The Report on Business Best Executive Awards celebrates exceptional business leaders at Canadian companies. Earlier this year, we issued a call for nominations which were vetted by Globe and Mail editors. Our inaugural list showcases 50 EVPs, SVPs and members of C-suite. The individuals on this first annual list have built better companies in these unprecedented times—and built a better country in the process.
Senior Vice-President of Advanced Coatings & Procurement, TC Transcontinental Inc.
For securing a billion-dollar annual revenue boost
A dozen years ago, Sam Bendavid joined Transcontinental, the packaging and printing powerhouse, as a financial analyst. His strategy for climbing the ladder was twofold: First, pretend he was already top dog. “I had the mindset that if this business was all mine, how would I think and act and behave?” Next, he combined that boss-level confidence with an entry-level work ethic. “I always try to overperform and overdeliver,” says Bendavid, who is charged with divesting underperforming assets and acquiring better ones. His most recent purchase of Coveris, a packaging company, added more than $1 billion to Transcontinental’s annual revenue.
Vice-President of Marketing, Canadian Tire Corp.
For modernizing mid-pandemic
Eva Salem has put her branding skills to work at Canadian Tire after a glam career in cosmetics marketing. When it comes to her admittedly less swanky new company, people think of paint and screwdrivers, but “we have top brands that we never get credit for,” she says. Educating consumers is usually a slow process, but COVID-19 boosted website traffic 40-fold. Rather than a looming technical disaster, Salem saw a makeover opportunity. Almost overnight, Canadian Tire pivoted to e-commerce. Stores became warehouses, with curbside pickup and speedy delivery as their new norm.
Chief Financial Officer and Chief Operating Officer, Canadian Medical Association
For making strategic decisions (at least, in retrospect)
“It’s so fortuitous, the way things happen. I graduated from university fully convinced I’d have a career in accounting. That changed fast. I joined a technology company as an IT consultant, which was totally outside my realm, and then switched again to the Ottawa Police Service, which is completely different again. All these pieces—experience in private and public, technology and finance—came together nicely. I consider myself very lucky.”
Chief Product Officer, Wattpad, and GM, Wattpad Labs
For transforming a free online platform into a money-maker
Seema Lakhani was a key part in developing not one but three solutions to generate revenue for Wattpad, the publishing platform: Paid Stories, where “wattpadders” can support writers they enjoy; a premium customizable ad-free experience; and Tap, an interactive storytelling app. “It’s basically Choose Your Own Adventure,” Lakhani says of Tap, though the same could be said of Wattpad’s multipronged revenue model, which “serves the different needs of unique users.”
Chief Technology Officer, Ceridian HCM Holdings Inc.
For managing a team of 1,000 to deliver big results
The former CTO of software company Ceridian (he left earlier this fall) thinks often of Microsoft founder Bill Gates. “He says people overestimate what they can do in one year but underestimate what they can do in 10,” explains Ozzie Goldschmied, who dwells less on the former to focus on the latter—then works backward. “Number one is make large, ambitious goals. Number two is ignore the noise.”
Chief Corporate Officer, Restaurant Brands International
For improving investor and media perceptions
Timmy’s new CCO is no stranger to Canadiana: He dropped out of university to work for then Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty, moved to the Prime Minister’s Office next, and then went back to school to head up Canadian Tire and Sport Chek. “When I had a chance to work at Canada’s other iconic brand, I couldn’t resist,” he says. The best part of his sweet gig? “Operating a global company in more than 100 countries from right here in Toronto,” he says. Although, for someone who loves Canada as much as he does, the travel’s pretty great, too. “I’ve had the unique opportunity to see the whole country up close.”
Chief Financial Officer, Nulogy
For revamping an outdated pricing model
Nulogy developed software to streamline supply chains for packaged food companies of all sizes—and charged the same price to all of them. “A million-dollar business and a $50-million business paid the same amount. Meanwhile, the value you were getting was completely different,” says Ghazala Parvez. She spearheaded a “year of difficult conversations,” in which clients were told the company would now charge by volume. By miracle—or maybe by Parvez—everyone stayed.
