Peter Stewart has made a career out of helping businesses succeed.
Over the past 25 years, he’s gone from servicing small business operators in Orléans, to expanding and strengthening its chamber of commerce, to dishing out expert advice to aspiring entrepreneurs in a compassionate and thoughtful way.
In recognition of his contributions, the Orléans Chamber of Commerce has honoured the 53-year-old business mentor with a lifetime achievement award, presented to him by the chair of its board, Sean Crossan.
“The way I look at it, he’s been the godfather of the business community in Orléans,” Crossan, a director with Public Services and Procurement Canada, told OBJ. “He’s had such a huge and positive impact.”
Ottawa has been home to Stewart, a native of Montreal, since he graduated from Carleton University in 1986 with a degree in urban geography.
He started his career with Royal LePage commercial real estate but changed directions after noticing a trend: more people were working from home and needed a one-stop shop for their faxing, photocopying, courier services, packing and shipping, and mailbox rental.
“I saw an opportunity and I went for it,” says Stewart, who dove into entrepreneurship in 1993. He opened a Mail Boxes Etc franchise, which was a retail chain of business service centres.
What Stewart most liked about his business was the clientele: business people.
“I enjoyed the variety of business customers we got to know and their business challenges,” he says.
Stewart ran his store at Jeanne D’Arc and St. Joseph boulevards in Orléans for 11 years. By 2004, Mail Boxes Etc. was acquired by UPS. Stewart had sold his business and took on the role of area manager for the 20 franchised locations while the company was rebranding itself as The UPS Store. He also sat on the board of the Orléans Chamber of Commerce in the early 2000s.
In 2006, he got a call from the Chamber about a new position it was looking to create. It wanted to hire an executive director. They asked Stewart whether he would contact a specific candidate that they had in mind. He did so, but the individual had recently accepted another job.
“I phoned them back and said, ‘Good news, bad news. The bad news is: the other person doesn’t want the job. The good news is: I might be interested.’”
The Chamber was thrilled to have Stewart, who went on to lay a strong foundation for the organization and to successfully promote local business in Orléans. Under his leadership, membership numbers increased as he organized networking breakfasts, luncheons, annual business awards, golf tournament and all-candidate debates.
Joining one’s local chamber of commerce, says Stewart, allows business owners to be in direct contact with other business owners.
"Too many business people don’t get involved in their community and miss out on opportunities."
“Too many business people don’t get involved in their community and miss out on opportunities. They miss out on talking to other business people and they miss out on hearing how other business people are having the exact same struggles that they are,” he says.
Stewart – who also simultaneously served as board chair of the Heart of Orléans BIA – was one of the driving forces behind the construction of a $2.5-million, multi-lane roundabout at the busy four-way intersection of Jeanne D’Arc and St. Joseph.
The project, which was partly funded by federal and provincial infrastructure funds, was designed to improve safety and traffic flow while easing congestion. From a business perspective, it offered a gateway to Orléans.
“Initially, people were against it; a lot of people thought it wouldn’t work,” Stewart recalls of the European-style traffic circle that opened in November 2010. “Now, everybody goes, ‘It works; it really works.’”
Stewart left the Chamber that year to get, he jokingly adds, “a real job”. His three sons – Max, Alan and Eric – were heavily into sports while he was with the Chamber and the position allowed him to be involved with their activities. His youngest had made the National Capital Outaouais Ski Team.
“Officially, the Chamber role was a part-time position,” says Stewart. “A neighbour of mine suggested to me that I should become a small business consultant. I found that interesting, because I had also thought that same thing.”
Stewart joined a bigger and broader organization – the OCRI Entrepreneurship Centre (now known as Invest Ottawa) – as a business advisor for growth-stage companies. His commitment to helping entrepreneurs led to him becoming the manager of entrepreneurship services in 2013.
Stewart spent six years with the city’s economic development corporation, providing guidance and advice on an annual basis to more than 100 businesses from Ottawa’s east end.
“I really enjoyed it and found it very interesting,” says Stewart of the variety of ideas that were floated past him. “One guy was into intergalactic space travel. I was, like, ‘No, it’s not happening.’ A lot of people think they can start a business but don’t know the basics, so we offered training, seminars and workshops.
“There were some surprises, too; people who we didn’t think would make it did make it.”
In May 2016, Stewart stepped down from that role to begin his own business coaching practice with Rhapsody Strategies, drawing from his previous management and professional experience, as well as his local knowledge.
Stewart has always been a devoted family man. In his free time, he enjoys being at the family cottage near Kazabazua, Que.
“We call it his kingdom,” jokes his wife, Cynthia. “He goes and he putters.”
These days, Stewart’s focus is on his health. He’s been undergoing radiation and chemotherapy treatment for esophageal cancer since his diagnosis in October.
He continues to maintain a positive attitude toward recovery and draws strength and inspiration from the support of his loved ones, friends and colleagues.