Alumni profile: John Ruffolo

Chief Financial Officer, OMERS Ventures

John Ruffolo’s bold new venture

Step into the lobby of OMERS Ventures and you’ll find a veritable miniature museum featuring past hits of the tech world. From early Mac computers and Blackberry PDAs to a classic Commodore Vic20 and a Pong gaming system, many of the great technology advances of the past 40 years are neatly laid out in a few glassed-in display cases.

Yesterday’s blockbuster hits also represent what former Deloitte partner and board member John Ruffolo is looking for today in his new role as chief executive officer of OMERS Ventures, the three-year-old venture capital arm of the Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System. Ruffolo wants to be funding projects that will possess the same iconic status those early tech triumphs maintain decades after their debuts.

In fact, despite its relatively recent arrival on the venture capital scene, Ruffolo’s tech-focused shop already seems well on its way to being seen as a top incubator of enduring names in Canadian digital start-ups. Among its many celebrated holdings, OMERS Ventures boasts significant stakes in two of the country’s best known digital start-ups. It put an early $20 million into Vancouver-based social media superstar Hootsuite back in 2012. Last year, it led a $100-million round of fundraising for Ottawa e-commerce service provider Shopify. Deals like these help explain why Canadian Business Magazine recently named Ruffolo as Canada’s most powerful businessperson for 2014 and why York University’s Schulich School of Business is this year honouring the Class of 1988 BBA graduate with an award for outstanding progress and achievement.

A proud alumnus who spent 23 years with Deloitte and Andersen, Ruffolo’s roles with the firm included a long run as Canadian Industry Leader for Deloitte’s Technology, Media and Telecommunications (TMT) practice.

He sees his current position as similar to what he did in the latter stages of his Deloitte career.

“We’re still advisors,” he says, “but because you can actually direct capital, your ability to move the needle on the advice gets accelerated and your impact is just that much stronger.”

Another perk is the figurative crystal ball offered by his current position. When the brightest minds in tech visit OMERS Ventures for funding, they bring a lot of cool ideas.

“I get to see the future before many other people do,” says Ruffolo. “I get so optimistic and so pumped when you see, particularly these younger kids that are coming who have not been biased by failure yet and [they have this] desire to change the world. You just leave with the greatest rush.”

Beyond its investments, OMERS Ventures is changing the world by shifting the landscape of Canadian entrepreneurship. For years, it was accepted as gospel that Canada lacked the resources or the will to help homegrown businesses succeed. Big-league funding, by and large, came from south of the border.

Ruffolo has imbued OMERS Ventures with a proudly Canadian vision. From a polar-bear table stand in the reception area to the Lake Louise-inspired meeting room to floorboards made of reclaimed lumber found in the Ottawa River, everything about it screams true north, strong and free.

Wearing a neat shirt-and-dark-jeans ensemble that certainly breaks the traditional buttoned-down Bay Street mould, Ruffolo chuckles at the memory of the first time his downtown Toronto office hosted visitors from the venture mecca that is California’s Silicon Valley.

“They said, ‘I just came to Canada, didn’t I?’” Ruffolo says.

By deploying an initial $200-million pool of capital that’s one of the country’s deepest when it comes to directly funding new ventures, Ruffolo believes OMERS Ventures is helping to prime the next big innovations in Canadian business. But for him, success goes beyond merely helping new businesses get going. His eyes are trained on being part of the next globally recognized, billion-dollar-revenue type of company to come out of Canada.

Ruffolo’s expansive vision can be attributed, at least in part, to lessons he learned at Deloitte.

Trained as a tax advisor, Ruffolo says Deloitte taught him to think like a businessperson. It expanded his vision beyond technical competency and advising on tax matters to the innovation-focused sphere he now occupies.

By working closely with clients and learning to understand their needs, his competencies in various areas grew. That in turn created a virtuous circle in which Ruffolo increasingly became a key part of his clients’ decision-making processes.

“In the last ten years of my career, people would chuckle that I was a tax practitioner because they thought sometimes I was an audit guy, they thought I was a consulting guy — they really didn’t know,” he says. “That’s what I actually learned the most: being the advisor or the trusted advisor to companies is really a panacea.”

How do you like to relax when you have a moment?
Skiing in the winter and cycling in the non-winter months.

What’s your motto?
Change the world.

What’s the most recent book you read?
The Loyal Lieutenant: Leading Out Lance and Pushing Through the Pain on the Rocky Road to Paris by (cyclist) George Hincapie (with Craig Hummer).

Most people don’t know you are…?
A tax advisor!

What’s your favorite place in the world?

What’s your favourite hobby?
Sports are a hobby. Well, the only hobby I really have is I’m a wine collector.

If you weren’t doing what you are now, what would you be doing?
I would be an archaeologist.

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