The serial entrepreneur

It could be argued that, were it not for a lost shipping container of lawn mowers, Terry Matthews might have ended up leading the John Deere of Canada. But given his entrepreneurial spirit, it is unlikely he would have been content to leave it at that.

Today, Matthews, born in 1943 and knighted in 2001, is best known as the founder of a variety of successful Canadian technology companies, including Mitel Corp., Newbridge Networks Corp. and March Networks Corp.

In 1969 Matthews came to Canada from his native Wales for a holiday. One thing led to another and, through a few connections, he landed a job in Ottawa working in telecommunications. He had been working in the industry since 1958, when he started as an apprentice in the U.K.

In 1972, he and Michael Cowpland started up Mitel. Their intention was to bring electric lawn mowers to Canada. But the container the mowers were shipped in, arriving from Europe, was lost. It finally arrived in September — too late to be included in department store catalogues. “Have you ever tried to sell a lawn mower in September?” Matthews asked. “You can’t give’em away.”

But he and Cowpland didn’t spend their time waiting for the container twiddling their thumbs. Instead they developed a $150 tone receiver for the tele-communications industry, far cheaper than the $1,500 versions being manufactured at the time.

“Timing is probably the single most important thing…in your life,” he admitted. And the time was ripe for cheaper receivers. Mitel quickly took off.

The company also took advantage of a government grant to develop the first software-controlled private branch exchange (PBX) for the industry. The big coup was when Mitel won a contract with AT&T. Within a few years, Mitel had 20 per cent of the global market, Matthews said.

By 1985 the market had become a commodity and Mitel was sold to British Telecom.

Hardly one to rest on his laurels, Matthews took some of his money ($14 million this time, compared to the $4,000 used to start up Mitel) and created Newbridge, an ATM network manufacturer, which was named after his home town in Wales. In 2000 it was sold to Paris-based Alcatel. “I’m a team player and…the board thought it was time to sell,” Matthews recalled.

Next on the horizon was March Networks. It is here one could claim Matthews is at his visionary best, since he believes the technology being developed there has the capability to change the way people interact.

Matthews draws an analogy between the use of canals to transport goods and old-style phone systems to transfer data. The advent of the railroad allowed businesses to think in new ways, he said. Until the railroad arrived there was no means of transporting passengers or fresh produce over long distances, so it was never considered possible.

“You couldn’t do this via barges, they were simply too slow,” he said.

With broadband, many of the constraints of moving data are no longer a factor. Although it is only a few years old, broadband allows companies and individuals to not only easily create virtual private networks and voice over IP, but to also think about uses that were previously never contemplated.

Video, Matthews said, “is a bandwidth hog.” Without broadband, its use over long distances is limited. In the coming years Canada will face a huge shortage of nurses, he said. Because of this, home visits will become more costly and ineffective as a means of monitoring patients.

To deal with this rising problem March Networks has developed a health-monitoring kit that allows patients to transmit health data over the Internet to health practitioners. Using this technology, a nurse can see 15 patients a day instead of three, Matthews said.

March Networks aside, today Terry Matthews is involved with a dozen companies from coast to coast, creating everything from authentication technology to core network, XML-based routers, or what Matthew calls content aware networking. “And is that ever hot,” he said.

If Matthews’ past successes are any indication, we should be paying attention.

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