Faculty of Animation, Arts & Design
Degree: Graphic Design
Year of graduation: 1974
Graphic design alumnus John Sawyer was once dubbed “The Most Huggable Man in Oakville” – and he’s got good reason to be. Sawyer, the president of the Oakville Chamber of Commerce since 2005, spends his days making connections between people and advocating for businesses in the region. “We absolutely exist to bring people together,” he says. “I take great satisfaction in building community partnerships.”
As someone who has watched Oakville evolve since he moved here as a child in 1960, Sawyer is an Oakvillian through and through: his wife of 35 years, Marianne Sawyer, is also a Sheridan graduate and his father worked delivering cars from the local Ford plant for 40 years. Growing up on the westernmost edge of Oakville, Sawyer remembers a very different town. “There was nothing but apple orchards in the area at the time,” he recalls. “We’re now the fifth largest Chamber of Commerce in Ontario and among the top 20 in Canada, while being a mid-sized community with a relatively small business base. We punch way above our weight.”
In his own path towards the Oakville Chamber of Commerce, Sawyer has worked with corporations large and small, whether managing extensive teams or starting his own company. Upon graduation from Sheridan in the early 70s, Sawyer started in design at a variety of print shops, but after a stint in the Ministry of Transportation in the research and development department putting together communications pieces, he found that he was drawn to sales and business.
Sawyer spent 15 years working for the Jim Pattison Group in St. Catharines, Vancouver and in the U.S. in positions from regional manager to vice president, and general manager of the News Group. There, he learned management and outreach skills that would serve him well later in his career. “When I started, I was 35 at the time, and the branch I was running was worth about 2.5 million dollars, and they gave me free reign,” he says. “Jim Pattison taught me so many useful lessons, especially that you have to give people responsibility, let them find their way and hold them accountable…and you can’t do that if you're telling them what to do.”
Working with the Pattison Group – as well as being a business adviser for five years for a number of private and public sector clients – also taught Sawyer about leading a team, a skill he found essential when he was presented with the opportunity to head up the Oakville Chamber of Commerce. “As the leader, your job is to build the team,” he says. “It’s to make sure that you’ve got the right people with the right skills in the right place at the right time, and that the chemistry is right.”
Today, Sawyer and his team of nine people (only six of which are full time) host between 55 and 65 events a year, ranging from small meetings with politicians to events with 800 attendees. The photos of luminaries that the Chamber has brought to Oakville line the walls of Sawyer’s office, including Prime Ministers Stephen Harper and Justin Trudeau, Governor of the Bank of Canada Steven Poloz, and three U.S. Ambassadors. Sawyer has a story to tell for each of those visits: a connection made, a business helped or just the right word in the right place.
Although Sawyer has been recognized with multiple awards for his community service and business acumen, he puts his team and its work in the spotlight before his own accomplishments behind the scenes. “One of the reasons I fit the Chamber and it fits me is that I get a great joy out of helping people,” he says. “Everything that I’ve learned and done in my career has led me here. Coming to the Oakville Chamber of Commerce felt like coming home.”