Ottawa's Cindy Tomlinson Keon builds on a strong foundation

Tomlinson vice-president never let her gender hold her back while making her own name in the family construction business
Cindy Tomlinson Keon
Tomlinson Group of Companies VP Cindy Tomlinson Keon. (Photo by Caroline Phillips)

Cindy Tomlinson Keon might not have grown up playing with Tonka trucks, but she learned early on the difference between an excavator and a backhoe.

She’s one of the owners of Tomlinson Group of Companies, the largest privately owned, Ottawa-based heavy construction company in Eastern Ontario. 

The firm employs more than 1,800 people and owns and operates 14 pits and quarries. Its services include building roads and bridges, installing underground sewer and water pipes and providing aggregates, concrete and asphalt to waste management and environmental services.

As long as she can remember, Ms. Tomlinson Keon knew her career lay in the family business, with her father Bill Tomlinson. 

“I don’t think that I ever questioned it,” she recalls. “It was just one of those things. I grew up in the business, so you sort of have this whole organic understanding of how it works.”

Today, Ms. Tomlinson Keon, 45, is executive vice-president, director and corporate secretary at Tomlinson Group. She’s an equal shareholder with her older brother Ron, who holds the title of chief executive officer. Bill Tomlinson, 71, is the company chairman.

The story of the self-made business began in 1952 with her grandfather Ralph Tomlinson and his trusty dump truck. His two boys, Bill and his younger brother Ken, got involved in the operation once they were old enough and eventually bought their father out. Over the years, Bill and his children became sole owners after purchasing the shares of Bill’s brother and those of others who had partnered in the business. 

“He took a lot of risks, but they paid off,” says Ms. Tomlinson Keon, recalling how her dad and mom, Johanne, used their Manotick home as collateral in order to buy their first quarry on Moodie Drive in the early 1980s. 

One could say that Bill Tomlinson left no stone unturned in building his road construction company into a multimillion-dollar operation. It has successfully expanded both organically and through acquisitions, beginning with Beaver Asphalt in 1988 and continuing with others such as Greenbelt Construction, Goulbourn Sanitation and, most recently, Dufresne Piling Co.

Importance of teamwork

“My father was the driving force in growing the business into what it is today,” says Ms. Tomlinson Keon. “His success is inspiring, and he definitely has given us – my brother, myself and our children – big shoes to fill.”

Ms. Tomlinson Keon says her father taught her the importance of learning from others and recognizing their strengths, and of working together as a team.

“As a company, we cannot accomplish something without the input of each and every member of the team, from the flagman up to the CEO,” she says.

Ms. Tomlinson Keon got her own start at age 13, cleaning the office on weekends. Her summers always involved working for the family business in office-type jobs.

She grew up in and continues to live in Manotick. After graduating from South Carleton High School, she earned a bachelor’s degree at Bishop’s before studying law at the University of Ottawa.

In her late 20s, Ms. Tomlinson Keon started working as corporate counsel for her family business. She still remembers how intimidated she felt accompanying her dad to meetings of the National Capital Heavy Construction Association. The only other women she’d see were Deborah Mohr-Caldwell from Goldie Mohr and Kathleen Grimes from Site Preparation.

In her 30s, she took over as president of the Centurion Conference and Event Center, which her family had acquired. She and husband Ryan Keon had their wedding reception there in 1999.

Ms. Tomlinson Keon continued to work while raising two children, albeit with reduced hours. Their son William has just started his first year in the biomedical and mechanical engineering program at Carleton University. Emily is in Grade 11 at St. Mark’s Catholic High School.

It can be tough raising children to pursue productive lives when they’re surrounded by wealth and privilege. For Ms. Tomlinson Keon, it was important that her children be grateful, not greedy. 

“I think they know how lucky they are, and that they appreciate it,” she says.

Growing up in a successful family-owned business comes with its own set of challenges and heightened expectations, she concedes.

“When I was younger, I had to work against the bias of being the owner’s kid … As a family member, there is a responsibility to uphold the family name and set a good example for those working around you.”

“When I was younger, I had to work against the bias of being the owner’s kid,” she recalls. “My kids are experiencing that now.

“As a family member, there is a responsibility to uphold the family name and set a good example for those working around you. And if you don’t, you know you will hear about it,” she adds light-heartedly.

With her kids now getting older, Ms. Tomlinson Keon is looking to branch out further. She’s been taking an education course designed for corporate directors. She also serves as president of her family’s new charitable foundation, established last year. 

“I’m at a point in my life where I will increasingly have more time to commit to my career,” she says. “I’m in the process of figuring out exactly where that will bring me.”

Five things you should know about Cindy Tomlinson Keon

  1. She talks to her parents every day, both about work and personal matters. They live only a few minutes apart in Manotick and, along with her brother, also all own recreational waterfront homes next door to one another on the St. Lawrence River.
  2. Ms. Tomlinson Keon’s favourite piece of advice is: Respect is not a thing that comes through name, profession or money; respect is something earned through the things you do and the way you live.
  3. Ms. Tomlinson Keon is related by marriage to one of Ottawa’s most famous doctors: retired heart surgeon and senator Wilbert Keon, founder of the University of Ottawa Heart Institute. Dr. Keon is her father-in-law.
  4. Ms. Tomlinson Keon has proven herself to be cover-page material. She once appeared on the front of a power boating magazine, co-piloting with her dad his renowned race boat, called My Way.
  5. The Tomlinson Family Foundation, under the leadership of Ms. Tomlinson Keon, announced in July its donation of $1 million to the Boys and Girls Club of Ottawa, a non-profit organization that reaches out each year to 4,500 local children and youth through after-school, weekend and summer programs.