Chief Financial Officer, Martello Technologies Group Inc.
For repeatedly doing what cannot be done
Erin Crowe—formerly CFO of the Ottawa Senators—thrives on a challenge. Here’s just one: an $18-million acquisition mid-pandemic, causing tons of turmoil for the Ottawa-based communications service firm. “It would be really easy to just give up, but you just can’t. You need to push through,” she says, with the unmistakable attitude of a hockey coach.
SVP, Corporate Systems Technology, RBC
For bringing cutting-edge tech to a big bank
Technical whiz Christopher Phillips oversees RBC’s myriad behind-the-scenes digital tools. Among them, there’s an AI-based fraud detector to spot financial crime, the internal social media platform RBC Connect and Phillips’s newest project: “a back-to-work app with a health screener you can use on your mobile phone.”
Chief Strategy Officer, Fully Managed
For solving IT problems of the future in advance
If you happen to work for the L.A. Lakers, and you’re also having a computer issue, it’s the Ottawa-based Fully Managed team that will solve your problem from afar. The same is true for 5,000 other clients and their employees, and it is Joel Abramson’s responsibility to manage their experience while adding new products to Fully Managed’s roster, which includes IT management and 24-7 support. “I try to spot emerging trends well in advance and grow our strategy around them,” he says.
Vice-President, Human Relations & Corporate Affairs, Bimbo Canada (formerly Canada Bread)
For squashing the spread of coronavirus
As head of Bimbo Canada’s crisis management team, Lynn Langrock is on a mission: “Our job is to feed Canadians, but we can’t do that if we can’t protect ourselves, so our top priority is safety,” she says. Langrock made a crisis plan in January, sent people home before the government did and doubled down on safety for essential workers through enhanced sanitation, internal contract tracing, physical distancing and temperature screening. “Everything everyone’s doing now, we were doing well in advance,” she says. Over nine months, Bimbo had exactly zero outbreaks.
Chief Operating Officer, Bonfire Interactive Inc.
For transitioning from a startup to a publicly traded company
Within six months of arriving at Bonfire in 2017, Kim Veenstra began guiding the Kitchener, Ont., developer of strategic sourcing software through a $140-million sale to GTY Technology Holdings—and from private to public. The team grew from 20 to 100, almost half of them women. “We don’t focus on gender or quotas or anything else,” she says. “We’re after different perspectives and opinions.” Revenue, meanwhile, is up more than 300%.
Executive Vice-President, Human Resources & Corporate Communications, CWB Financial Group
For believing everyone has a talent waiting to be found
“My job involves making sure we’ve got the right people in the right place at the right time. I truly believe everyone has a superpower they can bring to the workplace, and it’s about finding what it is and matching it to an opportunity. Creating the right conditions to make this match is my absolute favourite part of my day.”
Senior Vice-President and Chief Human Resources Officer, Purolator Inc.
For reinventing a decades-old model
For half a century, Purolator mainly delivered packages to businesses—and then the world changed. “The growth of home delivery now vastly outpaces deliveries at work, so we had to change as fast as the market did,” says Ken Johnston. And when overnight delivery is already the industry standard, customer service becomes king. Johnston’s job is to find those rare workers—technical, flexible, friendly, patient—and keep them happy and motivated.
Chief Financial Officer, Sandstorm Gold Royalties
For strategic financial leadership in a bull market
Erfan Kazemi never thought he’d land in the gold industry. “I thought I’d probably work in film,” he laughs, “but then I fell in love with the business model.” And how could he not? Gold is a hot commodity right now, and Kazemi’s bold moves have raised $300 million in equity while doubling the annual cash flow. While the going is good, he’s trying hard to savour the experience. “I try to enjoy every moment, especially the simple stuff.”
Chief Financial Officer, Northland Power
For seeing the big picture—especially now
“I’ve just started—completely remotely—as a leader at a new company. I haven’t met most of my colleagues in person yet, and I don’t know when I will. It’s been a challenge, definitely, but the pandemic has shown us that companies are really resilient and technology is pretty good, and we’re still growing and hiring and promoting virtually. We still need to move forward, and we are.”
