Bernard Lord bought his first cellphone when he was a baby-faced lawyer in the early 1990s.
It was a “bag phone,” and even though it was the size of a brick and had to be carried in a case, it made him feel like 007.
“I thought that I was cool,” Mr. Lord says. “I thought I was James Bond. I’ve got this bag phone and I can talk. You know, I can be in my car and call at the same time. How cool was that?”
Two decades later, the still-boyish 47-year-old has managed to turn his long-time love of gadgets into a full-time job. Now chief executive officer of the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association, Mr. Lord has become one of the most visible faces of this country’s $19-billion wireless sector.
It’s a high-profile job – and as the chief lobbyist for an industry Canadians love to hate, a challenging one. But it isn’t the prominent role some in Ottawa have in mind for him. Mr. Lord, who, at the tender age of 33, became premier of New Brunswick, has shunned a return to politics at every turn since his two-term reign ended. His name nonetheless remains on the top of would-be kingmakers’ minds each federal election – and, if the time comes, may be touted as a potential replacement for Stephen Harper.
Mr. Lord says he is at a point in his life, after raising two children who are now teenagers, where he could be open to a return to politics – even if he has no immediate plans to do so. “Every time I’ve been asked, I’ve said ‘No.’ It doesn’t mean I’ll say ‘No’ forever. I don’t know,” he says after he orders a California club sandwich and garden salad at The Keg in downtown Toronto.
He adds: “I love public life. I really do. I find it really is an honourable calling. It can be very difficult on families, but when you do it for the right reasons and you do it with passion and conviction, there really is nothing like it.”
That might be true, but for the time being he has his hands full representing an industry that is in the throes of perpetual change. He has been at the helm of the wireless group for just over four years. Still, in many ways, he remains the consummate politician. Flawlessly bilingual and media-savvy, his political finesse has come in handy as he advocates for an industry that is, by turns, assailed and acclaimed.
“I love working with the wireless sector. It is an exciting industry,” he says. “It is technology that is truly transforming our lives in a way that we’ve rarely seen before.”
The pace of that technological change has been extraordinary in recent years. The industry started out in the mid-1980s with what was considered to be an optimistic goal of attracting 100,000 customers by the year 2000. There are now more than 27 million wireless subscribers in Canada – many of whom are more interested in texting and streaming video than actually using their phones to talk.
“I have two teenagers. I see their bills. They can go months and talk maybe 10 minutes,” he says. “But it will never leave their hands and they are using it virtually every hour – even when they’re sleeping because it stays on.”
Technology also paved the way for him to work from home, which is a major reason he accepted the job. Although the CWTA is based in Ottawa (and he maintains an apartment there), Mr. Lord mainly resides in Moncton. That’s clearly a point of pride when he tells me: “I pay my taxes in New Brunswick.”
In fact, like a seasoned politician, Mr. Lord never misses an opportunity to be a booster for his home province. When I order my mustard salmon, for instance, he playfully says: “I hope it is from New Brunswick.” He also likes to tell people that New Brunswick is a great place to raise a family – a maxim that is a source of amusement for his kids.
Just as technology is a source of amusement for Mr. Lord: “I’ve always loved technology. I’ve never been a geek and I am not a programmer in any way, but I love using it,” he says.
Grinning, he tells me that his first computer was the Commodore 64. “It was the most popular computer ever. … It was 64K. It was just fantastic.” And as a young adult, he bought his first laptop during law school at the French-language University of Moncton. Today, he remains a BlackBerry devotee, who uses the Torch and has no plans to abandon the brand: “I love the physical keyboard. I like when I touch the key, I feel it.”
BlackBerry manufacturer Research In Motion’s troubles notwithstanding, there is little doubt that Canadians love their smartphones. But that affection does not necessarily extend to the industry itself. Wireless bills may have fallen in recent years owing to competition from new players, but consumers still gripe about high prices, restrictive contracts and lack of choice.
Complaints about wireless services have, for the past four years, topped the list of grievances filed with Canada’s Commissioner for Complaints for Telecommunications Services. The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission is set to hold public hearings in the New Year on a new wireless code to help simplify contract language.
“We don’t expect the CRTC to decide to regulate pricing. I think that would be a mistake,” Mr. Lord says. “We just expect them to set a set of standards for how service must be provided and what consumers can expect.”
Although the CRTC embarked on that process at the urging of the industry, the CWTA has found itself in the regulator’s crosshairs over another high-profile issue. In October, the CRTC issued an ultimatum, saying it was prepared to force the creation of a central registry of stolen smartphones. And even when Mr. Lord announced a plan to do so last month, the CRTC pushed the industry to speed up its timelines.
That followed a surprise move by the Competition Bureau to launch a lawsuit against the CWTA and the big three wireless carriers (Rogers, BCE and Telus) over what the watchdog alleges is misleading advertising for text-based services that end up slamming consumers with hidden fees. Mr. Lord has expressed his disappointment over the bureau’s decision to sue, especially since he says it was the industry that alerted it to the problem in the first place. (None of the allegations has been proven in court.)
As for regulation of the wireless sector more broadly, Mr. Lord argues that governments need to be “prudent” when they adopt more rules. That’s because higher compliance costs for the industry are eventually passed on to consumers and taxpayers. “I’ve been in the inside of government and it is always a challenge to make sure that you allocate resources to priorities that impact people the most.”
True to his Canadian roots, he likens politics to hockey – public officials, he said, expect to get checked against the boards. And while it can hurt the player, it hurts more for family and friends watching from the stands.
You can take Mr. Lord out of politics, but politics have a way of sticking to him. As he prepares to leave, he makes the kind of personal appeal that could only come from someone used to living in public, and seeing his name in the news.
“Just use the good stuff,” he says, tongue firmly in cheek. “Just be kind. For once, be kind. I want my mom to read this.”
Born Sept. 27, 1965 in Roberval, Que., the youngest of four children; they were raised in the greater Moncton area.
His father was a pilot , who also grew up in New Brunswick. His mother, a Quebecker, was a teacher who stopped working to raise her family.
Married wife Diane in 1990. They have two children, Sébastien and Jasmine.
University of Moncton: Bachelor’s degree in social science with a major in economics; bachelor’s degree in common law.
1997: Elected leader of Progressive Conservative Party of New Brunswick. The next year, became MLA for Moncton East in a by-election.
1999-2006: Served as Premier of New Brunswick.
2007: Joined law firm McCarthy Tétrault as senior counsel.
2008: Appointed president and CEO of the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association.
Exercising, watching movies with his wife, and spending time with his kids.
Favourite book is Animal Farm.
On a potential return to politics: “I guess I am young enough and old enough to not rule it out – in the sense I’m young enough to think ‘Well, eventually I guess I could go back.’ And I am old enough to say ‘Well, never say never.’”
On government: “I believe it is extremely important for governments to live within their means. To tax people less and to regulate when they need to regulate, not just when they want to regulate.”
On BlackBerry: “I love BlackBerry. I think they are an amazing success story for Canada. I see they are going through some challenges for the moment. It is up to them to figure out how to get through it. But they have some very good products.”