Successfully steering a business through rocky waters is nothing new for Kathryn Tremblay.
The co-founder and CEO of Ottawa-based excelHR launched her entrepreneurial career more than 30 years ago, building an operation so thin on capital it couldn’t afford a fax machine into a series of firms that are among the country’s leading staffing and recruitment agencies.
More recently, Tremblay’s steady, inspired leadership during the pandemic has helped propel the companies to new heights, earning her the 2021 CEO of the Year Award from OBJ and the Ottawa Board of Trade.
ExcelHR and its affiliated companies – Altis Recruitment, Altis Technology and excelITR – managed to reverse the devastating impacts of the pandemic that saw hundreds of its placements lose their jobs practically overnight.
Under Tremblay’s steady hand, the firms retained most of their existing customers while landing new contracts and gaining a stronger foothold in niche markets such as construction and health care.
As a result, the Altis-excelHR group of companies are on track to place more than 8,000 workers across Canada in 2021, and the firms’ combined revenues are expected to surpass $150 million, exceeding pre-COVID levels.
'Steely nerves and compassion'
But Tremblay has also shown leadership in other ways during a tumultuous period that has tested the physical and mental well-being of workers across the country.
For example, Altis-excelHR introduced measures such as “digital detox days” to its more than 115 direct employees. The companies also launched programming aimed at helping clients navigate through pandemic-related challenges, including webinars on topics such as mental wellness in the workplace.
OBJ publisher Michael Curran said Tremblay’s dedication to her employees and commitment to the companies she’s built have never wavered.
“Her industry was hard hit by the pandemic and she responded with steely nerves and compassion for her team,” Curran said. “Kathryn showed real leadership in responding to what was an unprecedented situation with COVID-19. That included tightening the relationship with key clients, opening the lines of communication with staff and even reaching out to new Canadians with internships.”
Eric Lathrop, managing partner at executive search firm Boyden Canada and a member of this year’s judging panel, called Tremblay an “important voice” in Ottawa’s business community.
“Her poise and perseverance are an example to us all of what is possible when a leader sets ambitious goals and steadfastly pursues them,” he said.
'A lot of trust'
Tremblay, 54, said the award is a testament to the hard work of employees at Altis-excelHR’s six offices in Ottawa, the GTA and Western Canada.
“There’s been a lot of shared loyalty among our team members,” she told OBJ. “There’s a lot of trust, and I think that’s one of the reasons that we were able to navigate the pandemic. The truth is it’s not CEO of the Year – it’s the team of the year. We came together as a team.”
The mother of four said she and excelHR co-founder Antonio Guimarães – who eventually became her life partner and died of prostate cancer five years ago – started the business with “as nothing as it gets” in 1989.
“It definitely was a risk,” she said, recalling how she and Guimarães would drop off resumes in a “beat-up old Chevy” because they didn’t have enough cash to buy a fax machine. “Not very many people are that keen on investing in two young people who don’t really have a proven track record.”
Clearly, those risks have paid off for Tremblay, who said she was “honoured” to be singled out for this year’s award.
“This is a pretty great city, so to think that I was able to (be named CEO of the Year) just feels really special.”
The CEO of the Year award is part of the Best Ottawa Business Awards – better known as the BOBs – which are presented annually at a fall gala.
Tremblay and other notable local business leaders will receive this year’s awards in late November. The CEO of the Year is expected to receive the award at a VIP cocktail on Nov. 19. The full slate of awards will be highlighted during an online and television broadcast co-produced with Rogers tv on Nov. 25.