Cowpland looking for excitement

Michael Cowpland was getting bored. As much as he loved Corel, he craved the excitement of a new love affair.

That interpretation comes from Ross Laver, who wrote Random Excess: The Wild Ride of Michael Cowpland and Corel and got to know Cowpland fairly well during the writing. Cowpland himself was unavailable for comment

Restlessness is not the only reason he proposes for Cowpland’s recent resignation as chairman, president and CEO of Corel, but it is the first motivation.

“He would never admit it and I don’t presume to have the ability to read his mind, but I think he’s been a bit bored and he can sense these great opportunities out there, primarily in Linux,” Laver said. “I do know he loves nothing better than the feeling of a start-up.”

He added that over the last few years, particularly after Corel got involved in Linux, Cowpland has said that what he really loved about Corel was that it was like being at a start-up all over again.

At a recent press conference, Cowpland said computer manufacturers had validated Linux on the desktop, and once that happened he felt “good about the team going forward” without him.

He said he plans to focus on Linux, HTML technology and start-ups. He also stated that his resignation has nothing to do with recent changes in the executive team. Derek Burney has been named interim CEO.

That is a statement which Laver, now a Web page writer for E-smith, questions. Laver said he believes Cowpland was influenced by other events taking place at Corel.

“On the same day that he announced his resignation as chairman, CEO and president, the company brought in a new chairman of the board, who is one of the grand old men of the Bay Street banking fraternity, is a lawyer, is on the board of directors of one to more financial institutions, and has been chosen by the federal government to participate in task forces on the financial industry,” he said. “He knows all about the financial industry.”

Laver added the other person brought on to the board on the same day was the founder of a technological company.

“Apart from Cowpland himself, this is the first member of the Corel board of directors in the company’s 15-year history to have operating experience at a technology company,” he said. “The board of directors up until fairly recently has always consisted of friends of Mike.”

Laver noted the former board had acted as a rubber stamp to whatever direction Cowpland wanted the company to head, but that is something that may not change, according to Kevin Restivo, an analyst with Toronto-based IDC Canada. Restivo noted that Cowpland will still retain a seat on the board and suggested the shake-up may only be for show.

“He’s still an advisor to the company and Derek Burney worked with him and answered to him for a long time,” he said. “So is the change just on the surface?”

Restivo noted Cowpland’s focus on Linux is sound, as the adoption of Linux in Canada and abroad is a wide-open market.

“I think his strength has always been getting companies up and going. The problems are always toward the latter half of his careers there,” Restivo said. “I don’t think his name is sullied at all.”

He added there are few people in Canada who can lay claim to starting two companies that have provided hundreds of jobs.

Rocky history

Cowpland was not always successful in his endeavours.

Laver tells of a Cowpland in the early 1980s who invested in several start-ups in the Ottawa area, all of which eventually failed. When Laver asked him what he had learned, Cowpland said he didn’t like being involved in something unless he had day-to-day control.

Laver said this contributes to his theory that Cowpland left as a result of the new board appointments. “I think for Mike Cowpland, it was a question of was he going to be in or going to be out? He’s not a man who feels comfortable being halfway in.”

Laver added he doesn’t think Cowpland will stay on the board for long. “He’s a very hands-on manager, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse,” he said.

He also noted that it is hard to find fault with Corel’s recent strategy, and no one can say the company lacked focus.

“If somebody thinks there’s a better way to sell CorelDraw and WordPerfect in the Windows market, I’d like to hear their ideas,” he said.

Laver said he spoke to several ex-employees when he was researching his book. “One told me to ask others, if Cowpland started up a new company would they follow him? She said, ‘I know I would. The last while may not have been the best, but the beginning was great.'”

ComputerWorld Canada contacted a number of ex-Corel employees but none would comment on Cowpland’s resignation.