Shopify leaders Lütke, Finkelstein pull up stakes from capital

Tobi Lütke headshot
Shopify CEO Tobi Lütke. File photo

More than two years after his company removed the word “Ottawa” from the placeline on its news releases, Shopify chief executive Tobi Lütke has stopped calling the city home as well.

Last Friday, the founder of the e-commerce software powerhouse posted a shot of the CN Tower on X, formerly known as Twitter, along with a message that seems to confirm something many in the capital’s close-knit tech community had suspected was coming for months: Lütke and his family had pulled up stakes and relocated to Canada’s largest city.

“First week living in Toronto,” he said in the post.

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Lütke’s move comes fast on the heels of Shopify president Harley Finkelstein’s decision to uproot his family from their Rockcliffe Park home and return to Montreal, the city of his birth.

Finkelstein, who’s become Shopify’s most prominent public face, told a Montreal magazine in July that the Quebec metropolis “still felt like home to me.”

The moves follow a major makeover of Shopify’s leadership team that has seen many locally based members of its C-suite replaced by executives who live elsewhere.

In the past couple of years, many company leaders who called Ottawa home, including chief financial officer Amy Shapero, chief technology officer Jean-Michel Lemieux, chief legal officer Joe Frasco and chief talent officer Brittany Forsyth, have left the firm. Many of their replacements live in the U.S.

According to LinkedIn, the only member of Shopify’s core leadership team who still resides in the National Capital Region is chief information security officer Andrew Dunbar.

Shopify did not respond to requests for comment on Tuesday.

News that Lütke and Finkelstein have left town has fuelled speculation about Shopify’s future in the city where the company began.

One industry insider who did not wish to be named said losing the pair of tech titans to other cities should serve as a “call to action” to local business leaders and government officials to push for more direct flights to major U.S. centres and step up efforts to revitalize Ottawa’s downtown core. In announcing his decision to relocate to Montreal, Finkelstein cited that city’s vibrant food, arts and music scene as one of the main reasons.

However, other observers downplayed the impact of the moves on Ottawa’s standing as a tech hub, saying they shouldn’t come as a surprise given Shopify’s digital-first mentality.

Lütke, after all, made headlines in May 2020 when he declared that “office centricity is over.” Just months later, Shopify announced it was vacating its headquarters at 150 Elgin St. amid the widespread shift to remote work during the pandemic.

In early 2021, the company removed “Ottawa” from the placeline on its news releases, replacing it with “Internet, Everywhere” – a clear signal that its digital-by-default credo was no passing fad.

“I think it’s meaningless now to talk about Shopify as an Ottawa-based company – and not just because two people moved,” said Ian Lee, a professor at Carleton University’s Sprott School of Business.

“If all data is digitized, it doesn’t matter where you are. It’s no longer a physical company with a physical presence. Where is Shopify? The answer is, it’s everywhere.”

Still, Lee said there’s no reason for panic in the local tech community.

While Lütke and Finkelstein may have good reasons to want to live elsewhere, Lee said the nation’s capital has many attributes – including a high quality of life and a lower cost of living than bigger centres like Toronto and Vancouver – that will continue to make the city an attractive destination for top talent at Shopify and other tech firms.

Rick Watson, CEO of New York-based RMW Commerce Consulting, agreed.

“My sense is that Harley and Tobi have always had affection for Ottawa,” Watson said. “I find it very hard to believe that they would forget about it.”

With many of Shopify’s key executives living south of the border and in the Greater Toronto Area, Watson said it made sense for Lütke to be closer to investors and major decision-makers.

“I think for being (leader of) one of the larger public companies in Canada, it’s probably hard for him to not be in Toronto,” he explained. “Shopify doesn’t really care where people work. But I think Tobi as a CEO, it does matter where he is.”

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