Ottawa's CEO of The Year: Kathryn Tremblay

Kathryn
Kathryn Tremblay of excelHR and Altis Recruitment is the Ottawa Business Journal's CEO of the Year.
Editor's Note

The CEO of The Year was announced in the Fall Edition of the Ottawa Business Journal. You can find a digital copy of the paper at the bottom of this article.

As pandemic-fuelled chaos swirled all around her business 18 months ago, Kathryn Tremblay calmly stood in the eye of the storm. She plotted an organizational shift that was less about boosting revenues than it was about lifting spirits.

Not that things were going swimmingly at Tremblay's Ottawa-based staffing and recruitment agencies, excelHR and Altis Recruitment. With the global economy in a tailspin, the firms and their affiliated companies, Altis Technology and excelITR, were bleeding cash as the temporary workers they were paid to recruit were being jettisoned from their job sites by the hundreds. 

In a matter of weeks, 40 per cent of the companies' 2,000 placements were out of work. While that left a gaping hole in the excelHR network's balance sheet, finances weren't Tremblay's main worry.

"You didn't have time to think," says the 54-year-old native of Orléans. "For us, we went straight into the mode of, let's try to help as many Canadians work as possible. Let's not worry about the numbers; let's not worry about our losses. Our team members came together, almost like a rally cry, to show up for Canadians."

What happened next was something that won't be found in most CEOs' business recovery playbooks but is as much a part of Tremblay's DNA as her thousand-watt smile. 

The veteran executive led a transformation that not only helped her clients overcome unprecedented economic and human resource challenges but also turned her own companies’ fortunes around, earning Tremblay the 2021 CEO of the Year Award from OBJ and the Ottawa Chamber of Commerce. 

She joins a list of distinguished recipients that includes Kinaxis boss John Sicard, the 2020 honouree, and Telesat chief executive Dan Goldberg, who captured the trophy in 2019.

Under Tremblay’s guidance, her companies launched a series of webinars zeroing in on topics that were suddenly top of mind to employees and managers across the country who were navigating an unprecedented crisis: mental wellness in the workplace, how to plan for an eventual return to the office, fostering a more inclusive work environment and more.

Over the past year, the organization has hosted more than a dozen virtual seminars, which have been viewed by thousands of participants – including many of excelHR's competitors.

Providing advice to your business rivals might seem counterproductive. But Tremblay, who has mentored hundreds of students and entrepreneurs in her three-decade career, has always believed that collaborating with her peers is the surest path to long-term success – for both her companies and the industry as a whole.

"When I have an issue, I'm never afraid to pick up the phone," she says. "I'll (contact) anyone in my community and I'll say, 'What do you think about this issue and why did you handle it that way?' I'm not afraid to ask for advice. I love listening to other people's ideas, and I'm willing to champion those ideas if I think they're good ones."

Tremblay says she's benefited as much from the wise counsel of other business leaders as they have from her company's efforts.

"It's created this kind of circle of support in the community," she explains. "What I give actually comes back to me."

Friends and colleagues say Tremblay's all-for-one, one-for-all approach is part and parcel with a personality that exudes positivity and inspires those around her. 

"She's not afraid to share where she's at, what she's doing," says exelHR chief financial officer Cindy Spence, who's worked with Tremblay for more than 20 years. "She knows business leaders are navigating the same (challenges), and what you give out into the world, it will come back … probably tenfold. The more we share, the more we learn, and the better we'll all be."

Christine Pietschmann Hollister, the vice-president of human resources at Ottawa firm tech Ranovus, says her longtime friend's leadership was invaluable during the depths of the pandemic.

"I saw how again and again she was willing to put her neck out there and tackle issues where there was no clarity," Pietschmann Hollister says, citing the firm's seminars on issues such as the legal implications of work-from-home policies.

"That takes a special kind of leader. I think a lot of leaders don't want to take that approach because they don't want to put something out there and then find out three weeks later that they were wrong about it."

Under Tremblay's guidance, excelHR, Altis and their associated companies have nimbly adapted to the pandemic world, ushering in changes that go far beyond the standard work-from-home arrangements.

For example, the company now offers a flexible work program that gives employees an extra day off every two weeks at full pay. Excel's "digital detox days" – three times a year when workers are urged to put down their smartphones, log off their computers and disconnect from technology – have become a hit with the companies' 180 employees.

Along the way, Tremblay, who co-founded excelHR in 1989, has demonstrated the business savvy that's helped grow her network of companies into one of the country's largest independently owned staffing and recruitment organizations.

The excelHR-Altis group, which is headquartered in Ottawa and has six offices across Canada, has traditionally focused on placing workers in fields such as administrative support, information technology and professional services, particularly with headhunting senior professionals in executive contract roles.

But when its revenues cratered early in the pandemic, Tremblay began seeking out ways to diversify the business. 

The organizations pushed further into the construction and health-care industries. They landed new contracts for public-sector workers in the City of Durham and the Region of Halton and federal government staffers in departments such as Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada and the Canada Border Services Agency.

As a result, the Altis-excelHR group has replenished the 800 placements it lost early in the pandemic and then some. The organization is on pace for record revenues of $150- million in fiscal 2021, surpassing the previous best of $140- million two years ago.

Tremblay says her businesses, while battered and bruised early in the COVID-19 crisis, have emerged more robust than ever.

"I felt like the pandemic was an opportunity to … be the company that we wanted to be and test what the outcome could be for the future of work – and do it right away," she says. "It really sparked some amazing things. I think we're creating a stronger community."

Still, Tremblay's ultimate status as one of Ottawa's leading CEOs was anything but certain when she helped hatch excelHR 32 years ago. 

