Mitel CEO brings firm through tough times to reach the top
Published Sunday, October 31, 2010 12:40PM EDT
On Halloween night 32 years ago, a young British engineer arrived in Canada to work at Mitel. He was surprised at the sight of costumed Canadians.
Now that engineer Don Smith, is being recognized this week as CEO of the Year for the capital. He has engineered quite the overhaul for his company.
"If you are not living on the edge, you are taking up too much space," he says, and it reflects what he has gone through in the past nine years.
He managed an overhaul of what Mitel does in the telephone business, and then stickhandled an $800 million takeover of Inter-Tel of Arizona.
And to top it all off, he set an Ottawa record for launching a company public on the American NASDAQ stock exchange.
"It has been a great nine years. People call me an emotive kind of manager, I like to think through a problem with advice from those involved, and then I push pretty hard to make it happen."
His boss, Mitel owner and chairman of the board, Terry Matthews says, "Don has done an outstanding job, whether it was going public in very tough market, in a market that is still very tough, or changing our company from one that is hardware-based to one that is software based. He has done a terrific job."
But it was not all rosy. There were layoffs, mandatory unpaid time-off. Some current and former employees who had invested time and money felt they were forgotten. The IPO did not deliver as much cash as was hoped.
The chief financial officer, Steve Spooner, says, "Our objective was to make the company stronger coming out of the tough times than going in, and I think we did that. I think it was a testament to Don's communications skills and integrity and relationship with employees."
Jim Davies, the chief technology officer, says, "He saw the market, and he took actions that, at the time, I thought were much more brutal than they needed to be, or that I would have one based on what I saw in the market. But he turned out to be right, and the company has grown stronger."
Mitel began in the early 70s with Terry Matthews. He returned in 2000 to buy the phone part of the business, and bring in Smith as CEO.
Jon Arnold, a Toronto-based telecom analyst, says, "He always seemed to have the right touch.
"I think that the strong legacy he has left is in the area of software-based phone systems. Mitel led the way on that, and that area is where the really exciting things are going to happen. His buying Inter-Tel is what kept Mitel alive and competitive. "
Smith says being raised in a British pub serving beer by age 13 helped him develop the key skill of listening and talking to people and drawing the best out of them.
He looks at the Ottawa tech scene and says all the elements are there to create new companies except for investment money, and an attitude that does not focus on mistakes.
Smith will leave the CEO's chair when a replacement is found. Work on company boards, including Mitel is next. He also plans some time for family and maybe he'll learn to play golf.