'We are on the world stage': How John Sicard built Kinaxis into a global software leader

John Sicard new studio
"I basically built a studio and then wrapped a house around it," John Sicard, an avid musician, says of his Kanata North home. Photo by Mark Holleron
Editor's Note

This is the second in a two-part feature on CEO of the Year John Sicard. Read part one here.

Growing up in a military family, John Sicard lived in 15 different places.

Today, OBJ's 2020 CEO of the Year credits that nomadic lifestyle with teaching him how to adapt to changing circumstances on the fly, an early life lesson that’s served him well in the topsy-turvy world of tech.  

“Every two years my father would come home and say, ‘We’re moving.’ We’d say ‘When?’ He’d say, ‘Monday,’” he recalls. “I’ve always grown up to be hyper-resilient. I lean in. When someone says that’s impossible, I say, ‘That’s a call to action. Challenge accepted.’”

As the company’s financial prospects began to brighten, the rising executive famously told a reporter that Kinaxis was on its way to eclipsing another well-known Ottawa-based software firm that had annual revenues approaching $1 billion.  

“He said, ‘Someday we’re going to be worth more than Cognos,’” says former CEO Doug Colbeth, who now runs a health-tech company in San Diego called MedCircle. “He was not intimidated. I think our market value at that time was maybe $100 million.” 

"I’ve always grown up to be hyper-resilient. I lean in. When someone says that’s impossible, I say, ‘That’s a call to action. Challenge accepted.''"

Showing his trademark determination, Sicard continued to work his way up the corporate ladder. He excelled in every C-suite role Colbeth could offer, including chief operating officer, chief strategy officer and, ultimately, chief product officer. 

In 2014, Sicard helped pave the way for Kinaxis to go public, criss-crossing the continent with Colbeth and chief financial officer Richard Monkman in an effort to win over sometimes skeptical investors. In the end, the firm had one of the biggest Canadian tech IPOs in years, selling more than $100 million worth of stock on the TSX.

Sensing that Kinaxis needed a new leader to take it to the next level, Colbeth decided to move on. Surveying the corporate landscape, he had no doubt who his successor should be.

'Extremely well-organized'

Sicard, he says, is a rare breed: a leader who sees the big picture but doesn’t overlook any of the details needed to make that vision a reality.

“He’s extremely well-organized,” Colbeth says. “He sees the value of building the infrastructures to support the growth of a company. When I left, I said to the board, ‘This is the guy who can take this from a $100-million company to a billion-dollar-a-year-revenue company.’”

Sicard’s calmness under pressure was rarely more evident than in mid-August 2017, when Kinaxis lost $350 million in market value in less than a week after it failed to hit its quarterly revenue target.

While other execs might have panicked, a confident Sicard simply shrugged it off and assured skittish analysts and investors the business was “solid.” Since that day, the company’s market value has nearly tripled to more than $5 billion.    

Kinaxis’s head of human resources, Megan Peterson – who’s worked with Sicard for a dozen years – marvels at her boss’s uncanny ability to steer a course that satisfies the short-term demands of shareholders while keeping his eyes fixed on where the market will be heading months and years down the road.  

“The pressure of being publicly traded, he has managed it really, really well,” she says. “I’ve worked for other public companies where they live and die by the quarter, but he’s got a longer-range view. I think that helps us stay the course even if things are rocky.”

Sicard’s colleagues also point to his strong skills as a communicator and his team-first mentality. Even in the midst of a hiring blitz, the busy exec still takes time to have an informal meet-and-greet with every new employee where he asks one question: How did you become the person you are?

“There’s only one rule: you can’t talk about what’s on LinkedIn,” Sicard says of the get-togethers, which now take place virtually. “It forces you to get to know people. I often start by saying, ‘I have a tattoo, but I’m not going to show it to you.’ Then they realize, ‘Oh my God, he’s just a regular dude.’ It really unites everybody.”

Away from the boardroom, Sicard and his wife Pina are the proud parents of 29-year-old Alexandre, a PhD candidate in chemistry at the University of Ottawa, and Nicholas, 26, a software tester at Kinaxis.

Autism at Work program

Diagnosed with autism at age two, Nicholas is the inspiration behind one of Kinaxis’s most important and far-reaching initiatives in Sicard’s tenure as CEO – the Autism at Work program.

The company partnered with Specialisterne Canada, an international organization that helps employers integrate people with autism into the workforce, to launch the program four years ago. Its goal was to have one out of every 100 Kinaxis employees be a person on the autism spectrum. 

Today, nearly two per cent of the company’s workforce is autistic.

“I think diversity is the path to innovation,” Sicard says. “This is not a charity. These are phenomenal brains that just happen to be wired a little differently. Aren’t we all?”

Although he likes to describe himself as a “software engineer who fell in love with supply chain,” Sicard is equally passionate about another pursuit that showcases his creative side: music. 

Never one to settle for half-measures, Sicard has equipped his Kanata North home with a full-scale music production facility, where he practises with his band, Open Channel D, and hones his skills at recording, mixing and mastering demo tapes in his spare time.

“I basically built a studio and then wrapped a house around it,” he deadpans. 

Still, you get the feeling work is never far from Sicard’s mind as his company strives to become the global leader in an increasingly competitive space. 

New headquarters

Earlier this year, Kinaxis made its first acquisition, joining forces with Toronto-based supply-chain software startup Rubikloud as part of its push into the retail vertical. Next year, the company will move into a new corporate headquarters near the Tanger outlet mall that’s more than double the size of its current head office on Silver Seven Road.

Meanwhile, Kinaxis continues to battle every day for market share with U.S. and European competitors such as SAP, Blue Yonder and Oracle. 

Twenty-six years into the journey that was almost aborted on the runway, Sicard is still as excited as ever to find out where it will take him next. The way he sees it, Kinaxis is just getting started.

“I say it all the time – we’re still in chapter one, book one, in an epic series to write,” he declares.

“I’m just so proud of what the team has produced. We are on the world stage as it relates to supply chain. Maybe someday we’ll be in chapter two.”

Climbing the corporate ladder: John Sicard's Kinaxis resume

1994-2002

Senior software architect and pre-sales

2002-05

Vice-president of professional services.

2005-09

Executive vice-president, development and service operations

2009-11

Executive vice-president of marketing, development and service operations

2011-12

Chief operating officer

2012-13

Chief strategy officer

2013-16

Chief product officer

2016-present

CEO