How former rock musician Michael Wood became the voice of Ottawa small business

Ottawa Special Events partner and Algonquin College prof brings concerns of small business owners to attention of all governments
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Michael Wood, partner at Ottawa Special Events, has been advocating on behalf of small businesses since the COVID-19 pandemic began in March. Photo by Caroline Phillips
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Michael Wood is neither a powerful and politically connected figure nor part of the establishment.

He’s what you’d call a regular guy who, simply by picking up his phone, sending emails and contacting government officials, has become a champion for small business during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Last March, when much of the city and nation were shutting down, the Ottawa small businessman reached out to his city councillor, Keith Egli. Their conversation motivated him to contact local MP Catherine McKenna, who’s also one of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s high-profile cabinet ministers. Go big or home, he figured. 

To his welcomed surprise, McKenna was all ears. Her willingness to listen subsequently set him on his tireless path to advocacy.

That and, to a lesser extent, the power of music. He had an epiphany-like moment in April while walking around his neighbourhood, getting fresh air and exercise, with his earbuds in and tunes on high. The star-studded cover of the Foo Fighters’ Times Like These motivated him to keep going, even while his company, Ottawa Special Events, was headed toward a 96 per cent drop in business for 2020.

In the weeks and months to follow, Wood got the attention of at least two dozen politicians of all stripes and their top advisers. There was the province's Associate Minister of Small Business, Prabmeet Sarkaria, federal Liberal finance committee chair Wayne Easter and NDP MPP Catherine Fife, just to name a few. Through phone calls and live streaming, he shared his concerns with all levels of government.

“I felt that if I was going to stand up for myself it would be irresponsible not to try and help everybody else who was struggling at the same time,” says Wood, 44, in an interview.

He’s testified, virtually, before the House of Commons and presented before Ontario’s standing committee on finance and economic affairs. Wood has hosted numerous online roundtable discussions, involving as many as 100 local small businesses. His name has been mentioned more than once during question period at Queen’s Park.

Wood has addressed such issues as rent relief programs and government wage subsidies, insurance snafus and Hydro frustrations. He’s defended restaurants, fitness centres and other small businesses that are getting the life choked out of them by tightened public health measures. 

“Small business is crucial to our landscape,” says Wood, who founded Ottawa Special Events in 2010 with co-owner Peter Gilroy. 

The company, located in Kaladar Park, rents out event equipment, including stages, lighting and sound equipment, tables, chairs and party tents. Clients include Capital Pride, the Canadian Tulip Festival and Glowfair.

During its busy summer months, Ottawa Special Events has a staff of 50-plus. It had to let its 22 employees go when the pandemic erupted in March, just as the company was coming out of its slow season. “We haven’t brought anyone back, not through lack of desire,” says Wood.

The former Forty Under 40 recipient (with an uncanny ability to remember names) has taken his new advocacy role so seriously that he’s registered himself as a lobbyist. A surge of news media interest in him has resulted in some backlash from social media trolls but, he adds, it’s also opened new doors and opportunities.

“I feel like I’m 25 again. I feel like anything’s possible at this point.”

Back when Wood was actually 25, he was the guitarist in the rock band Circuit, made up of Ottawa-area musicians. They toured North America and played in front of Ottawa Senators hockey fans during playoff season. Wood has also been to the Grammy Awards a bunch of times.

“I’ve gone from rock and roll to watching the Ontario Parliament Network,” he jokes.

It was a family illness that led to Wood quitting the band in 2007 and moving back to his hometown, to be closer to his mom, Gail. She passed away three years later at age 61. She was an English teacher at Sir Robert Borden High School, where Wood had studied. 

He recalls a conversation he shared with a friend about losing someone, and how you can’t really feel the pain unless you’ve been there.

“It’s also hard to relate to someone who’s lost a job or business until you, yourself, no longer have a paycheque,” he says.

Wood’s return to Ottawa coincided with him being offered a job at his alma mater, Algonquin College, teaching the introductory class to music industry arts, which is a two-semester program. He’s been organizing online video chats since long before it was a pandemic staple, connecting his students to Paul Rosenberg, manager to Eminem; Pink Floyd producer Bob Ezrin; Dan Kanter, former lead guitarist for Justin Bieber; and Grammy Award-winning producer and songwriter Desmond Child, among others.

Wood, who loves teaching, says he’s been dishing out the same how-to-get-ahead advice to his students for years.

“I’ve been telling them, ‘Things are not that complicated. Pick up the phone, make the calls, send the emails, work hard, always be professional, and things will always have a way of working themselves out’.”

Wouldn’t you know it, that’s exactly what he’s been doing over these past seven or eight months.

“It was just time for me to take my own advice.”

Five things to know about Michael Wood:

  1. He won a 2013 Capital Educators’ Award and was recently nominated by Algonquin College for a national educator award. 
  2. The late Casey Kasem was instrumental in helping him and his band get signed to a record label. How did he come to meet the American icon? Through his best friend’s father, who was Kasem’s cousin.
  3. He wasn’t lured into a drugs-and-booze lifestyle during his rock and roll years. He worked hard and even wrote a book: You’ve Got a Friend in the ‘Biz: A Practical Guide to the Music Industry for Musicians & Aspiring Representatives.
  4. For fun, he pranks one of his Barrhaven neighbours. One year, he and another neighbour took dozens of old Christmas trees that were being disposed of after the holidays and created an enchanted forest on the neighbour's front lawn. 
  5. He describes himself as being a combination of George Costanza from hit sitcom Seinfeld and Guns N' Roses singer Axl Rose for that “little bit of oomph.”