In business circles, calling somebody “a shooter” used to be a mark of high regard. Shooters were gutsy, bold and willing to take risks that others would not. The term has fallen out of popular use in Canada, perhaps in part because we have so few true shooters anymore. These days our Titans tend, for the most part, to be low-key strategists adept at protecting the franchise and building brands, but not overly concerned with conquering new ground or placing themselves at the forefront of emerging industries.
Ted Rogers, CEO of Rogers Communications—the company that owns this magazine—died last week after a long struggle with heart problems. It would be tempting to say that Rogers was a shooter, but that wouldn’t take the full measure of the man. To put his achievements into perspective, it’s best to turn to the words of an anonymous industry analyst who spoke about Rogers’ amazing career in a profile for the Financial Post, back in 1989—when his greatest successes hadn’t even yet been realized. “He pioneered FM radio, cable and cellular telephone in this country. That’s not just an accident,” the analyst said. “Someone once said to me that Ted Rogers is a real shooter. He’s not a shooter; he’s a marksman.”
For many years there was a strange and unspoken reluctance in Canada to give the marksman his full due—as a businessman, a philanthropist and visionary. Because he refused to bow and scrape before this country’s traditional authorities, namely Ottawa and Bay Street, he tended to earn only grudging admiration. You sometimes got the sense people were waiting for him to fail, so they could condescendingly explain why it was inevitable all along.
In other parts of the world, of course, a man who put his career and personal fortune on the line as many times as Rogers did would be regarded as a hero. Here, we regard that kind of behaviour as erratic. But Ted Rogers never seemed to mind the second-guessing, the doubters and the sniping. In 2002, in the midst of a tough era for the Toronto Blue Jays, and with sports scribes howling over the team’s lack of direction and chortling that his purchase was a dumb move, Rogers walked into the stadium press box one day and introduced himself to a Toronto Star columnist “Hi,” he said cheerily. “I’m the village idiot.”
Perhaps it was because he knew what it’s like to lose everything, and then to dedicate oneself to rebuilding, that he never lost that humility, and humour, and most of all that willingness to face a challenge head-on. More than once, he loaded his companies and himself with so much debt that it threatened to collapse everything he’d built. But he did so with an uncanny sense for the trends and demands that would shape the future of technology, and that foresight was always the company’s saving grace. In 1990, Rogers suggested to an interviewer for Maclean’s that within 12 years more than half of the Canadian population would have mobile devices. This was at a time when less than 10 per cent of the population owned one of the bulky and expensive cellular phones of the day. The interviewer was incredulous: “50 per cent will have a phone in their car you mean?” But Rogers was thinking bigger. A lot bigger. “I’m thinking of a personal mobile communications device. It wouldn’t always be in the car. It could be the size [of a pen]. You’d just talk into it; call the office, call home, no dial tone, voice activated. It can either ring or it shakes to tell you there’s a call. There’ll be cellular phones, but there’ll be a host of other mobile devices.”
Twelve years later we were entering the age of iPods, Blackberries, GPS systems to guide your car, and wireless Internet browsers. But that was far from his only prescient forecast. In 1996 he explained to Marketing magazine, “We think that the high-speed computer service will be of the same magnitude as [cable TV or cellphones]. Rogers in the future will have as much business from computers in the home as it does from TV sets today.” This from a man who rarely ever used a computer himself. He just understood in his bones what communication was going to mean to the next generation, and he was ready to spend billions to ensure that when that future dawned, he’d be there to greet the sunrise. The bankers and analysts sometimes fretted and worried, but a couple of years ago, Rogers fulfilled yet another longstanding promise, earning investment-grade status on the company’s bonds—the ultimate mark of approval for a well-managed corporation.
You could learn a lot from just listening to Ted Rogers speak. But you could learn even more by watching him operate, and much of what you’d see would challenge the conventional business wisdom of the day. He believed that rewards flowed from risk, and in controling your own destiny. As for “consensus building,” he had no use for it. “There’s a danger to too much consensus,” he said not long ago. “The consensus is the common denominator and then there’s no leadership. The CEO has to make the final decision.”
Did he get lucky? Sure he did. But perhaps more than any entrepreneur in this country’s history, Ted Rogers was one who made his own good fortune, and his rivals knew it. As one of them anonymously told the Globe and Mail back in 1989: “His accomplishments make the rest of us look absolutely pygmy-like. The whole trade has sat around for 25 years and said ‘he’s crazy, crazy, crazy.’ But he goes out and does it, and we’re all embarrassed when he succeeds.”
Over time, that embarrassment eventually gave way to deep admiration—as demonstrated by the dozens of glowing tributes that flowed in following his death. Ted Rogers used to sign off speeches and chance encounters by telling people “the best is yet to come.” That wasn’t just a folksy salutation. It was a promise he made to his employees, his customers and his shareholders. It was a promise he never failed to keep.