Vice-President of Global Human Resources, Linamar Corp.
For her lightning-fast reaction time
“One of the very best things we do is react,” says Roxanne Rose. Linamar usually focuses on making components for the automotive and aerospace industries, but when the company’s Asian operations spotted the coronavirus months before most, it pivoted to make ventilators. "We put in screening,
testing and mask protocols, and got right to work." Next up: a COVID-19 contact-tracking bracelet that uses Bluetooth tech.
Head of Distribution and Executive Vice-President, CI Financial Corp.
For living a dream-come-true
Roy Ratnavel, a Sri Lankan immigrant with no financial training and $50 to his name, landed an entry-level job in CI’s mailroom. One fateful day, he complimented a well-dressed man’s tie. “A few weeks later, he delivered a shopping bag of designer ties to my cubicle. I was the best-dressed mailroom kid on Bay Street.” Under his mentor’s guidance, Ratnavel finished high school and then university, and began climbing the CI ladder. Now he’s the VP who gifts his old ties to new hires.
President, Canadian Operations, Intact Financial Corp.
For rebranding an insurance company with values
Louis Gagnon joined what would become Intact just in time for ING to sell it in 2009. His timing could not have been worse. “It was over Christmas and New Year’s during the worst year of the past 50,” he says of making the risky move in the midst of a global financial crisis. But a careful values-based rebrand—integrity, respect and generosity were among the virtues—hit all the right notes just when people needed them most. “Ten years later, we’re the top brand of personal insurance in the country.”
Chief Talent & Transformation Officer, TransAlta Corp.
For changing course and embracing change
You don’t go from social worker to lawyer to human resources leader if you fear change. “My whole career has been propelled by being self-aware enough to know when I need to change,” says Jane Fedoretz. You can fixate on mistakes, she explains, or you can use these moments to build and expand. The same is true for the 109-year-old coal company TransAlta, which is currently modernizing and pivoting to renewable energy.
Chief Human Resources Officer, Kinaxis Inc.
For championing neurodiversity
Thanks largely to Megan Paterson, Ottawa-based software company Kinaxis has committed itself to diversity and inclusivity, including people on the autism spectrum. “These people do so well in school, but they can’t get jobs because they don’t interview in a neurotypical way,” she says. Kinaxis’s Autism at Work program identifies unique talents and makes necessary accommodations for employees on the spectrum—who currently represent 1.9% of Kinaxis’s staff.
Chief People Officer, Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan
For COVID-proofing the organization’s culture
Because of Beth Tyndall, the OTPP doesn’t have a regular human resources department; it has a people and culture division. “There was already something very special about this business,” she notes about her arrival in 2017, “so my challenge became strengthening an already awesome culture.” First up, she implemented a monthly survey that measured engagement, which became a de facto communication channel for 1,300 workers. While other companies scrambled to organize and stay in touch virtually when COVID-19 hit in March, the OTPP was set up and ready.
Chief Product Officer, Wagepoint
For leading payroll tech with exactly zero tech background
Of all people, it was Leena Thampan’s fiancé who lured her away from a secure advertising job to risky tech startup Wagepoint, an online payroll service provider. “He must have seen something that I didn’t,” she says, and he was right: After five years of heading Wagepoint’s marketing and customer support team, Thampan’s promotion to CPO made sense—even though she lacks a tech background. “I had so much first-hand experience with customers that I knew exactly what people were looking for,” she says. Luckily, no coding skills are required.
Co-founder and Chief Marketing Officer, Article
For cutting out the furniture middleman
A decade ago, product manager and keen traveller Andy Prochazka was in the market for a leather sofa. “I remember being shocked by the discrepancy between the [overseas] factory and the showroom.” With help from his twin brother and two friends, he vowed to close the price gap. Article was born. “We’re entirely online—no showrooms, and we do our own delivery—so we can track every expense and inefficiency with data-informed decision making.”
President, Exchange Income Corp.
For making 10 acquisitions that tripled the market cap
“Our philosophy is different than that of a lot of private equity firms; we buy, hold, nurture and grow. We don’t go in looking to change things or preaching synergy—we just let people be great at what they do, only do more of it. It’s a pretty simplistic business model, actually, but it’s very, very successful.”
