Telfer alumna Kathryn Tremblay on turning 'dark moments' into opportunities

CEO of the Year Fireside Chat hosted by Telfer School of Management in partnership with Ottawa Business Journal, Ottawa Board of Trade
tremblay
Kathryn Tremblay, CEO and co-founder of excelHR and Altis Recruitment
Editor's Note

OBJ.social is supported by the generous patronage of Mark Motors and Marilyn Wilson Dream Properties. Read their stories here.

It’s a wonder how Kathryn Tremblay finds any free time but, when she does, the award-winning business leader likes to get her steps in. All 15,000 of them.

So, let that be a warning, should she ever invite you on a walking meeting to discuss business or other matters. 

“I was a victim of one of those walks,” Stéphane Brutus, dean of the Telfer School of Management, said good-humouredly on stage during the business school’s CEO of the Year Fireside Chat with Kathryn Tremblay, held Tuesday morning at the University of Ottawa's Desmarais Building. “After three hours, we came back and I was like, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to wear different shoes next time’. But, it was great conversation.”

Tremblay is the CEO and co-founder of excelHR and Altis Recruitment and its affiliated recruitment and staffing agencies — Altis Technology and excellTR. The alumna of uOttawa has more than 30 years' experience running her business. She's also a mentor and coach to young people and is the recipient of the 2021 Trudeau Medal, the highest honour given by the Telfer School of Management to its graduates.

tremblay
Kathryn Tremblay, 2021 CEO of the Year, on stage with Stéphane Brutus, dean of the Telfer School of Management, at a breakfast event held at the University of Ottawa on Tuesday, April 12, 2022. Photo by Caroline Phillips

The bilingual event included Eric Lathrop, a partner with executive recruitment firm Boyden, which sponsors the CEO of the Year award handed out annually by the OBJ and Ottawa Board of Trade. University of Ottawa president Jacques Frémont attended while OBJ publisher Michael Curran, who's recovering from COVID, made a virtual appearance at the hybrid event.

Tremblay's authentic self shone through, like the bright morning sunshine that filled the room. She spoke about her humble entrepreneurial beginnings. She and her late husband, Toni Guimarães, gradually grew their company into what it is today through hard work and perseverance.

Excel/Altis, which is a recognized leader in the delivery of recruitment and staffing services in Canada, has 220 employees, more than 2,000 temp workers, and combined sales of about $165 million.

tremblay
From left, Stéphane Brutus, dean of the Telfer School of Management at the University of Ottawa, with Kathryn Tremblay, 2021 CEO of the Year, and Eric Lathrop, partner at executive recruitment firm Boyden, at the CEO of the Year Fireside Chat held Tuesday, April 12, 2022, at uOttawa's Desmarais Building. Photo by Caroline Phillips 

Tremblay, 54, touched on a number of timely HR topics, including her own efforts to weed out systemic racism in the workforce, the challenges of employee retention, the Great Reshuffle, and the demand for more flexible work. “That old way that I was raised, where your bum’s in the seat from eight in the morning until five o’clock, and maybe your boss is standing over you, that’s just gone.”

She dished out solid advice to the students, including her suggestion that they start early in making connections through such social networking sites as LinkedIn.

Tremblay is the proud mother of four daughters and is soon to become a grandmother. “I want to be that kind of cool chick grandma, rocking the CEO scene and wearing a little too much lipstick,” she joked.

While the chief executive exudes positivity and joy, she's faced her share of hurdles — most tragically with the loss of Guimarães to cancer in 2016. There were other challenges, too. Back when they started their family, she returned to the business within a week of having each baby. More recently, Tremblay had to lay off hundreds of people at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Her business was able to bounce back by retaining most of its existing customers while landing new contracts and gaining a strong foothold in such markets as construction and health care. 

On the topic of resilience, Tremblay was honest. “I'm not going to pretend that there aren't days when I sometimes don't feel the weight of it; I have my days," she acknowledged. 

Tremblay said she’s always forced herself to be bold, to be confident and to push through. She’s not afraid to ask for help, either. “I’m very open to saying, ‘I need you’, and people show up, because we all show up for each other.”

Tremblay also said she's a better boss today because of what she's been through. “My biggest opportunities for growth have been in the biggest dark moments.”

In speaking about the support she's received from her family, Tremblay made special mention of her mother's optimism as having "really made a difference" in her life.

Tremblay also talked about how her definition of success has changed over the years. "When I was younger, I thought success was maybe your job title or your office or your big black chair or maybe financial status," said the self-made entrepreneur, who grew up in the east-end suburb of Orléans. These days, her focus is more on happiness "and how we show up in the world and how we're being the best we can be."

The breakfast ended with a standing ovation as the dean presented Tremblay with a yoga mat — the perfect gift for such a feel-good morning of female empowerment and leadership.

tremblay
From left, Stéphane Brutus, dean of the Telfer School of Management, with University of Ottawa president Jacques Frémont, guest speaker Kathryn Tremblay, and John Ouellette, executive director of strategic philanthropy at the University of Ottawa, at the CEO of the Year Fireside Chat with Kathryn Tremblay, held Tuesday, April 12, 2022. Photo by Caroline Phillips
tremblay
Avery Hughes, a human resources management student at the Telfer School of Management, with Stephen Daze, Dom Herrick Entrepreneur in Residence and Visiting Professor, and Telfer School of Management student Colby Farrell, part of the executive team with the student-led Entrepreneurs'​ Club (TECDE Ottawa), at the CEO of the Year Fireside Chat with Kathryn Tremblay. Photo by Caroline Phillips 
tremblay
excelHR and Altis Recruitment CEO and co-founder Kathryn Tremblay is joined by team members Irfan Ahmed (excellTR), Ameera Girgis (Altis Recruitment) and, on the far right, recent Telfer grad Priya Aduvala (excellTR) at the CEO of the Year Fireside Chat with Kathryn Tremblay, held Tuesday, April 12, 2022. Photo by Caroline Phillips
tremblay
University of Ottawa president Jacques Frémont during the Q&A at the CEO of the Year Fireside Chat with Kathryn Tremblay, held Tuesday, April 12, 2022. Photo by Caroline Phillips
Tremblay
Caroline Xavier, associate deputy minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, during the Q&A at the CEO of the Year Fireside Chat with Kathryn Tremblay, held Tuesday, April 12, 2022. Photo by Caroline Phillips
tremblay
Cheryl Qi, assistant professor of finance at the Telfer School of Business, during the Q&A at the CEO of the Year Fireside Chat with Kathryn Tremblay, held Tuesday, April 12, 2022 at the University of Ottawa's Desmarais Building. Photo by Caroline Phillips
tremblay
Stephanie Moyana, incoming co-president for the student-run Women in Management Network at the Telfer School of Management, during the Q&A at the CEO of the Year Fireside Chat with Kathryn Tremblay, held Tuesday, April 12, 2022. Photo by Caroline Phillips
tremblay
From left, Fiby Labib, Salma Maghrbi and Geneviève Séguin, events manager with Telfer School of Management, at the CEO of the Year Fireside Chat held Tuesday, April 12, 2022, at the University of Ottawa's Desmarais Building. Photo by Caroline Phillips 

caroline@obj.ca