Ottawa’s Gary Zed bringing his 'A' game to new business venture

Well-regarded Ottawa tax lawyer leaves Big Four accounting world behind to launch new family enterprise advisory service
Zed
Well-known Ottawa business leader Gary Zed has launched his own advisory service for family enterprises. Photo by Caroline Phillips

Can Gary Zed keep a secret? You bet he can, now that the Ottawa business leader and philanthropist has become the trusted adviser and confidante to some of the wealthiest families in town through his new firm, Treehouse Family Advisory.

Up until a couple years ago, Zed was managing partner of EY’s Ottawa office as well as the firm’s tax market leader in Canada. Recognized globally for his expertise, the seasoned tax lawyer stepped away from almost 20 years in the Big Four accounting world in May 2017. 

“I had an incredible run and it was fun, but I constantly had that constraint of a bureaucratic setting and not being able to do what I love to do, which is really to be more of an entrepreneur,” says Zed.

“Change is never easy because you’re leaving behind amazing people and, obviously, amazing clients. The vast majority of the clients that were part of my career remain my friends, and, in many cases, I continue to advise them.” 

He left having accumulated considerable experience, knowledge and skills from years of working closely with startups, multinationals, business leaders and the families and entrepreneurs of Canada’s most successful private companies.

“I ended up serving many of the wealthiest people in the country,” says Zed, 56. “I was being called in to help them, often around a tax issue in the early days, but that relationship migrated to me giving guidance and support around broader family and business issues, too.”

That’s why the career transition seemed a natural one for Zed as he launched his fully integrated family office boutique firm ​– the first of its kind in Ottawa. 

Zed’s services go beyond the typical wealth advisory expertise. He delivers customized solutions to help very high-net-worth individuals deal with the stresses and strains caused by the intertwining of business and family issues. He’s like a family CEO.

Zed is also working closely with KPMG Enterprises to help the firm expand its local and national Family Office practice. 

Families look to Zed for guidance on areas such as succession, tax, estate planning, family communication and governance policies, family brand and values statements, family boards, wealth strategies, cybersecurity and family conflict management. 

'Expert generalist'

When Zed first arrived in Ottawa 30 years ago, he didn’t plan to stay. The MBA graduate and young lawyer from Saint John, N.B., who came to the capital on a contract with the federal justice department, hoped to get some experience in tax law to take back with him to the Maritimes. 

But he didn’t return to New Brunswick. His contract was extended and then made permanent. Before long, he was directing all international audit matters for the Canada Revenue Agency. 

Then, the private sector lured him away. He went on to hold senior partner positions for two of Canada’s biggest professional services firms: Deloitte, followed by EY. 

Through Treehouse Family Advisory, Zed personally manages between 10 and 15 families, most of whom are from Ottawa. Many of his meetings take place in coffee shops, restaurants and clients’ homes. Now, he also has a hangout spot with KPMG.

He considers himself an “expert generalist,” overseeing all aspects of wealth management, from A to Zed.

“I love it. Every day, you’re dealing with a different story. I’m part Dr. Phil, part Harvey Specter (a fictional lawyer on the TV series Suits) and part Warren Buffett.”

The career change couldn’t have come at a better time for Zed, who believes it’s added years to his life. It allowed him to spend more time with his youngest son before he left home for university, and he has been enjoying his relationship with Liza Mrak, co-owner of a number of luxury car dealerships in Ottawa. He’s an active investor and partner in several thriving businesses, including a forestry operation (hence his firm’s name, Treehouse).

“Most people will tell you that, over the last couple of years, I’ve changed; I’ve become a much more relaxed person ​– maybe even happier.”

Five things to know about Gary Zed

1. He’s been inspired by his late father, Leesha, the son of Lebanese immigrants. He was a hard-working dentist who believed strongly in higher education. As a result, Zed grew up in a family of medical doctors, dentists and lawyers. He says he’s all for a career in the skilled trades, especially when done entrepreneurially.

2. At age 22, he was rolling in dough as one of the largest hot dog vendors in Atlantic Canada. He had 80 full-time summer employees.

3. At age 23, he experienced his biggest flop with the failure of his summer beachwear business. “I thought I was untouchable,” he laments. “I probably go into more business ventures now with my eyes a little more wide open because of that hiccup.”

4. He considers his three kids, raised with Lisa Zed, to be his greatest success. They are: Olivia, 24, who works in New York City for FleishmanHillard; Colin, 22, who works in the real estate acquisitions team for Capreit in Toronto; and Liam, 18, a first-year commerce student at Dalhousie.

5. His favourite piece of advice: “Don’t let perfect ruin good. People who preoccupy themselves with perfection never get anything done.”