‘I wanted to do more and I wanted to do it better’

Three decades on, CEO Kathryn Tremblay writes new chapter for excelHR
Kathryn Tremblay
Kathryn Tremblay is the CEO of excelHR. Photo by Caroline Phillips.
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When CEO Kathryn Tremblay first co-founded recruitment and staffing company excelHR, jobs were still being posted in newspapers, the Rolodex ruled the desk and resumes got banged out on typewriters.

So financially strapped were she and her business partner that they filled their shared office space with discarded furniture and would often drive door-to-door to drop candidates’ resumes off by hand because it was cheaper than courier service. 

Tremblay, 21, and Antonio Guimarães, 23, worked night and day to stay ahead of the game and to become leaders in their field. They hardly made money their first year but what profits they did turn were invested back into the Ottawa-based business.

That was 1989.

Some 31 years later, the company is a recognized leader in the delivery of recruitment and staffing services in Canada, both to the private and government sectors. ExcelHR and its affiliated companies – excelITR, altisHR, Altis Technology and Altis Professional Recruitment – hit $140 million in revenue last year. 

Altis-excelHR attracts qualified job-seekers in the fields of administrative support, information technology and professional services, particularly with the placing of senior professionals in executive contract roles.

The company has 2,000 contractors on assignment every day. It runs seven offices, including two in Western Canada, three in the GTA and two in Ottawa. It employs more than 175 people.

Altis-excelHR has been recognized 14 times as a winner of Canada’s Best Managed Companies program. 

Entrepreneurial spirit

One thing you should know about Tremblay is she loves work.

“It’s a passion,” she says during an interview at excelHR’s Bank Street headquarters in downtown Ottawa. “I see work as play. I see work as fun. I’m privileged to go to work.”

Tremblay, 52, grew up in suburban Orléans back when it was still rural countryside. Her father Terry worked for the federal government while her mother, Lorraine, stayed home to raise her and her two brothers. 

All three kids became successful entrepreneurs.

“My parents encouraged us to really chase our dreams,” says Tremblay.

It was her mother who taught her the power of gratitude. She describes her mom as “one of the happiest people I’ve ever met.” One could easily say the same thing about Tremblay.

At age 16, Tremblay borrowed one of her mom’s suits, boarded a public transit bus bound for downtown and got herself a student position doing administrative jobs for a staffing company. 

It was there that she met and befriended Guimarães, with whom she shared an entrepreneurial spirit. Their business partnership eventually evolved into a life partnership, as well. They would later have four children, all girls.

“The first decade was all climb,” says Tremblay of how they built capital and used their retained earnings for growth. On the side, she also earned her commerce degree at the University of Ottawa.

The company next worked on cementing its growth, adding new business practices and expanding to more locations. Former vice-president and regional director Tara Azulay, who went on to co-found Clariti Group, helped the company break into the Toronto market.

Meanwhile, Tremblay and Guimarães led remarkably busy lives, managing their business and raising their girls. They relied on spreadsheets to keep track of their kids’ many activities. 

Tremblay’s daughters – Morgan, 23, Brooklyn, 21, Torey, 17, and Camryn, 13 – remain the most important people in her life.

"When Toni passed away, it was like recreating the business and recreating myself. I asked myself, ‘What can the business be now? What’s possible for our business now?'"

Guimarães, 51, passed away four years ago this September. He’d been good at overcoming the odds, having gone from underprivileged childhood to achieving great things, including a Canada’s Top 40 Under 40 award. Unfortunately, his advanced prostate cancer diagnosis was unbeatable. He died two years and three months after his diagnosis.

What Tremblay did next was take a tragic situation and make the best of it.

“I lost his passion and knowledge and inspiration, but I also gained something,” she says.

What she gained was a desire to bring about change as she continued to lead the company, riding solo this time. She focused on modernizing the work environment, improving client and employee satisfaction as well as evolving the company brand.

She’s also spending time giving back and has mentored more than 25 young women from Ottawa as they transition from high school to university or university to the workforce.

“When Toni passed away, it was like recreating the business and recreating myself,” she explains. “I was no longer in a partnership, both professionally and personally. I asked myself, ‘What can the business be now? What’s possible for our business now?’”

“In that context of exploring ‘What’s possible,’ it changed so much for me. It made the business more real and more meaningful. I wanted to do more and I wanted to do it better.

“I miss Toni at work and at home. Today, though, I look ahead, and I try not to look back too much,” she says, adding that she continues to prioritize building an even stronger company as well as her physical and mental health. “I'm focused on ... making a difference to our communities across Canada, having a positive impact on mental wellness and coaching young people to find the right path.”

Five things to know about Kathryn Tremblay

  1. She celebrates her favourite holiday, Canada Day, with a festive barbeque at her family’s cottage on Big Rideau Lake. “I love this country so much,” she says. 
  2. She had a life-long fear of dogs until she got one five years years ago, beginning with their Bernedoodle named Jettson, followed by their cockapoo named Violet. They’re now both an essential part of the family.
  3. Among the many things she’s grateful for is the invention of the vehicle GPS navigation system. She used to get lost a lot. “Nothing would stress me out but I’d be super stressed about having to drive to a neighbourhood I’d ever been to.”
  4. She remains loyal to those businesses that were there for her at the start, including the Royal Bank of Canada. It gave her and Guimarães a $750 youth venture loan in 1989.
  5. Tremblay has mentored more than 25 young women from Ottawa as they transition from high school to university or university to the workforce. She thinks young people should consider a career in entrepreneurship. “Being a business owner is fulfilling,” she says. “I would say start in something you love and look at a way of perfecting it.”