The list of legendary US tech CEOs could form a veritable Mount Rushmore of innovation. While names like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, Jeff Bezos and John Chambers would battle for space, what would Canada’s collection look like?
The truth is, with the stepping down of Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis as as co-CEOs of Research in Motion, most people know very little about Canadian tech personalities. Sure, there’s the affable telecom guru Sir Terry Matthews, but he’s more of a behind the scenes big-picture guy these days. The bottom line is, if you want to compare anything in the Canadian tech space to the US, you must first deal with the question of scale. Accept the fact that there are very few billion dollar tech companies here and look for the up-and-comers and you will find Canada does have its share of strong personalities with distinctive and effective leadership styles. We introduce you to our top five.
1. Art Mesher, Descartes Systems (TSX:DSG)
Minnesota born Art Mesher met the management of Descartes Systems Group in 1997, when he was an analyst with the Gartner Group. Mesher had a keen interest in logistics, having specialized in the area when he was with Dayton Hudson, which is now Target. He joined Descartes, he says, because he was tired of being an astronomer, and wanted to be an astronaut. Though Descartes was beginning to take off in the early stages of what would become of the dot-com bubble, Mesher was warning that the company’s success was an illusion, and there were tougher times ahead. By the time the stock, which had hit a whopping $100, bottomed at $.92 cents, Mesher had fired every salesperson in the company and began to engineer a now-famous turnaround that placed its engineers in more customer-centric roles These days, Descartes is one of the most highly regarded companies on Bay Street and Mesher is still engaging, off-the-cuff and contrarian.
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2. Mark Leonard, Constellation Software (TSX:CSU)
Type the words “Mark Leonard Constellation Software” into Google and see what you get: not a lot. Leonard, to put it mildly, is not the type of leader who seeks the spotlight. What we do know is that he left the world of venture capital in 1995 to form Constellation, and that the company has become one of the most profitable and successful in the recent history of Canadian tech, growing from $330 million to more than $770 million since 2008 alone. This makes Leonard’s JD Salinger imitation irresistible. The brief clues we do get from Leonard, such as his letter to shareholders last May regarding whether or not the company would be sold, are short and to the point ““In your shoes, I’d interpret that [a strategic review] as meaning that the company is likely to be sold,” he quipped. Leonard’s style, it seems, matches Constellation’s website, which is bareboned, lacking decoration, and gets to the point. Shareholders of Constellation, which has nearly quadrupled in three and a half years while paying a healthy dividend, don’t seem to mind.
3. Strath Goodship, Miranda Technologies (TSX:MT)
The latest of a string of Canadian techs on the block, Montreal’s Miranda Technologies is led by Strath Goodship, a man who personifies Canada’s leadership role in broadcast technology as well as anyone. Goodship got his start in 1986 as Director of Engineering at the now-famous Lietch Technologies, a firm started by former CBC employees Jimmy Leitch and Bob Lehtonen 1971, and was acquired by Harris in 2005 for $450-million. Alumni from Lietch went on to form or contribute to many of Canada’s current crop of broadcast tech leaders, including Evertz, Ross, and International Datacasting, but Goodship has guided Miranda to become one of Canada’s leading lights. Under his watch, the company has grown from $129 million in revenue in fiscal 2008 to just under $182 million in fiscal 2011.
4. Lucas Skoczkowski, Redknee Solutions (TSX:RKN)
Most tech startups are a bit like a relay race; the founder does a lap and then hands the reigns of the company over to the next guy, who has more experience in business. Redknee CEO Lucas Skoczkowski, however, didn’t get that memo. Skoczkowski founded Redknee is the solarium of his apartment in 1999 and remains CEO today, having a direct hand in most of the company’s sales, which have grown to more than $60-million. Today, the Redknee leader says he does this effectively because he is “CEO-in-learning”. Entrepreneurship, it seems, has always been in the blood of Skoczkowski, who immigrated to Canada from Poland in 1987, when he was fourteen. In 1993, he told The Ottawa Citizen his dream was to become a high-tech wizard and create “something great, something that will change the world.”
5. Michael Pearson, Valeant Pharmaceuticals (TSX:VRX)
When pharmaceutical international Valeant acquired Biovail in 2010, former CEO Eugene Melnyk, who had been banned from senior roles at public companies in Canada for five years and fined by both the Ontario Securities Commission and the SEC, predicted things would not go well. Nearly two years on the company, which has completely overhauled its strategy, has watched it share price go straight up. Valeant CEO Michael Pearson, who joined Valeant in 2008 after twenty-three years at consulting giant McKinsey & Company, has proved to be more than aggressive on the acquisition front, already having picked up literally dozens of drugmakers in the time since the merger, and tripling Valeant’s revenue. But those looking to peg an American style slash and burn turnaround guru in the vein of “ChainSaw” Al Dunlap should take note that Pearson, who was born in London Ontario, still summers in Muskoka and owns property in Mont Tremblant.