Chief Officer of Innovation Labs and New Ventures, Interac Corp.
For being a fintech visionary
Every time you pay for a latte with your iPhone, you might want to thank Debbie Gamble. For decades, she’s been a leader in secure transaction technologies—from debit cards to bitcoin to Apple Pay. She’s twice worked for Interac, most recently as the head of innovation, where it’s her job to “look at socio-economic market trends and build technology to help.”
Senior Vice-President, Human Resources, Equitable Bank
For 14 years of human empathy
“Everyone needs HR—that’s my thought. We look at every individual as an individual and deal with people with compassion. I take the time to build direct relationships with staff, especially those struggling. I get personal and personally involved. I’m told I have empathy disorder, but really, I just care. That’s the secret to HR.”
Vice-President, Canada Key Accounts, Baker Hughes
For building the most unlikely of bridges
After 20 years in oil and gas, including the past decade at Baker Hughes, Michelle Kisil has earned a reputation as a bridge-builder—between groups and businesses, the like-minded and the adversarial. Her secret to finding common ground? Be the common ground. “I try to make genuine, personal connections with colleagues, customers and communities. Every interaction is an opportunity to build a connection,” she says.
Chief Financial Officer, Marlin Spring
For building a real estate empire for real people
Five years after its founding in 2014, real estate development company Marlin Spring has 30 projects in the works. Naturally, collaboration is key—but never at the expense of individuality. “I always give people latitude to succeed in their own style and their own way,” Elliot Kazarnovsky says. “I set goals at the top, and as long as they meet them, I don’t care how it’s done.” The result is a wide portfolio, from townhouses to highrises, that caters to every kind of customer.
Executive Vice-President & Chief Financial Officer, Canadian Pacific Railway
For offering holistic leadership that merges white collar with blue
Long before he was a VP, Nadeem Velani was what he calls a “career railroader.” He still is, and he expects his finance team—a fraction of CP’s 12,000 employees—to appreciate the practicalities of their business as well. “The bulk of our CP family is out in the field, operating trains, fixing railcars and laying tracks,” he says, “not sitting in an office.” For the desk-bound to understand and appreciate the work, Velani has a simple solution: “We send them out to do conductor training or track inspection courses.” Learning the trade makes for a better accountant, he says.
Chief Financial Officer, Endy
For revolutionizing your comfy night’s sleep
If you’ve bought a new mattress in the past five years, it’s likely you skipped the showroom in favour of a so-called “bed in a box,” a new mattress model that exploded seemingly overnight. Leading the Canadian market is Endy, which, under Alexandra Voyevodina’s watch, grew from zero to $70 million in revenue in two short years. “Any startup’s success comes from a great team and good luck,” she says. Endy operates a lean team of 50 that caters directly to consumers who are increasingly confident shopping online—even for mattresses.
Senior Vice-President & Chief Marketing Officer, Canada and Global Digital Marketing Officer, TD Bank Group
For boosting digital IQ
Thanks to Betsey Chung, 500 TD marketers completed what you might call digital boot camp: “We covered everything from targeting customers to the economics of digital marketing to deepening customer relations,” she says of the program. It was so successful that it was immediately expanded to other teams—including front-line workers. Chung’s timing was perfect, as COVID-19 brought droves of customers who were desperately in need of advice. For those clients, the bank launched Ready Advice, which equips tellers and call centres with “the ability to read customer cues.”
Chief Financial Officer, Wealthsimple
For having a career trajectory worthy of a Hollywood biopic
Wealthsimple’s cheeky motto—"Get rich slow"—could just as easily describe the career of its CFO, the fifth child in a rural Chinese family too poor for indoor plumbing. At 25, Leen Li came to Canada for an MBA. Twenty years later, she’s leading one of the country’s most innovative online investment firms, where she expertly combines her background in both finance and technology. “We use a hybrid of humans and computers to help you choose and manage investments,” she says.
