When he has time, Mike Lazaridis wanders to the second floor of an old, converted post office in Waterloo, Ont., where the blackboards run wall-to-wall, to eavesdrop on the physicists chalking formulae.
Here, in the temporary headquarters of the Perimeter Institute he created, the father of the 21st-century thumb can hear the secrets of the universe unfolding.
He doesn't stay all that long, because, for one thing, the great brains in the room like to yell at each other, and with their sponsor present, one scientist explains, they tend to mind their manners. Mr. Lazaridis, brilliant though he may be, can follow only the cadence of their debate. "These guys are in a different dimension," he freely admits, his awe undisguised. "They humour me."
If we someday drive floating cars without wheels, or sprint to neighbouring solar systems, it may be because these physicists have learned to manipulate gravity, or reconciled the contradictions between Einstein's relativity and quantum theory, and linked the atom to the black hole.
They are chasing the "holy grail" of physics, as Mr. Lazaridis puts it, and that makes him their $100-million King Arthur, building them a Camelot of glass and blackboards and solitude. "The only thing we can predict is that it will be fantastic," he promises. "It will change everything we know."
The possibilities get him giddier, arguably, than even his beloved Blackberry, the high-tech wireless invention that has made the co-CEO of Research in Motion (RIM) uncommonly rich. The Perimeter Institute he has founded will eventually house the world's largest physics institute; work on the new building began last month, with Prime Minister Jean Chrétien holding the shovel.
Mr. Lazaridis says it may take a half-century to produce a major breakthrough. By then, he will be 91. He's prepared to be patient. In a culture where many wealthy men spend their money on athletes, this is what he has instead of a hockey club.
Not that the man Globe readers voted Canada's Nation Builder of the Year has a problem with professional sports, though he has been known to joke to friends, "If aliens wanted to stop civilization, they'd come down with big sticks and little balls." It's just that he doesn't consider hockey a worthy "national objective" -- not like, say, discovering anti-gravity.
The science geek in him takes immense glee in edging out Wayne Gretzky in the poll co-sponsored by The Globe and Mail and the Dominion Institute. "This is progress," he beams over the phone from Japan upon hearing the news.
Mike Lazaridis is Canada's biggest brain in a business suit. He gives millions of dollars away without writing his name across buildings. He takes his kids trick-or-treating between conference calls. His right-hand man has been his best friend since Grade 6, and he still calls his old shop teacher -- his first mentor -- every Christmas.
He was five years old when his Greek parents set off for Canada with three suitcases among them; he remembers flying his bird kite off the ocean liner that delivered them to Montreal. They settled in Windsor, Ont., where his father, Nick, who had been a clothes salesman in Turkey, joined the line at the Chrysler factory, and his mother, Dorothy, worked as a seamstress.
Mr. Lazaridis represents what we like to consider our national archetype, the new Canadian who succeeds on smarts, is concerned about the greater good, and still gets home to read Dr. Seuss to his kids. He has dinner with his parents every week. He says things like, "How much money can you use yourself anyway?" and "Why not be branded the wisest nation in the world?" He doesn't know his own (undoubtedly lofty) IQ, he says, because "that's not what Canadians do."
His company, though hardly immune to the technology-sector meltdown, is a rare creation -- a tech firm that invented something people can actually name. His brainchild, the result of a white paper he wrote in three hours on his basement computer in 1997, has changed the way users talk and work and move their thumbs. (His own, Mr. Lazaridis claims, are "fast and efficient.")
The Blackberry caught on first with stockbrokers, and found a cachet with stars like Pamela Anderson and Matt Damon. Mr. Chrétien claims he sent his first e-mail on one -- to Mr. Lazaridis. Its name (the result of an extensive branding session that dumped options like Blade, because the word takes you to an Internet porn site) is becoming as ubiquitous as Kleenex.
Blackberries allowed workers trapped in the World Trade Center towers to send last words to loved ones. They were handed out to members of the U.S. Congress and Senate after the anthrax scares. A birthing mother complained in The Wall Street Journal that her husband was tapping on one while she was pushing their child into the world. "There is a time and a place," concedes its creator, though he ignores his "only while sleeping."
Slightly larger than a credit card, with a keyboard that requires thumb type, the Blackberry has spawned new slang: "Berry me," addicts say, even on Parliament Hill. Back at the Research In Motion headquarters in Waterloo, however, everybody -- including the boss they call Mike -- still uses the more traditional, "Send me an E-mail."
As intellectuals go, Mr. Lazaridis is a beefy, friendly-looking guy, with poofy silver hair and an affable if supremely confident manner about him. "What he says and what he does," observes RIM board member Doug Wright, "is based on deep thought." His passions, friends say, are family, work and physics.
He lives more modestly than his means allow, his chief weakness being cars, though his "collection" numbers at two, very expensive, high-end BMWs. "There's none of this 'I'm a billionaire and you're not,' " says Howard Burton, a close friend and the executive director of the Perimeter Institute. "He likes laughing at the silliness of society."
Mr. Lazaridis has been known to take a physicist to Tim Hortons to talk quantum computing. At 41, he appears more linebacker than bookworm, an impression he completely blows by naming among the high points of his school years the time voluntary classes were held at a nearby church during a teachers strike, and he did not miss "a single one."
"His curiosity is beyond bounds," says Ray Laflamme, an associate physicist at the Perimeter. "He wants to know the little details of how things work and the big pictures of where things are going. And he wants to connect the dots in between."
It has always been that way. At the age of 4, he built a phonograph out of Lego. An electric train turned him on to science. In Grade 6, he become best friends with a neighbourhood boy named Doug Fregin, and together with the pastor's son, Ken Wood (who went on to be a Cambridge professor), they huddled down in the Lazaridis basement, building radios and rockets, and electronically detonating iodine bombs made from chemicals they negotiated out of Ken's science-teacher mother.
