Up Close: Susan St. Amand would do it all over again, maybe with a bit more vacation time

Susan St. Amand

The Sirius Group founder and president Susan St. Amand has built a successful business in the financial services industry, and she’s done it without chasing money over meaning.

For years, she’s been donating her time and skills to non-profit organizations, previously serving as board chair of the Ottawa Community Foundation, the Ottawa International Airport Authority and the Royal Ottawa Foundation for Mental Health. 

The certified family enterprise advisor has also volunteered with numerous professional organizations. She’s the national board chair of Family Enterprise Canada. She recently became the inaugural executive in residence for the Telfer School of Management’s Family Enterprise Legacy Institute, which helps to build the next generation of enterprising families through the development and sharing of knowledge. St. Amand is also past co-chair of the Ottawa chapter of the Institute of Corporate Directors local chapter and of the Conference for Advanced Life Underwriting.

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As she prepares to turn 60 this July, the Ottawa business leader is showing no signs of slowing down. 

“Somebody once asked me, ‘If you had all the money in the world, would you still do what you do?’” said St. Amand, whose reply was a resounding yes. “I might take more vacations, though.”

The bulk of St. Amand’s professional work involves helping families in business to navigate challenges relating to family governance, succession planning, business continuity, financial literacy and philanthropy. She acts as facilitator, collaborator, coach and mentor to her clients.

“It’s about helping them to identify their dreams, providing them with a plan and a pathway, and being there to help them implement it,” said St. Amand, who relies on her skills as an attentive listener and strong communicator to guide families through crucial decision-making processes.

About 80 per cent of small and medium-sized businesses in Canada are family enterprises. They employ more than seven million people. “Every small town, every city, has their family enterprises,” she added.

St. Amand was born in Geraldton, a small town in Northern Ontario. Back in the 1930s, it was at the height of a gold boom. That’s what drew her grandfather there, after the Great Depression hit. He ran a hotel and also served as mayor of the town, which amalgamated in 2001 into the municipality of Greenstone.

By the 1960s, her father’s own entrepreneurial spirit saw him move the family to Manitouwadge, halfway between Thunder Bay and Sault Ste. Marie, to open his first gas service station. He eventually sold it to buy his second one in Nipigon on the Trans-Canada Highway.

“A big trip for us was to Thunder Bay,” St. Amand recalled of a childhood spent in the great outdoors.

St. Amand was a bright student who fast-tracked through high school, finishing in three years instead of the usual five. By the time she was done college, she was 19 years old with a promising future in finance at TD Bank. She worked at numerous small-town branches before being transferred to Ottawa, at age 25, in the role of assistant manager. She volunteered even back then, beginning as a hospital candy striper.

Much like her father and grandfather, St. Amand wanted to go out on her own. She left TD to launch Sirius, naming her new insurance and financial consulting business after the brightest star in the sky. 

St. Amand has been in business for 33 years, earning a half-dozen credentials and completing university-level business school programs as part of her ongoing effort to self-educate. “It’s really helped me provide more value to my clients.”

St. Amand keeps her work and home life separate by operating an office downtown. “I work a lot of hours — a lot of hours. I’m not going to lie about that. I have a passion for what I do. It’s a purpose in life for me.”

St. Amand may be in a position to devote more time to her business these days but her priority has always been family. She has two daughters, born 17 months apart. Emily Lalande, 27, is now a PhD student at the University of Sussex in England, while Laura Lalande, 26, is working in Vancouver as an animator. 

St. Amand did go through a tough divorce, following nearly 25 years of marriage, but she’s now in a loving relationship with retired civil servant Richard Stark.

With no plans to retire anytime soon, St. Amand is grateful for the years she’s spent focused on her family and community. 

“Have I sacrificed income as a result of it? Absolutely. Would I do it all over the same way? Absolutely. There are a few things in life you can’t take back. You can’t get time back once it’s gone. You can’t get your health back once it’s gone, and you can’t get your family and friends and community back once they’re gone.”

As for money, she said, “You always have time to make money or find a way to make money, if you want to and if you have your health.” 

FIVE THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT SUSAN ST. AMAND

  1. She lives by the old adage that opportunity seldom knocks twice. “Seize opportunities when they arise and have confidence in yourself that you’ll succeed.”
  2. She’s big on collaboration. For the past 30 years, she’s been part of a study group with six other women from across the country who work in similar types of businesses.
  3. She counts Shirley Westeinde, first female board chair of the Canadian Construction Association, and the late Grete Hale, chairman emeritus of Morrison Lamothe, as two of her role models. 
  4. One of the ways she earned money as a teenager was to teach the martial art of judo to kids. She has her brown belt, so you might not want to mess with her.
  5. She’s grateful for many things, including her good health. She lost a brother to cancer when he was 35 and had a sister who nearly died in a serious snowmobiling accident when she was young.

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