FACILITYCalgary publisher Mark Kolke, in conversation with Jenna Kaye
September 11, 2018
Frugal. Knows the value of money. Work ethic. These things, I believe, don’t get picked up along the way – they start early, we learn them over the breakfast table, they come from family and circumstance and they become part of our DNA. That’s my belief – and I recently spent time interviewing a stellar example of these qualities - Jenna Kaye, founder and CEO of Odyssey Trust Company.
Most of us follow a path that is somewhat predictable in life – and some people defy typical expectations, and I’ve met quite a few people who fit that descriptor. It shows the minute you meet them. It isn’t ‘just confidence’ in their self-assured way, it isn’t just humility and good manners masking obvious and deserved pride …
Her sport, to play at the highest level (All Canadian), requires athleticism and hard work, leadership and determination – and for someone who describes herself as, and is, undersized – you wouldn’t suspect it: she looks like just another lawyer, CEO, rising star, founder, shaker/mover you’ll brush by rushing to your meeting in Calgary's +15 pedway by day, or pushing a stroller around her neighbourhood in the evening – this is the life of most young parents with a five-month old child who fears little and has been making her presence known in Calgary for quite some time now …
Her beginning in Sackville, New Brunswick – first born (she has a younger brother who has also migrated to Calgary), mom a librarian/secretary in a school in Dorchester, dad was a prison guard at a penitentiary in Dorchester – the family’s means were modest and prospects for a professional education would have been remote. Jenna was strong academically, but even stronger athletically. She described herself as ‘undersized’ for excellence in her sport – but she certainly must have an enlarged heart to go with her skills on the court: basketball star in high school in Sackville, summers in Fredericton playing for the Provincial Team, then University of Prince Edward Island, BBA (summers at Laval for basketball and French study), Dalhousie University, MBA, University of Calgary, LLB. Tuition, zero – she did it all on basketball scholarships. Yes she starred on those basketball teams, “All Canadian”, ‘Best Free Throws – 3 yrs. running”. School ended, and her business career in Calgary began – but that was not her first entrepreneurial venture.
While in university, with friends, she started Atlantic Business Consulting Ltd. – a consulting firm, government projects – later sold it. After graduation from law school and leading the Calgary Dinos to Nationals (they lost) she articled at and became an associate with Borden Ladner Gervais LLP. working in their securities group. In 2013 she left to co-found Corporate Diversity Consultants with a focus of getting more women on boards and more women in the c-suites of public companies. You’d think most people would relax and … that wouldn’t be Jenna.
Two years ago, the ‘transfer agent and trustee’ business of Calgary firm Olympia Trust was acquired by Computershare – and Jenna saw an opportunity. And some former Olympia staff were available – she started Odyssey Trust, offering transfer agent and trustee services to western Canadian public companies with an approach of giving great service, and being a ‘service first’ business. She tells me it is paying off; Odyssey have offices in Calgary and Vancouver, have grown from an initial staff of five to 15 – there are 20 shareholders with 25% of the equity held by her management team. They’ve got 120+ clients – public (75%) and private companies.
She’s a non-practicing lawyer. Seems like a good strategy when all your company’s business involves dealing with your clients’ lawyers …
Jenna and partner Scott Saxberg have one daughter and have ‘Mary Poppins’ nanny. Why that name, Odyssey? “I wanted a name you wouldn’t forget – and I’m a Star Trek fan!”
Why are you successful? “three things: drive and ambition, work ethic from my parents, and I have people around me who’ve mentored me and pushed me – especially my husband”.
What has held you back? “being young … being seen as lacking experience in some people’s minds early on. I felt a lack of direction when I practiced law – had a stronger tug for business, for starting my own.
Jenna added, “I don’t like working for other people”, but I thought that might belong under ‘why she is successful’ rather than something which held her back. It strikes me that very little holds her back …
Most business gurus coach people to ‘exceed expectations’; it strikes me that Jenna really gets it – she does. And she’s pretty young, so expect to see and hear a lot from her in the future. And while she tells me she’s not currently playing basketball, she’s considering starting something …
How do you see your business – transfer agent and trustee – going forward over the next quarter?
… very busy. We began by meeting with all the obvious suspects – lots of hard work, lots of meetings. It took a long time to get our first 40 clients – and almost no time to get the next 80. We’ve been going for about 18 months but have really just one year of full scale operations under our belt. We are ‘early days’ in terms of ‘measuring market share’. For instance, cannabis businesses are new – we went after that sector and landed a lot of business.
And over the next five years?
… there may be technological changes coming which impact our customers, but change in the transfer agent and trustee business comes from legislative and regulatory changes. Our change will be ‘growth in market share’ …
What qualities distinguish your preferred colleagues, collaborators and suppliers?
… I want value. I’m really cost conscious – I’m from the east coast, from a family of modest means … I don’t like paying full price if I don’t have to – I shop on Amazon a lot because I like convenience and saving time. In terms of people and firms providing service to us I value long term relationships that add value, people with a strong work ethic.
What distinguishes you that causes people to choose Jenna Kaye/Odyssey Trust, and why do they do business with you, why have they hired you, over your competitors?
… service is the ‘Number 1 reason’. We are flexible, people know we respond quickly and provide personal service.
How would you describe your leadership/management style?
… building a strong team where I am the weakest link; not to say I am weak, but I look for people who are smarter than me at what they do. We are a pretty flat open transparent operation …
What do you lose sleep over, what do you worry about?
… my to-do list, that I get to spend enough time with my daughter.
Who or what influenced you most – that has made a difference in your life, or that was a major turning point?
… all of my family, all of my basketball coaches – but mostly, Reagh Vidito, because he took a chance with me even though I was an undersized player. Randy Gregory, gave me great advice in helping get Odyssey started.
… stroller walks, sleep – not much time for fun these days. I used to travel a lot. I need to have fun, a tan and free time – which is in short supply right now.
What do you read?
… The Wife, children’s books of course, books on Oprah’s list, business books, Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff, business books …
… 2011 Mercedes GLK; used, bought it on a lot in Forest Lawn.
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