What on earth do you do when it comes time to host Ottawa’s most prestigious business awards gala and everyone’s stuck at home because of the coronavirus pandemic?
Just follow the excellent example set by smart local business leaders: keep your chin up, show some grit and – above all – prove you can quickly adapt.
That’s exactly what the Ottawa Board of Trade and the Ottawa Business Journal did in producing the 2020 Best Ottawa Business Awards, more colloquially known as the BOBs. The online and live broadcast aired Wednesday night on Rogers TV. Mark Sutcliffe from 1310 News/Rogers TV paired up with another Rogers Media star, Sandra Plagakis from KiSS FM, to host the fast-paced, ultra-smooth show. There were no “air high fives” or “elbow bumps” for these hosts; they socially distanced the entire time.
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The virtual event celebrated more than 25 local companies. It featured interesting interviews and insights shared by such key recipients as John Sicard of Kinaxis, 2020 CEO of the Year; Julie Morin of Minto Apartment REIT and Minto Group, 2020 CFO of the Year; former Cognos CEO Rob Ashe, winner of the 2020 Lifetime Achievement Award; and 2020 Newsmaker of the Year award winner Shopify, which was represented by Harley Finkelstein, who was recently promoted to president.
Returning as presenting sponsor was the University of Ottawa’s Telfer School of Management. Among its distinguished alumni are award winners Morin, Ashe and Shopify’s Finkelstein.
Ottawa Board of Trade president and CEO Sueling Ching commended this year’s recipients for their innovation, excellence and resilience.
“You are the drivers of our community and our economy, and we are so grateful for your ingenuity and tenacity,” she said.
The hosts, speaking from The Westin hotel’s scenic TwentyTwo rooftop venue, were quick to point out what an “exceedingly difficult year” it’s been for many in the business community.
“But, there are also many who have adapted, who have pivoted and done a fantastic job creating new revenue, creating new jobs, and those are the companies that we’re going to be celebrating tonight,” said Sutcliffe.
The Lifetime Achievement Award recognizes Ashe’s success in business as former CEO of Cognos, along with his deep roots in the community. Among the organizations to have benefitted from his generosity are the University of Ottawa, The Ottawa Hospital, Boys and Girls Club, the Royal Ottawa Foundation and YMCA. As well, he’s been on the board of Shopify since 2015 and has served as a business mentor to many.
Jim Durrell and Roger Greenberg, both former recipients of the same award, also paid tribute to Ashe, via video.
To appreciate how far the software industry has come, one only had to hear Ashe tell Sutcliffe about his early days at Cognos, before the company became a global powerhouse in the 1980s and ‘90s. Cognos, a business intelligence software leader, was eventually acquired by IBM in 2008 for $4.9 billion.
“When I look back on it, I think about having to explain to people what software was,” said Ashe, who joked about how his mother got the word confused with Tupperware, the popular go-to for leftovers. “Software was new. People didn’t understand what it was. It’s hard to imagine that, 35 years later when software is running the world but, back then, this was a whole new thing.”
Ashe recalled the days in 1986 when Cognos became a public company, trading on the Toronto Stock Exchange, and how they “struggled to explain to people how we could drive profit and drive growth and what it all meant.
“So, I think the team back then was pretty innovative and pretty disruptive, just like today’s disruptors are but in a different context,” said Ashe, who described Cognos founder and former CEO Michael Potter as “the brains behind the whole thing.”
Ashe said he remains proud to have worked with thousands of others at the Riverside Drive headquarters on a concept that was so cutting-edge at the time.
“What we were kind of zealots and revolutionaries for is now second nature. That’s kind of interesting.”
Later in the interview, Ashe told Sutcliffe that he doesn’t mind – and sometimes even plays along – when people confuse him with his brother, Bernie*, who’s equally involved in the community and was named Ottawa’s CEO of the Year in 2015. It was his brother, in fact, who recommended Ashe for his first job at Cognos in 1984.
“I’ve always credited some of whatever success you might say that I’ve had to Bernie and, throughout our careers, with either him calling me or me calling him, we were always in similar situations as finance guys and CEOs heavily involved in the business community, heavily involved in philanthropy, locally. If I had an issue, he was the first guy on my speed dial to talk about, you know, common-sense issues.”
A special shout out to the video camera operator for including wide footage of Sutcliffe’s interview with Ashe, for it allowed viewers not only to check out the hotel venue’s superb view of Parliament Hill but also Ashe’s stylish sneakers and striking purple socks.
One of the most endearing moments of the night was when Finkelstein – during his remote interview with Sutcliffe – enthusiastically whipped out his framed front page of an Ottawa Business Journal newspaper from 2013. It featured him, a quickly rising star at the time, as that year’s Newsmaker of the Year.
“This hangs on the wall of my office,” said Finkelstein, while telling Sutcliffe how “really cool” it feels to see Shopify win the award seven years later.
He dedicated Shopify’s award to the more than one million entrepreneurs who use the company’s online platform to boost their sales, and who have prospered because of it.
“Shopify is successful when the merchants and the entrepreneurs and small businesses that use Shopify are successful, and this has been – for a lot of them – a pretty amazing year.”
He recognized that, when it comes to weathering the pandemic storm, not every business finds itself in the same boat.
“But, if you are surviving, maybe even thriving, find others that you can bring along with you,” said the sought-after mentor. “This community is only strong when all of us pull each other up, and I think that’s what makes Ottawa so unique.”
The show opened on an exciting note with a powerful tribute to the business community by Jamaal Jackson Rogers, Ottawa’s former English-language poet laureate.
The one-hour broadcast was followed by a virtual after-party, hosted by OBJ publisher Michael Curran and Ching and featuring such talent as artist Chantal Hackett singing I Will Survive. What was once a disco classic sounded, in these crazy times, almost like a pandemic anthem.
2020 Best Ottawa Business Awards recipients:
- Agile Work Evolutions
- Beau’s Brewing
- Broccolini and Amazon
- Giatec Scientific
- Kettleman’s Bagel Co.
- Kinaxis and Rubikloud
- Little Ray’s Nature Centre
- MDS Aero Support Corp.
- Ottawa Tourism
- Pallium Canada
- ROCK Networks
- Sign Language Interpreting Associates Ottawa Inc.
- Solink and OMERS Ventures
- The National Arts Centre and RBC Bluesfest
* I’m guilty of having done this on one occasion.