Meet Jim Taggart: 2021's Lifetime Achievement Award winner

Mark Sutcliffe interviews Jim Taggart, the chair of the Taggart Group of Companies and the 2021 Lifetime Achievement Award recipient for the Ottawa Business Journal and Ottawa Board of Trade.

When Jim Taggart was a kid, there was no yellow school bus waiting to greet him after class. He got picked up by a fuel truck.

It would drive the 13-year-old boy to his father’s machine shop, where he would spend the rest of his day working until it was time for him and his dad to head home for dinner. 

“The driver of the fuel truck was a fellow by the name of Robbie,” recalled Taggart, 79, during an interview at the head office of the Taggart Group of Companies in Ottawa’s south end.

It was always expected that Taggart, who worked during his summers as a mechanic in the shop, would one day get his engineering degree from Carleton University and join the small construction business started by his father in 1948.

And that’s exactly what he did.

“I never really thought about doing anything else,” said Taggart, who quite enjoyed working with engines, motors and pumps. “I had a mechanical interest and background, and that’s the career path I followed.”

On Nov. 25, the second-generation entrepreneur will be honoured with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Ottawa Board of Trade and Ottawa Business Journal. The presentation will take place during the Best Ottawa Business Awards, colloquially known as The BOBs. The awards program will have a small invite-only reception on Nov. 19 followed by a live broadcast on Nov. 25.

For more than 25 years, Taggart has been chairman of the Taggart Group of Companies, a major force in the construction and real estate industry in Ottawa, Kingston and Eastern Ontario. The enterprise group, which employs more than 600 people, consists of Taggart Construction, Doran Contractors, Taggart Realty Management, Tamarack Homes and its recent acquisition, Tartan Homes. 

Taggart is the eldest of seven kids born in 1942 to Harold and Muriel Taggart. He was soon joined by Martha and younger brothers Tom, Ian, Keith, Paul and Chris. Only Paul is no longer here, having passed away three years ago. 

Taggart remembers his mom, who lived to be nearly 90, as having a knack for “making you feel like you were the only person in the world”. His dad, who died in 1992 at age 75, had more of a “rough and tough exterior” but, he added, was a softie on the inside. 

“Both my parents were quite family orientated,” said Taggart, who has fond childhood memories of skiing in the winter months and of spending time at their family cottage on Big Rideau Lake.

“The cottage was my father’s pride and joy,” said Taggart while remembering how his dad would get him and his siblings out of bed by 8 a.m. for breakfast, followed by chores until lunchtime. “Then, we were off the hook and could do our own thing.”

Taggart grew up in the Island Park Drive area. As the family expanded, so did his childhood home at 506 Mayfair Ave. It was one of several houses that Harold built in the area in the 1940s. 

Taggart credits his parents with teaching him and his siblings to always put family first, to take care of one another, and to keep the family close. “It’s been our guiding principle, established by my parents,” said Taggart, who believes his greatest contribution to the company has been helping everyone to get along.

“Make sure that you don’t sweat the small stuff. If you start picking on the faults of your family members that work with you, you’re going to be in trouble before very long.” 

As with all families, there have been disagreements and personality clashes, acknowledged Taggart. “We work it out.”

In 1974, at the relatively young age of 58, Harold sold his business, which originally specialized in sewer and road construction, to sons Jim and Ian, along with son-in-law Dave Parkes, who married Martha. The men would lead the company in its expansion. Paul and Chris came on board once they completed their schooling. Tom, who became a partner at Gowlings, started working for the Taggart Group after he reached mandatory retirement age at his law firm. Similarly, Keith of Hurley’s, Hooters and Hard Rock Cafe fame, joined later on. 

The Taggart and Parkes clan is well known for its philanthropy. The family made an historic donation of $2 million, followed later by another $1 million, to the local YMCA-YWCA as part of a major capital campaign led by Jim and Keith. 

Earlier this year, Taggart’s niece, Michelle, vice president of planning and development at Tamarack Homes, announced on behalf of the family’s foundation a $1.4 million donation to BGC Ottawa for its new clubhouse in the south end. Michelle also volunteers as a board member with the non-profit organization.

“Our business has always been primarily a family business,” said Taggart. “We never were driven, I don’t think, to squeeze the last nickel out of every deal we did. We thought it was more important to build a business that the family could all live on and that was able to give back to the community.

“I think if you’ve had a good life made available to you, you should give back.”

The family business was expanded early on so that each of the second-generation leaders ran their own company or division. They set it up as an equal partnership with the idea that, regardless of which division they were each running, they would all be working together toward a common goal and could share equally in the profits.

With a family of seven siblings, plus their spouses, it didn’t take long until the Taggart and Parkes offspring began to outnumber every other business family in Ottawa. The third generation consists of 24 members, of which half work together at the Taggart Group.

One of the reasons why the Taggart Group works well as a family business is due to the structure that’s been put in place for ownership and succession planning, said Taggart. 

Family members wanting to join a division as an owner or manager are required to first get a university education, followed by a minimum of five years' work experience outside the family business. 

Once that family member has worked hard and demonstrated their ability to contribute to the business, there’s an assessment process conducted by the current owners to decide if and when that family member should be invited into the ownership group, said Taggart. In other words, rising to the top is about competency, not nepotism.

The company also has in place various rules and guidelines to reduce potential for conflict. For example, there’s a mandatory retirement from ownership of the operating companies at age 65, at which point the partners start getting bought out by the other owners. Retired partners are invited to sit on the advisory board to the current ownership group to ensure smooth transition of the business and family values.

Taggart has been serving as chairman of the Taggart Group since 1995 and retired from the day-to-day business in 2007 at the age of 65. He has no plans of stepping down as chairman or from the advisory board “until they kick me out, I guess”.

Taggart expressed approval toward the direction that the company is heading. The group has twice been named in the Top 20 Contractors in Canada by On-Site Magazine.

“It’s always hard to give up the reins and to think that anyone else can do it as well as you did but, certainly, the business has expanded and grown and has been very successful under the current leadership.”

Two of Taggart’s three children are in leadership positions. His son, Mike, is president of Taggart Construction and Doran Contractors while youngest daughter Julie, who's also a board member with The Ottawa Hospital Foundation and Christie Lake Kids, is co-president of Taggart Realty Management. His eldest, Patti, an early childhood educator, runs her own retail store, Tag Along Toys.

Taggart was married for 43 years to Judy, who passed away in the spring of 2009 from ovarian cancer. Not long after, Jane Panet also lost her husband, Ottawa judge Jean-Antoine de Lotbinière Panet. 

Taggart had known Jane from his Carleton University days and from years of socializing together as couples, particularly at Mont Ste. Marie ski resort. In June 2011, the pair got married. “I said, 'I think I better grab that girl because I know her well enough that we can get along',” Taggart quipped.

Reflecting back on his career, Taggart singled out the building of the Acres Road Pumping Station as the project he’s most proud of. “It was a difficult but rewarding job,” said Taggart while proving the old saying, ‘once an engineer, always an engineer’ to be true as he described in some detail how they were able to complete the project, despite challenging soil conditions. 

As for the future of the Taggart Group, it’s still too early to say whether there will be a fourth generation of leadership, he said. “We’ll see. I hope so. I hope so.”