Tania L. Little
Chief Development & Partnerships Officer, Food Banks Canada
For raising more than a $100 million when Canadians need it most
Food Banks Canada usually raises $20 million annually. Since the pandemic struck in March, it has collected more than $120 million, thanks largely to the tireless efforts of Tania Little—though she won’t take much credit. “During COVID-19, Canadians were triggered by a primal fear around food,” she says. But while most of us saw greedy shoppers hoarding toilet paper, Little looked deeper to see “that fear could trigger empathy and motivation.” Her team mobilized donors, expanded the donor base and organized “Stronger Together,” one of the most successful charitable TV broadcasts in Canadian history.
Executive Vice-President & Head of Wealth and Personal Banking, HSBC Bank Canada
For being the people’s banker
Bankers often get a bad rap, but Larry Tomei is walking proof that the stereotypes aren’t always accurate. “We change people’s lives for the better; we help build wealth, send your kids to school, buy your home,” says the VP and “proud banker” for 26 years. He’s known to frequent branches just to meet his staff and present awards—each one signed personally by hand. “I want them to know that if they’ve worked hard enough to earn this, then the least thing I can do is sign it.”
President, North America, Canada Goose Holdings
For boosting a brand from unknown to iconic
It’s hard to fathom, but the iconic coat with the signature round red logo—seen on the arms of such celebrities as Justin Bieber, Kate Upton and Drake—wasn’t in the public Canadian consciousness less than a decade ago. “We were 50 years old, but no one had really heard of us, especially outside Canada,” says Carrie Baker of the brand. With a little bit of luck and a whole lot of Baker’s masterful public relations skills, Canada Goose conquered the market so strongly and swiftly that it feels like it’s been here the whole time.
Chief Technology Officer, BlueDot
For predicting pandemics before they happen
Years before you’d ever heard the word “coronavirus,” Mike Chmura had identified and studied what was called “Disease X.” “We knew there’d be a pandemic eventually, so it was our job to build the infrastructure and framework we’d need,” says Chmura. BlueDot uses AI-driven detection technology to spot would-be outbreaks at the source by analyzing data (including news, media and radio) across 70 languages. Among many impressed clients is Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who recently added Chmura’s disease analytics platform to the country’s pandemic-fighting plan.
Chief Corporate Affairs & Customer Care Officer, Hydro One
For gambling on customer service
In a field where everything that can be outsourced usually is, Jason Fitzsimmons boldly moved the other way. “For years, like most, we outsourced our contact centre, but having a third party between us and customers just didn’t make sense,” he says. Top-notch in-house customer care was a risky, expensive move that paid off almost immediately: Hydro One enjoyed the highest residential satisfaction rate it has seen in a decade—not to mention savings of $9 million.
Chief Technology Officer, Top Hat
For creating free virtual classrooms
Knowing technology is increasingly important for educators, Toronto-based Top Hat built classroom software for post-secondary professors. Then COVID-19 hit. “All our plans were expanded and accelerated,” says Bhavin Shah. Top Hat shifted its software to create a virtual classroom app on web and mobile, a “fully active learning platform” with lectures, tests, homework, questions and polling. Best of all, it’s widely available and totally free. “We were in a fortunate position to help, so we did,” Shah says.
Vice-President, Human Resources, Metro Inc.
For skipping the sugarcoating
In March, 90,000 front-line Metro workers relied on geneviève bich’s leadership, guidance and, most of all, honesty. “I believe in telling the truth, always,” she says. Even though nobody had answers about the pandemic, bich’s team “tried to communicate as often and effectively as possible, adjusting as we went.” This meant listening to questions and suggestions, and putting employees' health—physical and mental—first. “If someone was too afraid to come to work, we weren’t going to force them. We were going to give them the resources they needed to feel better.”
Head of Human Resources Canada, Cisco
For moving diversity beyond a talking point
Many companies preach diversity and inclusion, but few make it a mandate. Cisco’s former HR head (she recently joined Shopify), Nicki Sabapathy—a Sri Lankan immigrant who came to Canada as a teenager—is the perfect person to lead the charge: “When we bring people into the organization, I make sure we think and act through a lens: Do they see others like themselves here? Are they comfortable here? Can they bring their best and whole self to work? It’s my job to make sure everyone fits.”
