‘He was just somebody who truly wanted to see everyone achieve’: Ottawa mourns tech pioneer John Kelly

John Kelly
"Generous" community builder John Kelly, bottom left, with the Ottawa Integrative Cancer Centre, during his time as chair.

When Debbie Weinstein was getting her Ottawa law firm off the ground 25 years ago, she knew exactly where she wanted her office to be: as close to John Kelly’s as possible.

It was early 1997, and Weinstein had just left a lucrative position as managing partner at corporate law specialists Blake, Cassels & Graydon to navigate the uncertain waters of entrepreneurship, opening a new firm with colleague Paul LaBarge. 

The fledgling startup needed a champion. And to no one’s surprise, Kelly stepped up.

Already a well-established tech leader with a string of pioneering ventures to his name, Kelly was then CEO of software maker JetForm. He immediately signed the young firm of LaBarge Weinstein to a deal that saw it provide legal services to JetForm in exchange for a regular monthly fee. 

Suddenly, the lawyers’ new venture – which had set up its headquarters just down the street from the rising tech star – was off and running.

“That allowed a startup law firm to have cash-flow day one,” Weinstein said Wednesday, the same day Kelly was laid to rest at Beechwood Cemetery. 

“There are very few people who would ever do something like that – ever. We owe our law firm’s early success to John.”

Countless Ottawa entrepreneurs have been recounting similar tales ever since Kelly died peacefully in his sleep on June 28 at the age of 82 due to complications from a heart attack he suffered in December.

The transplanted Newfoundlander who moved to the nation’s capital in the Centennial Year of 1967 became one of the true giants of a sector that transformed the city’s economy. Kelly lent a helping hand to seemingly everyone in Ottawa’s tech industry at one time or another, giving upstart founders hope while dispensing wise counsel to the rest – and rarely asking for anything in return.

“John was all about helping others succeed,” said tech veteran Garry Brownrigg, Kelly’s cousin once removed, who worked with his relative at a number of companies, including JetForm. “He was just somebody who truly wanted to see everyone achieve.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by tech leaders across the National Capital Region.

“John was a gentleman,” said Tom Hicks, who co-founded JetForm, then called Indigo Software, in 1982 and invited his friend to join the firm’s board of directors six years later. “He was very generous with his time and his resources.”

"He had the vision to say, ‘Hey, we’re going to go on Nasdaq,’ which was unheard of back then, especially for a small public company."

Indeed, Kelly – a native of St. John’s who left the Rock in 1956 to study finance at Iona College in New York and spent some time in Toronto before settling in Ottawa – was one of his adopted hometown’s most dedicated business and community builders of the past 50 years.

Kelly’s entrepreneurial prowess was on full display at JetForm. He took on the role of chief executive officer in 1992 and proceeded to pilot the firm’s dizzying ascent, which saw it go public on the Nasdaq the following year and continue to double its annual revenues and headcount for much of the decade. 

“He had the vision to say, ‘Hey, we’re going to go on Nasdaq,’ which was unheard of back then, especially for a small public company,” Weinstein said.

Kelly’s achievements at JetForm earned him CEO of the Year honours from OBJ in 1998. By the time he retired in 2000, the electronic form software producer employed 600 people and was racking up annual sales of $120 million. 

Still, there were a few hiccups along the way. JetForm inked a partnership with Moore Business Forms that saw the JetForm rival pay the Ottawa firm a considerable sum in exchange for exclusive rights to sell JetForm software to customers in designated industries such as defence and banking – a deal Weinstein believes didn’t always work in JetForm’s favour.

“Joining up with your biggest competitor who really doesn’t want you to succeed can be problematic, and we ran into issues,” she said. “John recognized that as a company back then we weren’t going to be able to scale quickly. He found … a party that would help us scale JetForm more quickly. In the end, it wasn’t the best transaction to do. 

“He made pretty big bets. Sometimes they paid off, and sometimes they didn’t.”

Nonetheless, one thing is undeniable: Kelly was a visionary who left a legacy of trailblazing ventures that includes SHL Systemhouse and NABU Network, a home computer system he helped launch in 1983 that could download data and software via cable TV feeds.  

While the company was not the rousing commercial success its founders hoped it would be – the network ceased operation just two years later – the system now dubbed “the internet 10 years before its time” is considered revolutionary today.

“Every experience I had (with Kelly) was always something that was leading edge and exciting and just a lot of fun to be a part of,” said Brownrigg, who started his career in tech at NABU Network after graduating from Carleton University in 1984. 

'True serial entrepreneur'

Weinstein agreed, calling her longtime mentor “a true serial entrepreneur.”

“He belonged in the U.S.,” she said. “He was like a Silicon Valley guy before his time.”

A tireless community volunteer, Kelly led Ottawa’s United Way campaign in 2000 and served as chair of the Ottawa Integrative Cancer Centre, now known as the Centre for Health Innovation. For his efforts, he received the outstanding volunteer fundraising award from the Ottawa chapter of the National Society of Fund Raising Executives in 2000 and the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2012.

In 1998, the University of Ottawa – where Kelly somehow managed to find time to earn a law degree in the 1970s – awarded him an honorary doctorate.

But friends say it was another unpaid role – that of devoted husband to Hanna, his wife of 37 years, and father to children Meredith, John, Andrew, Matthew and Bobby – that gave a life brimming with accomplishments its ultimate purpose.

“Any time his family called the office, it didn’t matter who he was with, he took the call,” said Brownrigg, who affectionately referred to Kelly in private as “Uncle John.” 

“John had a hard time saying no to anything because he was such a generous, inviting, community-minded (person),” Weinstein added. “His first priority always was his family. Hanna and his kids were the joys and loves of his life.”

For Hicks, his longtime friend embodied the best of Ottawa.

“He did so many things for the community – not just for business but for the community. I have so much respect for him and what he did. 

“The man was heroic. I’ll miss him for sure.”

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