'It’s about telling the world what a wonderful asset we’ve got'

After five years as head of Invest Ottawa, Bruce Lazenby vacated the CEO’s chair on June 30. The former high-tech executive became president and CEO of the agency then known as the Ottawa Centre for Regional Innovation in 2011, overseeing its rebranding to Invest Ottawa and presiding over a time of significant growth at the organization, which will move to its new headquarters in the Innovation Centre at Bayview Yards this fall.

A few days before his departure, Mr. Lazenby sat down with OBJ to talk about his achievements, where he thinks the organization is headed and his plans for the future. What follows is an edited transcript of that interview.

OBJ: Why did you decide to step down now?

BL: The easy answer is I originally signed a four-year contract because there’s a reason that presidents serve terms of four years. The reality is that these aren’t the kind of jobs you should be in for a career. You should come in, put your head down, work hard for some years and then hand it off like a relay runner to the next person. So that’s it. I stayed on one year later than I had originally planned, but now I think is the right time to go. I’m particularly delighted to do it now so the new person can come in to put their fingerprints on the Innovation Centre at Bayview Yards and get it tweaked up the way they want before they move in. And I get to work on my golf game a little bit over the summer, which is pretty good too.

OBJ: What are your emotions in your final week on the job?

BL: There are parts of this job that I’m really going to miss, and there’s parts of this job that I’m not going to miss. There’s a lot of small-p politics in the nature of this, and that hasn’t been my background. I’ve been a private-sector guy, so that was a little interesting. But the opportunity to make a difference that this job provides was really interesting. I got on more committees and got involved with more decision-makers than I could ever have any other way. I moved here after having had 33 different address changes in every province and territory in the country, (plus) time at sea and time in the Middle East and time in Europe. I chose Ottawa in 1989 after having seen literally dozens of other cities. It was really easy for me to sort of fill that role of VP sales for the city. To, in some small way, help make the city better was something that I really enjoyed. That was a great part of the job.

OBJ: What accomplishments over the past five years stand out?

BL: Early on, one of the things that I said was we need more venture capital in the city, so we recruited Code Cubitt to move here from the United States to launch a new fund (Mistral Venture Partners), which he’s done. That fund is now closed, and he’s looking at starting fund two. He’s made a dozen investments, most of which are in Ottawa, which I’m excited about. The Innovation Centre getting $15 million from the province and $15 million matching from the city was good. We wanted to make that happen. CENGN (Kanata’s Centre of Excellence for Next Generation Networks, which opened in 2014) was an Invest Ottawa initiative, which we launched, and for the first time ever, Ottawa won a centre of excellence opportunity. The CAPE award that we won in collaboration with Terry Matthews which led to L-Spark is another thing we’re very proud of. The ZDG (Chinese investment fund Zhongguancun Development Group) relationship – the first time we really got in a deep relationship with China and the massive opportunity that we’re seeing for Ottawa companies as they work that pipeline; I think that was a great step for us. The fact that we’ve got the four major post-secondaries working together on a joint co-op program I think is good.

Talent has been a real big preoccupation with us – how do we make sure that we attract and retain the best talent possible. A lot of that led to the Why Ottawa presentation. The reason I think that happened was because there’s a new sense of collaboration in the city. I remember five years ago, there was not a healthy relationship between the city and OCRI (and) the chamber of commerce. A lot of the startup community saw the programs that OCRI was running back in the day as being not relevant to what they were doing, so there was really not a spirit of working together. I think now in this city, if there’s one change that I’ve seen in the last five years, it’s been that real desire to work collaboratively. Invest Ottawa is not going to take a lot of credit for that – I think the mayor and council deserve a lot of credit. Now we’ve got a council that can make Lansdowne happen, can make LRT happen, can work with the NCC to get LeBreton in place.

OBJ: There’s a lot of competition for talent in today’s global economy. How can Ottawa do a better job of standing out in the crowd?

BL: I think the data is there. Now we just need to let people know about it. That’s something that we have launched; it will come out in the fall. It will be a program specifically targeted at bringing more technology talent to Ottawa. We’re going to be targeting specific cities in Canada and overseas where we think that we’re a better fit for some of that talent. How do we attract more people from other places? (Canada is) the most sought-after destination in the world, and I think working with Immigration Canada, we can find ways to make (Ottawa) more accessible. The reason I chose to live here after looking at 32 other places was because I know how great it is. We’ve just got to make sure that other people understand what is here, and that (requires) a significant marketing campaign. The reason that tourists should flock to Ottawa is the same reason that people should want to live here – for all the assets and beauty and the weather and everything else. It’s fantastic. We’re actively discussing opportunities to work together with Ottawa Tourism. What that’s going to shake out like, I’m not sure. But there’s a lot of goodwill on both sides.