Chief Digital Officer, Bank of Montreal
For making digital banking easier than ever before
Over two decades in the digital banking sector, Brett Pitts watched a slow but steady trajectory toward the adoption of digital banking. In the past six months, by obvious necessity, came everyone else. Late adopters are reluctant and tech-phobic, so it’s Pitts’s job to make online banking as easy as pushing a button. “Our new platform, QuickPay, lets users pay bills just by forwarding the email,” he says. “We use artificial intelligence to identify the payment and due date, and pay it automatically.”
President of Home Solutions, Telus Corp.
For providing health care solutions from an unlikely source
Most Canadians don’t know it, says Zainul Mawji, but “Telus is actually the largest digital health company in Canada.” The telecom provides services for doctors, pharmacies and insurance providers. When COVID-19 struck, Mawji guided her team to move quickly into a direct-to-consumers model. Alongside countless apps, devices and virtual care solutions, they even repurposed 11 mobile clinics into curbside coronavirus testing units for front-line workers.
Senior Executive Vice-President & Chief Financial Officer, CIBC
For fostering diversity
“The world we live in now is changing so quickly and so has our culture. We’re still focused on client outcomes and delivering to our shareholders, but I’m thinking a lot about diversity in all dimensions—gender, race, age and sexual orientation, of course, but you can expand far beyond that. There’s diversity of thought, of education, of abilities. I would think it’s the perspective of all good leaders.”
Executive Vice-President & Chief Operating Officer, Full Service, Sobeys
For recognizing the importance of his whole team
“I’ve made a balanced team with highly experienced people and people with high potential. You need both, especially now. Through this crisis, we learned that front-line workers are just as important as executives—or more. The stronger the team is, the stronger our business will be. People are our biggest asset, and it’s where we need to focus.”
Senior Vice-President of Data Science & Engineering, Shopify
For using data to democratize a million merchants
Shopify’s mandate is to democratize commerce for entrepreneurs big and small; Solmaz Shahalizadeh’s job is to crunch the numbers and make it happen. Shopify found her when the then investment banker showed up at a weekend-long just-for-fun Shopify hackathon. “A month later, they hired me,” she says. Shopify’s merchants need not beg a bank for a loan, because Shahalizadeh’s algorithm will use back-end data to predict their success and fund them accordingly. “We give enterprise-level solutions, right off the bat, to a million merchants who might otherwise never get the capital they need,” she says.
Vice-President of North American Manufacturing Operations, Corby Spirit and Wine/Pernod-Ricard
For moving the booze business to serve the greater good
Corby’s five North American distilleries (they distill, mature, blend, bottle and distribute spirits) found themselves in possession of a much-needed pandemic product: ethanol for hand sanitizer. “We worked with the WHO’s recipe and started mass-producing sanitizer, both for our internal use and for society,” says Melissa Hanesworth. Without slowing its usual business, Corby produced hundreds of thousands of litres of sanitizer for hospitals, nursing homes and more.
Robert C. Campbell
Partner and National Director of Indigenous Services, MNP
For engaging and championing Indigenous people in business
Robert Campbell, MNP’s first Indigenous partner, is focused on bringing strong business practices to Canada’s Indigenous communities. “I try to convey the message on behalf of my company to my community, and vice versa, that we’ve stepped up our game and changed our ways to better suit the needs of this important demographic in Canada,” says Campbell.
Executive Vice President & Chief Compliance Officer, Bank of Nova Scotia
For implementing 600 safety plans
Before Nicole Frew was poached by Scotiabank, she was actually the company’s lawyer. “It was a huge fork in the road for me but a tremendous opportunity,” she says of moving to the business world in 2005. Frew now oversees expansive markets—Scotiabank has branches in Canada, Mexico, Peru, Chile, Colombia, Central America and the Caribbean—and is diligently managing 600 different business continuity plans, each tailored to a unique branch. “It’s a complex issue in any geography, and every geographical environment is different,” she says. “We’re busy making sure our employees and customers are as safe as they can be wherever they are.”
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