Opinion: New generation of Ottawa CEOs not flashy, but effective: Dale

Over the past six months, I have tried to encourage debate about Ottawa’s economic future by examining how our economy is changing and how our political and business leaders can best adapt to both local and global economic realities.  

This piece will focus on local companies that are thriving and what can we learn from them and others that preceded them.

In the past few years, a number of Ottawa-area companies have launched successful initial public offerings, including Halogen Software and Kinaxis, which debuted on the Toronto Stock Exchange, and smaller companies such as Tweed which are listed on venture exchanges. 

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This healthy crop of IPOs bodes well for the overall health and growth of our economy. Shopify, perhaps the city’s biggest business success story of the past decade, is the next local company preparing to go public. 

We all know the names of these companies, but most of us do not know much about their leaders or business models.

During the tech boom in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the city’s economic growth outside of government was driven by telecommunications hardware companies such as JDS Uniphase, Nortel and Newbridge. Together, they employed close to 40,000 people thanks mainly to their large manufacturing workforces.  

But times have changed, and many of those hardware jobs have moved to lower-cost economies. Ottawa’s new generation of technology companies has shifted from a hardware-based telecommunications model to the enterprise Software as a Service (SaaS) model. 

SaaS is a software distribution model in which a company hosts applications on a server and makes them available to customers via the Internet. Shopify, Halogen and Kinaxis all use the SaaS model to provide applications to clients on a recurring fee basis. 

This model benefits the local economy because SaaS companies can concentrate their software development, in-house sales, customer support and service in Ottawa, where the workforce has the high level of expertise and education required for these jobs. 

A great example is Shopify’s “gurus,” who provide front-line sales, support and service to the company’s 150,000 global customers. Gurus require a great deal of both technical and interpersonal skills and experience, and most have graduated from college or university. 

Best of all, the majority of these well-paid gurus work in Ottawa, pumping millions of dollars every year back into the region’s economy. The SaaS model is allowing Shopify to concentrate most of its growth right here in the capital.

As important as a company’s business model is to its success, a firm will never reach its potential without a true visionary at the top. When we think about past Ottawa business success stories, we tend to think not only about the companies, but also the people who led them: Newbridge and Terry Matthews, Tundra and Adam Chowaniec, Corel and Michael Cowpland, Systemhouse and Rod Bryden, Cognos and Michael Potter and Jetform and John Kelly, just to name a few.  

What drove their success? Like all great companies, they had top-notch products produced by strong teams and were in the right place at the right time. But they were also anchored to Ottawa and felt a strong attachment to the community. The leaders of these companies and the majority of their executive teams lived here and worked closely together. They all had a passion for the city and wanted to contribute to the community. Most of these leaders have been recognized as much for their community achievements as for their business acumen.

The new generation of companies and leaders also has huge potential for growth. Shopify, Halogen, Kinaxis, Farm Boy and Bridgehead are just a few local enterprises that are having great success. Each of them is driven by inspiring local leaders – Tobias Lütke at Shopify, Paul Loucks at Halogen, Jeff York at Farm Boy and Tracey Clark at Bridgehead.

For the most part, we don’t hear much about them, and that’s probably the way they like it.  These leaders are just as charismatic and committed to the city as our well-known leaders of the past; however, this generation doesn’t want the limelight.

That might be a good thing. Having a CEO in the spotlight does not always benefit the companies they lead. Sometimes their personal lives or community involvement overshadow their corporate achievements and distract them from their core business. Ottawa’s new generation of leaders is more private, but still goes about its business and community activities with the same level of enthusiasm.

These men and women all have intelligence, passion and drive, but so do a lot of people who are not successful. In my experience, what separates great leaders from the rest are focus and integrity. The ability to focus on your objectives regardless of what is happening around you is what drives companies forward. Equally important is conducting all aspects of your personal and business life with the highest level of integrity. Integrity allows you to take pride in everything you accomplish without regret.

These attributes are not learned; they are part of a true leader’s DNA.

There is an old saying that “success has many fathers.” Inspiring leadership is a key factor in that success; however, in today’s business world, leadership is being defined more and more as something provided by a whole team rather than one individual.  

Apple is a great example. When we think of Apple, we instantly think of Steve Jobs and his highly distinctive leadership style. However, since his death, the company has experienced some of its greatest growth. New CEO Tim Cook is a much more private person than Steve Jobs, and he talks about how success for Apple is driven by the whole team rather than just one person.

Ottawa’s new generation of successful companies clearly has inspiring leaders. But more importantly, it has leaders who inspire their teams to achieve success both in the business world and the community as a whole.

It has been a pleasure to write this series over the past six months. I have heard from many readers, and I appreciate all your comments and feedback.

Listening and learning from many points of view is what will keep our local economy moving forward. Just sitting back and hoping Ottawa will prosper won’t make it happen.

Remember, “hope” is never a good economic strategy. Analysis, discussion and action are how great companies and strong economies achieve success.


Jeffrey Dale is the director and co-founder of the Odawa Group as well as the former president of the Ottawa Centre for Research and Innovation.

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