OBJ: We talk a lot about technology and innovation in this city, but some people feel Invest Ottawa is too tech-centric. How do you respond to that criticism?

BL: People should not confuse technology and innovation. They’re different things. Innovation in restaurateuring, innovation in retail, innovation in all other service industries, is important. It’s all part of the talent attraction message. Innovation means things like Lansdowne Park and the fantastic organizations in there. Innovation means bringing a CFL team here and getting them to the Grey Cup in year two. One of the things, when I took over, was the focus became job-related. We looked at this and said, what do we need to do every day to help facilitate more job creation in the city? Innovation in any form is part of that.

OBJ: What would your message be to the leaders of the Innovation Centre to ensure that happens?

BL: My definition of innovation is creativity plus value. Being creative in and of itself isn’t enough. You’ve got to think about how you’re going to bring value to that. I believe most innovation is going to come from the intersection of previously disparate organizations. When health care meets social innovation meets technology, then I think we’re going to find some really innovative things happening. The Innovation Centre’s got the opportunity to bring various groups together. One of the things we don’t have at 80 Aberdeen (Invest Ottawa’s current headquarters) is a makerspace or a digital media lab. People are going to be meeting each other and talking about innovative opportunities in discussions that have never happened before.

OBJ: More than 1,000 startups have been incubated at Invest Ottawa. Are you happy with the sustainability they’ve shown so far, overall?

BL: It’s getting better and better. I think we invested in the concept of entrepreneurship some time ago, and now Ottawa is one of the most entrepreneurial cities in the country. We have 1,700 technology companies, 1,400 of which are less than 50 people. Now, I think we’re shifting gears into scaling these companies up. Having a thousand companies with less than 10 people is interesting, but how do we get more companies like Shopify, like Ross Video, like You.i, like Kinaxis, like Halogen Software, who grow up to be 500 people or a thousand people? I think that’s going to be the next challenge.

OBJ: What are your thoughts so far on the federal Liberals and their approach to innovation?

BL: I’ve been really encouraged by the attitude of the federal government. When they were elected, I was asked about the difference between the previous government and this government, and I said two monologues do not make a dialogue. I felt previously there was a lot of monologues, a lot of one-sided conversations. Now, there seems to be a real dialogue. In my meetings with ministers, there’s a real openness to understanding how we can work together.

OBJ: Some analysts have noted that instead of looking at competition among the province’s high-tech hubs as Waterloo vs. Ottawa vs. Toronto, for example, we should be finding more ways to work together and pool our strengths to compete as one cluster against other parts of the world. What are your thoughts on that approach?

BL: The competition is not Toronto or Waterloo. The competition is Boston, Barcelona, San Francisco, Tel Aviv. I’m very excited to hear the premier and other senior cabinet ministers talking about the Ontario technology super-corridor, which extends from Ottawa through Toronto and connecting with Waterloo. That makes sense. We’ve got about five times as many large ICT companies headquartered in Ottawa as they do in Waterloo, so really when you bring Ottawa to that mix, all of a sudden now we’re bigger than Silicon Valley.

OBJ: Do you look back and wish you’d done anything differently in the last five years?

BL: Not many regrets, but I do feel like we ran out of time on a few files, one of which is the opportunity to more deeply connect the universities and the city with the business sector. We’ve got 120,000 students here at four great public-sector institutions and Willis College, which is a private college that has a lot to add to the city. I think there’s another gear available to fine-tune those connections. If you look at the Why Ottawa presentation, there’s still more wins we can have, still more we can do. I’m really excited to see what my successor’s going to do and where they’re going to take this place.

OBJ: In that vein, do have any words of wisdom or advice for the next person who sits in that chair?

BL: Enjoy the job. It’s a wonderful job, and I think that subtitle of VP sales is something that I think the next CEO should wear with pride. It’s about telling the world what a wonderful asset we’ve got and then making sure that we continue to grow that asset and make it as shiny as possible.

OBJ: I know you’ve got a lot of golf on your agenda this summer, but what are your plans after that?

BL: I’ve got some really exciting irons in the fire, and probably in August I’ll be announcing what I’m going to be doing next. But you can rest assured it’s going to have some significant city-building elements to it.