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Never Waste a Crisis – The Ampersand June 2021

June 1, 2021

Dear Friends and Colleagues,


One year ago, to the day, we wrote in our June 1 Ampersand a piece entitled Are We There Yet?  Speculating, a mere two-and-one-half months into the pandemic, as to its end date.  How adorable.


The not incorrect yet wholly unsatisfactory answer we offered up at that time?  “Soon.


Here we sit 365 days later. So, we’ll ask again, far less prematurely we hope…Are we theeerrrrrre yet?? 


Here’s how we phrased the question last June:


“Try as you might to sing about beer bottles on a wall, for those of you with children, or who were children at one point in your life, you’ll know the classic answer to that question, Are we there yet?!? That answer is: Soon.


Most of life’s adversities have a known end, at the beginning.  In for a root canal? You know it will be over in an hour or two.  Terrible date?  Overseas flight? Holiday school concert?  Pregnant with twins?  All of these things do, eventually and with certainty, end. And what gets us through them is our envisioning the other side. A life after the thing. It’s the finiteness that makes it bearable and keeps us sane.”


Well, sane has waned. And in the intervening period we have Flattened the Curve, Rounded the Corner, Crested the Wave and, most recently, Stopped the Spike. The question I have is may we now Start the Party?



The answer is no longer “soon” as much as, “yes, but…”.  Based on the May 26th release of the Government’s #OpenForSummer three phased approach to easing restrictions, it looks like a return to normal can happen, if and when hospitalization and vaccination rates hit certain thresholds. That is clearly great news, except for one problem: those two metrics are entirely beyond my control. I’m doing my part; I am not in hospital, and I have received my vaccine. Beyond that, my impending liberation is dependent upon the common sense, selflessness and wisdom of my fellow Albertans, an at-times uncomfortable trifecta upon which to be dependent. Is it any wonder that over 95% of Albertans presently in hospital with Covid haven’t been vaccinated?! Our tax dollars hard at work.


Beyond that, my impending liberation is dependent upon the common sense, selflessness and wisdom of my fellow Albertans, an at-times uncomfortable trifecta upon which to be dependent.


Happily, here at Pekarsky & Co., there are certain things entirely within our control and, happier still, we decided long ago that we can only control the things we can control. So, as we pen the final Ampersand before our summer recess and as our 12th fiscal year draws to a close at the end of this month, we thought we’d look back at a few of the decisions made and things done during this past year. For, before we can return to what was, or the remnants thereof, it would be prudent to take stock. Not necessarily to prepare us for next time (though governments around the world may wish to undertake such a study), but to critically ask what we learned whilst in crisis that may actually serve us well on the other side.


They can be summed up in five words: invest, assess, innovate, adapt, explore. Let me explain.



In our entire 12-year history, never have we invested as much as this past year. Professional services firms like us actually fared pretty well during the pandemic. They pivoted rather seamlessly to working from home, the tools of their trade residing mostly between their ears. Their expenses plummeted as they realized that flying to Toronto, staying the night and expensing dinner in the name of a two-hour meeting isn’t great for the bottom line. Indeed, if revenues had merely stayed flat these past 12 months, their profitability likely would have increased but revenues actually grew for some. I don’t have an MBA, but I think if revenues go up while expenses go down, that’s good. The question is whether that boon to the owners was pocketed or invested back into the operation to make it stronger on the rebound.


We chose to take that found money – and found it was, for one year ago we were like a bungee jumper free falling to earth wondering whether the cord was longer than height of the bridge – and we invested it. We invested in our people, hiring a professional facilitator to lead our two-day firm retreat and train us all on the critical subject of unconscious bias. We then hired that facilitator, Jill Birch, to join our firm. We worked hard to keep our team’s spirits high hosting a remote holiday cooking class, sending surprise flowers, notes of encouragement and hosting a backyard get together on a mild March evening when such a gathering was permitted. We never missed a bonus payment and when conditions were right, we paid back every nickel of the rollbacks we had to implement in the immediate aftermath of the crisis.


We invested in the latest hardware, docking stations and laptops, too. We invested in powerful recruitment tools such as BoardEx, a global database that connects us with executives across the globe, and Zoominfo, a software service which allows us access to contact information for virtually every professional worldwide. We re-upped our premium LinkedIn status, our membership in Panorama and in the Association of Executive Search Consultants.


Our commitment to investing heavily in the latest technological tools and resources levels the playing field — arguably even tilts it in our favour — when compared to the national or global firms whose perceived advantage over boutiques like us has always been their network and their reach. Not only is ours now as large as theirs, or even bigger, but by engaging us you have supported local without compromising. The robots haven’t killed our industry; they’ve empowered it. Thanks to technology, the fees you pay us stay right here in Alberta, supporting our local tax base and local causes of importance rather than underwriting the overhead associated with expensive offices spread around the globe, and for what?


Finally, we continued our commitment to invest in our community, supporting once again the Enerflex Kids Cancer Care Charity Golf Classic, the Calgary International Film Festival, the Calgary Immigrant Women’s Association, and several other causes and Boards on which we serve and to which we donate time, energy, and resources.