Growing up in Orléans when it was still a sleepy rural village of just a few thousand people, Tremblay and her two brothers were showered with "a lot of love and support" from her father Terry, a civil servant, and her mom Lorraine, who worked for Kelly Funeral Homes. 

"My parents honestly were my biggest mentors and they still are," she says. "My mother in particular really celebrated positivity. She was the type where if I got up and I wasn't in a good mood, she'd say, 'Go right back into bed. I'm closing your door. I'm going to come back in, and when I come in I want to see a whole new you.' 

"We weren't over-programmed at all. We just had a lot of space to just be. I think they taught us a lot about gratefulness and hard work."

Tremblay says that even as a child, she harboured entrepreneurial ambitions and would walk around the house with a little briefcase in tow. 

"I saw around me … a lot of people (who) complained about their jobs," she says. "I used to think, 'I want to love what I do.'"

At 16, she landed a summer job at a small staffing agency, sparking a love affair with the profession that endures to this day.

"It was an amazing experience," Tremblay says.

The job gave her a foundation in the HR business. But more importantly, it's where Tremblay met her future husband Tony Guimarães, a native of Portugal whose family emigrated to Ottawa when he was three. 

Guimarães and Tremblay soon became fast friends – a relationship that blossomed into a lifetime bond. In the late 1980s, while Tremblay was studying commerce at the University of Ottawa, the pair decided to act on their entrepreneurial dreams.

They considered an eclectic range of potential ventures, from funeral homes to real estate agencies, before deciding the answer was right in front of them.

"We both had experience in the staffing business, so (we thought), 'We'll do this, and this will be our beginning,'" Tremblay recalls. "'We'll establish our foundation and raise our own capital, then we'll see what other kinds of businesses we want to launch.' But in the end, we really loved staffing. Honestly, I think it's the only industry that could inspire me like this." 

In 1989, she and Guimarães launched excelHR with a $7,500 loan from the Royal Bank to help them get the venture off the ground. The business was so starved for cash that Tremblay and Guimarães couldn't afford a fax machine, so they dropped off resumes in a borrowed car and interviewed prospective job candidates in their homes.

Staffing agencies typically pay placement workers' salaries up front and get reimbursed from clients later. Excel's precarious financial situation forced the founders to take a different approach.

"In those days, we'd ask our clients to pay us back on the spot after we'd place (an employee) because we couldn't afford to payroll them," Tremblay says with a chuckle. "As we would make any money, we would just put it all back in the business."

The fledgling firm quickly made inroads in the Ottawa market, first in the private sector and later with the federal government. By 1995, excelHR was the capital's largest supplier of contract workers to the feds, and the following year the company opened its first branch office in Toronto.

As excelHR's revenues and client base grew, Tremblay and Guimarães created affiliated companies to meet the increasing demand for talent in specific industries. The couple's home life was equally blissful, with Tremblay giving birth to four daughters.

But in June 2014, their world was turned upside down when Guimarães was diagnosed with prostate cancer. The disease was too advanced to cure, and the father of four was given no chance of survival.

"It was definitely a shock," Tremblay says. "Here our business is growing and we have a wonderful team. Our path was so clear." 

The family pursued every last-ditch treatment option it could. Meanwhile, Tremblay took charge of the HR organization, even holding meetings in the hospital while her husband was fighting for his life.

"Those days are really a blur, because I truly was along with Tony trying to find survival for him while trying to continue maintaining and growing the business," she says. "And we had four children. It was really a time that is hard for me to describe."

Just over two years later, on Sept. 28, 2016, Guimarães died. Tremblay was now a single mother of four running a $100-million business.

As always, she refused to brood, drawing on her mother's sage advice from childhood. Tremblay quickly built up a new network of business confidantes, tapping into their knowledge of industry processes to complement her own well-honed people skills. 

"I'd always had Tony to be my ally, and then suddenly I had to find kind of a different kind of an ally, other mentors and people to work with," she explains. "I wanted to make Tony proud … and be the businessperson that I have always wanted to be. It's like (I was) almost using the grief to propel me."

Always a tireless worker, Tremblay threw herself into her new, expanded role with gusto. She continued to build the organization's brand and expand its market reach while nurturing initiatives such as excelHR's Newcomers Program, which she launched to honour her late husband.

More than 70 people have since taken part in the four-week paid internship for new immigrants, which teaches accounting, marketing, and recruiting skills and helps participants find jobs.

Tremblay's friends say her compassion for others is reflected in every aspect of her life.

"I always call her a rock star," says Phil von Finckenstein, the co-founder of Ottawa-based government relations firm Maple Leaf Strategies, who has known Tremblay for two decades.

Citing numerous examples of his friend's generosity – for example, distributing socks to homeless people "because it's something tangible that can really help them" – Von Finckenstein marvels at Tremblay's seemingly endless well of energy and goodwill.

"People naturally take to her," he says. "I don't think I've ever met anybody who's said a bad word about Kathryn in all the time I've known her. Ottawa is lucky to have her."

Still, they say that Tremblay's most cherished role is being mother to her four daughters – Morgan, 25, Brooklyn, 23, Torey, 19, and Camryn, 14. 

Pietschmann Hollister praises her friend for her courage, compassion and steely will in helping the family cope with Guimarães's death.

"Somehow she managed to hold it together, and then come out the other side of that with a family that's thriving," she says. "It's remarkable, the resilience of spirit that she's shown. I probably have three people in my life ... who as a mom I look to and think, 'Those are my role models. What would they do in this situation?' She is definitely on that list."

Ever the optimist, Tremblay believes the adversities she's dealt with in recent years have made her a better leader – and human being.

"I want to challenge the boundaries of how we can create a future of work that is better for people – where humanity meets business," she says. "Combining those things is what's really important to me."