One Halloween, in the basement of Ken's father's church, the trio designed a haunted house with bats that flew at visitors, heads that screamed and a mechanical hand that clawed its way out of the ground. "He was always in the basement concocting something," says Mr. Lazaridis's sister, Cleo, who is 10 years younger.
"I thought he would be someone someday," says his mother, who at one point speculated that her son might be a psychiatrist. "But we never thought he'd go so high."
In high school, he juggled shop classes with the academic courses required for university. He and Doug Fregin won the Windsor science fair with a solar-powered water heater that could track the sun, and he improved upon the buzzer system to help the school's Reach for the Top team practice; when other schools started calling in their orders, his first year's tuition fee at the University of Waterloo was paid with the profits.
He spent hours tinkering with the equipment that a wealthy benefactor had donated to the school -- an example he follows with local schools today -- and it was there that he and Mr. Fregin met John Micsinszki, the electronics shop teacher. Mr. Micsinszki let the boys use the lab during the summer, and would take Mr. Lazaridis to ham-radio swap meets, where he could buy parts on the cheap.
Mr. Lazaridis is generous in his credit for all his teachers, but it was Mr. Micsinszki who once said to him: "Don't get too hooked on computers. Someday the person who puts wireless and computers together is really going to make something."
Decades later, in 1997, shortly after his first child was born, Mr. Lazaridis sat in his basement at midnight and e-mailed to his office the white paper -- the "secret sauce," he calls it today -- entitled "Success Lies in Paradox." When, he asked, is a tiny keyboard more efficient than a large one? When you use your thumbs.
That became the blueprint for the Blackberry, and the engineers in "the pit" went to work finding ways to keep the power demands small and the capacity big on a device then the size of a hamburger. "Have you saved a milliwatt today?" became the company's unofficial in-house slogan.
At that point, RIM was already a far different place than in the lean early years, when Mr. Lazaridis, Mr. Fregin and their first full-time employee, Mike Barnstijn, crammed into a 500-square-foot office, biking to work and staying late to finish contracts.
"They were nice boys," recalls Manfred Conrad, their first landlord. "They showed me what they were fiddling around with on the computer, but I had no clue."
Mr. Lazaridis had left school a month before he would have graduated with an electrical engineering degree to accept a $600,000 contract with General Motors. His parents, through disappointed, fronted him some money. Those first years, says Mr. Barnstijn, who cashed out his stock and retired in 1999, were "like being part of a family. We didn't know where we were going to end up."
Once place Mike Lazaridis landed was on stage at a pre-Oscar ceremony in 1999, accepting an Academy Award from Anne Heche for RIM's role in inventing a digital-barcode reader for film editing. Mr. Lazaridis boasts that RIM was at least partly responsible for the flood of new movies in the early 1990s; their invention meant that work that used to take a film editor two days now required only 20 minutes.
But that was his only encounter with Hollywood. By then, the Blackberry was causing a buzz on Wall Street. Today, in an unusual corporate structure, Doug Fregin is the COO and Mr. Lazaridis shares CEO duties with Jim Balsillie, a Harvard MBA, who invested his life savings and came aboard when the company needed money in 1992. It was Mr. Balsillie who invented RIM's famous rule that anyone caught checking the stock price would have to buy doughnuts for everyone else. (It's happened twice.)
The two CEOs once shared an office, developing a complex code of shrugs and twitches to communicate during contract meetings. They joke that they invented the Blackberry so they could talk to each other after hours without their wives knowing. Now, they mostly travel apart; while Mr. Lazaridis was in Japan this week, figuring out how to bring the Blackberry to Asia, Mr. Balsillie was announcing an updated product at the PC Expo in New York.
"My job is to get the money," Mr. Balsillie says. "Mike's job is to spend it."
RIM can boast an employee turnover rate of less than 1 per cent, and a reputation as a going concern despite the tech collapse -- though its stock now trades in the $20 range, a plummet from its $260 peak.
Mr. Lazaridis is intensely private about his family life. His wife, Celia, declined an interview, and they do not want to see the names of their son and daughter, now 7 and 5, in the newspaper. Mr. Lazaridis will say that the family reads together for a half-hour each night before bed. (True to type, he most recently cracked open The End of Time,by British physicist Julian Barbour.) On Sunday afternoons, he likes to take his children to the bookstore to browse.
He doesn't have much patience for television, but he does love movies, especially Monty Python. In the basement of his home, four kilometres from his RIM office, he designed a cutting-edge movie theatre, with a 10-foot high-definition screen. The Sound of Music shows regularly. But the Lazaridis children don't play video games, and don't spend their time hunched over a computer screen. "I never played video games," he says, "and I know how to use a computer."
Indeed, pushing Canadians to understand the value of investing in education and basic research has become Mr. Lazaridis's self-appointed mission. He believes most of us take them for granted. Canada is too small to be good at everything, he argues, but could be world-class at many things, including raising the most-educated population on Earth.
A wooden model of the Avro Arrow sits on his desk at RIM -- a reminder, he says, of the country's "great engineering capabilities" and the danger of missed opportunities. "We need to focus," he says. "You can't solve problems without knowledge. It's logic. If we're expecting to make the right decision, we need to be properly educated."
A year from now, the Perimeter Institute will move out of the old post office and into its elegant new quarters, where physicists can contemplate happily by the reflecting pool or debate gravity in the courtyards. And the man who is making it possible -- for whom these thinkers are the country's true heroes -- will come by now and then to listen, and to dream of a world to come.