Ottawa's Fastest Growing Companies: Pared-down business model spurs growth at Keynote Group

Keynote Group
New Keynote Group executive Brad Ezard (left) with co-founder James Baker. Photo by Mark Holleron

Each year, OBJ recognizes the region’s rapidly growing firms with its Fastest Growing Companies awards. The aim is to honour the city’s top performers for substantial, sustainable and profitable growth. Recipients are ranked by their three-year revenue growth. They must have had revenues of at least $100,000 in the first of those three years under consideration. Revenues must have risen to at least $500,000 in their most recent fiscal year. The companies will be profiled online in the coming days and recognized at a cocktail reception on May 23 at Kanata co-working space Head Office Ottawa. Click here for info.

Despite enjoying revenue growth most other companies can only dream of, the founders of the Keynote Group took a good, long look in the mirror last year and determined big changes were in order.

It’s not that the husband-and wife team of James and Donna Baker weren’t proud of what they’d accomplished at the HR and recruiting firm they launched in 2015. The agency had just soared to the top of OBJ’s fastest-growing companies list in 2018 with three-year revenue growth of almost 1,000 per cent and had grown to nearly 20 employees.

But the Bakers felt the company’s top-line numbers weren’t telling the whole story. After analyzing their entire business with a critical eye, they made the tough call to jettison most of its service lines ​– including the HR component ​– and focus on what they felt the company did best: finding and placing senior executives.

“As we grew, we tried a lot of things,” says James, the agency’s CEO. “A lot of things worked, which was terrific. Some things didn’t work.​”

Keynote Group

Year founded: 2015

Local headcount: 15

Three-year revenue growth: 299.41%

2019 ranking: #4

While it might seem like the move to pare down the HR and executive search firm’s service lines as it was growing at warp speed was a case of messing with a good thing, James believes it will pay off in the long run.

“Now we know what we’re good at and now we’re focusing on what we’re actually good at. We’re going to double down on that, and I think that will allow us to reach the next level.”

Today’s Keynote is a leaner operation, with a headcount of 15. While the former HR practice is gone, the firm has bolstered its team in other areas.

Last fall, Keynote brought in M&A expert Brad Ezard, a former corporate lawyer at the high-powered firm of Latham & Watkins in Washington, D.C., to serve as its head of business operations. In January, 2018 Forty Under 40 recipient Kyle Turk joined the fold as vice-president of marketing. Along with veteran industrial psychologist Craig Dowden, they form a powerful triumvirate of talent in the Keynote C-suite.

“These are significant steps for us that we simply wouldn’t have been capable of doing last year,” James says of the new hires. “Last year was probably a combination of the most humbling, the most challenging, but also the most satisfying, because I think we’ve figured out who we’re going to be as a company.”

Keynote now works with about 125 clients, including some of Ottawa’s largest private and public enterprises.

Its role, James says, is not simply to find someone to occupy a C-suite. He believes some of Keynote’s most valuable work happens after an executive has been hired, when his team helps to ensure the new employee is a smooth fit with the organization.

To that end, Keynote is planning to roll out an executive coaching service. It’s also set to launch “mastermind groups” where the executives it has placed gather for two-day retreats to share their insights on leadership and receive individual coaching to help them get even better at their new roles.

James says research suggests up to half of all senior executive hires fail to click with their new employers. He says Keynote’s services are aimed at ensuring his clients don’t add to those statistics.

"Every day, I’m thinking about what are the things we need to do to give us the best chance of long-term success.”

“All of these tools that we can give them, the support to get the right approaches for every situation, means that they get up to speed a little bit quicker, which means they earn the trust of people a little bit quicker, which means they communicate a little bit better.”

While 80 per cent of its clients are located in Ottawa, Keynote’s growing client list includes companies in Toronto, Montreal and western Canada. James says he expects the share of out-of-town customers to double over the next couple of years, meaning Keynote will likely look at opening satellite offices in other cities.

“We’re still a small company,” he says. “We know 80 per cent of businesses fail within five years. So every day, I’m thinking about what are the things we need to do to give us the best chance of long-term success.”