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Getting the Ottawa Board of Trade off on the right foot

How Stratford Group helped build a new three-year strategic plan

Colleen Kelley
Colleen Kelley

When the Ottawa’s three chambers of commerce merged in 2018 to create a single Board of Trade, it marked a brand-new beginning, despite more than 160 years of history.

“Really we were like a startup, because we are embarking on a new mission and that required us to have a new plan,” said Sueling Ching, the Ottawa Board of Trade’s president and CEO. “Even before the pandemic, we were living in a period of unprecedented change that demanded Ottawa’s business community have a single strong voice for the future.”

But how best to achieve that “voice” when you represent such a diverse group of businesses in the National Capital Region?

The Ottawa Board of Trade’s vision and mandate to drive economic prosperity and help businesses to launch, adapt and grow must be responsive to shifting trends in global trade, new technology and how we engage in a digital world.

“These challenges, and how they make the case for local businesses to be represented by a single voice, have only been amplified by the pandemic,” Ching said. 

Time for a fresh perspective

The Ottawa Board of Trade didn’t lack for input, experience and insight to set itself on the right course. A high-power executive team benefited from the guidance of a transitional board that included 22 community and business leaders.

This created the opportunity to chart a new strategic direction.

“We had completed our transition, elected our first official board of directors and prioritized our role and responsibilities to our members,” Ching said. “The last piece of the puzzle was to create a new strategic plan to ensure optimal impact in the next three years. We realized how important it was to have an objective, outside perspective to assist with that.”

“The result was a stronger plan than I had expected, and a validation of our mission, vision and values.”

This led the Board of Trade to Stratford Group.

Stratford is a local management consultancy that has deep roots in the community with a spirit and a drive to give back. Its multidisciplinary team of seasoned business advisors brought to the table strategic thinking, hands-on experience and an extensive professional network.

It also had something more.

“Right from the beginning, the Stratford team expressed a desire to align with our goals,” Ching said. “They balanced respect and professionalism with the confidence to challenge our assumptions and biases, including my own. The result was a stronger plan than I had expected, and a validation of our mission, vision and values.”

The power of an open ear

Speak to and listen to as many people as possible – that proved to be the key to success, said Colleen Kelley. She is president of Stratford Management Consulting, the Stratford Group team that worked with the Board of Trade.

“The framework we used is pretty consistent with all our strategy engagements and very quickly we developed a great working relationship with the OBoT team,” Kelley said. “We begin with a discovery phase to gauge the current state of affairs.”

But the heavy lifting comes with the solicitation, to gain input from stakeholders that include the board of directors and staff, Ottawa businesses and economic development partners.

“For this engagement, we reached more than 120 people for input,” Kelley added. “They represented different industry sectors, market verticals and business sizes, and included members and non-members of the Board of Trade. This cross-section of perspectives was fascinating and really informed our strategy.”

Prepared for the future

Kelley’s team included consultants versed in economic development, stakeholder engagement and strategy development.

“In my view, that team approach leads to a better end product, particularly when you are engaged in a process as iterative as this one,” Kelley said. 

The outcome is a new strategic plan with clear pillars, priorities and performance measures. Ching is certain the Ottawa Board of Trade is now well-positioned to serve the best interests of its vast membership for years to come.

“I never felt that Stratford was working for us, but that we were in it together,” she said. “Colleen and her team weren’t just objective; they were invested and saw the importance of making it the best plan possible. We now have a great plan, to help the local economy and our members survive and rebound from the pandemic.”

“It’s an exciting prospect to see how the Board of Trade will advocate for economic growth in Ottawa,” added Kelley. “I am proud of the work that we have done.”

Learn more about Stratford Group at