Ottawa cyclist-turned-entrepreneur Rudi Asseer on the ride of his life

Rudi Asseer
Rudi Asseer, chief executive of staffing agency IMI. Photo by Caroline Phillips.

Rudi Asseer doesn’t do things in half measures.

He didn’t just go to any old university; he went to Harvard. He didn’t just take up jogging; he became a marathon runner and Ironman triathlete. He didn’t join IMI just to score a big office with a view ​– he set about transforming the company.

“Everything I’ve done in my life has always been about taking it to the fullest, to the extreme,” the 39-year-old president and chief executive officer acknowledges during an interview at IMI’s corporate headquarters on Richmond Road in Westboro.

When Asseer joined IMI in 2016, his goal was to modernize the company, which provides skilled technicians to job sites, and lead it through a digital transformation. He also wanted to increase transparency and establish a better line of communication between the head office and the people it employed.

“You do a big disservice to your staff by not taking care of them,” says Asseer. “There are some key ways to do that, and that’s by showing you care. It’s not in bonuses and all those traditional things; it’s in communicating with your people.”

“Everything I’ve done in my life has always been about taking it to the fullest, to the extreme.”

IMI is in the business of supplying the kind of highly skilled labour that’s needed to turn traditional warehouses into automated facilities by installing robotic devices and other technology. Among its Fortune 500 clients is e-commerce giant Amazon, which is bringing a one-million-square-foot distribution centre to Ottawa’s east end.

IMI manages more than 1,000 technicians throughout North America and has a payroll of between $60 million and $70 million. The company runs a training facility in Grand Rapids, Mich., to meet demands.

“There’s a huge labour shortage; there’s just not enough people,” says Asseer.

Asseer keeps tabs on the workforce through artificial intelligence. Rhonda – named after The Beach Boys’ tune Help Me, Rhonda – is an analytics and engagement software product he created to maximize productivity and efficiency.

Rhonda can perform thousands of tasks simultaneously. It also automatically checks in with technicians on a weekly basis to see how they’re doing. Reponses are given with the click of a button on a scale of one to five. Low-score replies are triaged and promptly addressed.

In today’s world, feedback needs to be instantaneous, says Asseer.  

“Imagine a professional sports team where your coach says, ‘We’ll wait until your annual review before we talk about the game. We still have 80 games on the schedule, but we’re not going to talk about it.’ That’s insane.

“I grew up my entire life on real-time feedback.”

As a teenager, Asseer travelled the world as part of Canada’s national cycling team. It was a rewarding experience that he shared with other competitive athletes under the guidance of coaches.

“One of the things my dad taught me at a young age is to surround myself with good people because we’re products of our environment,” he says. “I always find individuals who are doing something special or who are very good at what they do. By surrounding myself with those types of people – people who are high achievers – it’s only natural that I start to mold myself into my own version of that.”

Cancer scare

His pursuit of excellence was harder, however, once his cycling career ended at age 18.

“You go from the world stage to being no one. Now you’re just Rudi. So what?”

That’s when he joined the workforce and got an education. He earned an associate’s degree at Harvard University and his Executive MBA at uOttawa’s Telfer School of Management. By age 26, he was a Forty Under 40 recipient.

On the morning of his OBJ interview, Asseer cycled into work from his home in the south end. He selected a longer route that looped around Parliament Hill so that he could take in the views of downtown and the Ottawa River. The bike path goes right by his office, reminding Asseer of why he’s made Ottawa his home.

“I love Ottawa. I think it’s a beautiful city.”

While his ride was smooth, he has had bumps in his career and personal life. He made a million and lost a million while running Farallon USA, an underwater equipment manufacturing company. His health suffered while he was director of business development at Desjardins Group. After a close scare with precancerous polyps, he got back into running and completed his first marathon in Ottawa.

Two years ago, Asseer decided to leave financial services to pursue another goal.

“I wasn’t satisfied, because I wasn’t growing my entrepreneurial ambition.”

He was offered the presidency at IMI by Diana Cuttell, who founded the company in 1998. She gave him free rein to do as he pleased with his restructuring plan.

“Now that I’ve checked that box, it’s on to global growth,” says Asseer, who took on the role of CEO in July.