The Covid crisis presented a once-in-a-generation opportunity for the customer to completely reassess its relationship with the supplier. During the past year of challenge, we changed our IT vendor because we had the opportunity to derive better value for similar services on account of a competitive marketplace. We also switched out our accounting firm, moving away from a large global outfit to a local boutique that looks and feels a lot more like us.


We shared unequivocally our expectations of our landlord with our landlord as we emerge from this. With the new Ampersand building beckoning, they seem to be paying attention offering a renovated rooftop patio, bike storage, showers and more. Can you imagine anything more ludicrous a few short years ago than a 2700 sq. ft. tenant in downtown Calgary having the gall to do anything with their landlord other than pay the rent and think of England?


Not lost on us is that we, too, are a supplier, not just a customer, but it is through our lens as customer that we have sharpened our focus and our pencils to deliver to our clients what they need and expect of us. Not that we wouldn’t have done that without Covid, but let’s be honest, success breeds complacency and the Covid crisis spurred urgency. And as John Kotter of the Harvard Business School has noted, “A higher rate of urgency does not imply an ever-present panic, anxiety, or fear. It means a state in which complacency is virtually absent.”



The pandemic didn’t force us, so much as cause us, to take a hard look at our business and pivot. We were always exposed to the ups and downs of a purely transactional business model. We’ve spoken before of feeling like plumbers, not entirely because we often clean up messes, but because from a marketing perspective it’s difficult to compel you to call us if you don’t need us.


With that in mind, the impetus to actually create an entirely new line of business, though the idea had been percolating for years, arrived with clarity soon after the pandemic did.  Watching our searches evaporate last spring provided the necessary motivation. In August of 2020 we started the work and on March 1, 2021 we launched what has proven to be a very successful Leadership Advisory practice with its eight core offerings not only keeping us front and centre through both the ebbs and flows with our existing search clients, but even outstripping our again-busy search practice in terms of the number of active leads.


As long as we were innovating, it was Kiara Marika, our superstar Director, Marketing and Administration, who presciently penned our December 2020 blog entitled Why me? Y Not! who approached me early in 2021 saying, “we should do a podcast.” Six weeks later we dropped our first edition of The Ampersand: Unplugged and have since recorded close to a dozen episodes featuring local business owners, mayoral candidates, people who run airports, restaurants and real estate firms and other fascinating individuals.




When we started the firm 12 years ago it was predominantly a legal search firm. We remain grateful to the legal profession for accepting as part of its business model an unfathomably high rate of turnover and attrition. But we have evolved significantly over the years having successfully executed hundreds of non-legal (not to be mistaken with illegal) searches in that time.


When Covid hit we consciously immersed ourselves in the not-for-profit sector. Sure, the fees are lower, but the demand is high and the work rewarding. In the Covid era we have found Executive Directors or other senior leaders for 4-H Alberta, Brenda Stafford Society, Calgary Quest Children’s Society, The SHARP Foundation, Vecova, Wellspring Calgary, the Telus Calgary Convention Centre and the YW Calgary as well as led Board searches for the Calgary Housing Corporation, the Calgary Public Library, Trellis, YMCA Calgary, Tourism Calgary and several other important civic and charitable organizations. Again, not that we weren’t doing this before, but we are simply doing more of it now and plan to continue to do so.


When Covid hit we figured health and safety roles would increase so we brought in a speaker and educated ourselves in the area and now find ourselves leading searches in the field, including a current mandate for WinSport’s Senior Manager of Occupational, Health, Safety and Environment.  When cannabis was legalized, we, err, educated ourselves on that and recently found a lawyer for Tokyo Smoke in Toronto. Cypto currency? We have a proposal on a potential client’s desk right now. Agri-Tech? We’re all over it. Darwin was right. It’s not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.



Several months back we received a pre-emptive knock on our door from an M&A advisory firm representing a search firm looking to acquire us. It wasn’t the first approach, and it won’t be the last. It would have been irresponsible not to explore the idea, so we did. Perhaps sensing weakness, the Toronto-based suitor approached our enterprise likely expecting a beleaguered and beaten Alberta boutique more than willing to sell at a discount. Much to their chagrin, they found us neither beleaguered nor beaten, but proud and feisty. We took a hard look and once again decided we’re better off where we are, as we are and re-affirmed our status and our strategy as the leading, truly independently owned and operated boutique executive search and leadership advisory firm in these parts.


The exercise was useful. It caused us to look critically inwards and really stress test our resolve during a tumultuous time. I give them full marks for trying and I think the strategy of buying into a down market is a good one. But the Covid lesson here is to not lose your confidence or belief amidst the chaos, particularly as vultures circle overhead.


Back to June 1, 2020, where we wrote:


“And so, the journey continues.  Are there 84 bottles of beer on the wall?  73? 21? 689? Who knows.  Time is a strange construct in a pandemic. But it’s not enough to just survive, stare blankly out the window and simply will the journey to go faster. Rather, it’s time to enjoy the view and notice things you’d not previously had time or inclination to appreciate.”


Well said. Indeed, we did more than that. We controlled the things we could control. We invested, we assessed, we innovated, we adapted, and we explored. And now that the party is getting started, we’re more ready than ever to get after it.


We hope you are, too.