02/13/2015 04:32 EST | Updated 04/15/2015 05:59 EDT

Jason MacDonald out, Canadian Tire exec in as PM's director of communications

OTTAWA - Just months prior to a scheduled federal election, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has lost another key member of his inner circle — and has reached into an iconic Canadian corporation to find a replacement.

After 18 months on the job, Jason MacDonald announced Friday that he was leaving as the prime minister's director of communications to take on a new job in the private sector.

MacDonald's departure had been in the works for several weeks.

His replacement was quickly confirmed as Rob Nicol, a senior executive at Canadian Tire.

Nicol worked his way up the corporate ladder at Canadian Tire since joining the firm in 2010 as an associate vice-president, most recently holding the position of vice-president of government relations, according to his online resume.

Prior to 2002, Nicol spent eight years doing media, government and public relations for the corporation that operates the 407 toll road that runs across the top of Toronto.

But it may have been his background in politics that interested Harper.

Nicol worked as a senior staff member for former Ontario Progressive Conservative premier Mike Harris from 2000 until 2002.

Nicol announced Friday that he was leaving Canadian Tire for the Prime Minister's Office, said Duncan Fulton, a senior vice-president at the corporation who was also a former spokesman in the PMO — this time for Jean Chretien.

"He's wickedly smart and strategic," Fulton said. "It's a big loss for us."

Nicol is used to having a huge amount of responsibility on his hands, and always handles the stress with grace, Fulton added.

"He is one of the most professional, respectful people I've worked with anywhere," adding Nicol is known for being loyal, conservative, and "buttoned-down."

Canadian Tire has had a revolving door with the PMO over the years. Fulton was recently joined in the corporation's head office by Sandra Buckler, an early director of communications in the Harper era.

MacDonald will soon be headed to a new communications job at the Hill and Knowlton lobbying firm.

His departure from the PMO marks the second time this month that a high-profile member of Harper's team has decided to leave politics.

John Baird announced Feb. 2 that he was stepping down as foreign affairs minister and that he would be leaving the federal political arena.

MacDonald was the eighth director of communications since Harper's Conservatives took power in 2006 and held the post for about 18 months.

The next federal election is set for Oct. 19.