m fixated on the car wreck that is Donald Trump.”
  4. He sits on the boards of United Way Ottawa and The Ottawa Hospital Foundation. He’s also a volunteer board member with his daughters’ ski racing club at Mont Ste. Marie.
  5. When Mr. Conrad was young, he wanted to grow up to be a hockey player (“like every Canadian kid”) and then a lawyer (“that sounded like something my parents would want me to be”).