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Shawn Qu, founder, president and chief executive officer of Canadian Solar Inc. (ANTHONY JENKINS FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Shawn Qu, founder, president and chief executive officer of Canadian Solar Inc. (ANTHONY JENKINS FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

THE LUNCH

Canadian Solar's ‘boring engineer’ has his day in the sun Add to ...

Shawn Qu is doing his best to avoid being a compelling interview subject.

“I am a boring engineer,” he says. “I work 16 hours a day and I don’t really spend money.”

He’s sipping coffee in a bland boardroom in a low rise factory on the outskirts of Guelph, Ont., wearing the classic engineer’s uniform of a dark suit with an open-necked shirt.

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Behind this low-key facade, however, is an extraordinary story of a poor Chinese immigrant who came to Canada to advance his education, then created from scratch what has become one of the world’s largest and most successful solar energy firms, with annual revenue closing in on $3-billion.

In 13 years, Canadian Solar Inc. has built three solar panel factories in China and two in Canada; last year alone, it manufactured almost two gigawatts of panels, enough to power hundreds of thousands of homes. Its market cap is about $1.3-billion (U.S.), making Mr. Qu’s personal holding of 27 per cent worth more than $300-million.

But Mr. Qu is reluctant to consider himself a high-tech wunderkind.

“Lots of great companies were built in shorter times. In that regard I don’t think I’m such a superstar,” he said. “The superstars are the guys who do Internet, instant messaging, that kind of stuff.”

He does acknowledge, however, that building a company that makes physical products is more complex than expanding a firm based on software. “Real manufacturing and the energy business takes a much longer time and it is harder work and effort than [a company in] the virtual economy,” he says. “In that regard, I think we have chosen a difficult path. But I am glad we are doing something that eventually will change the energy infrastructure of the world.”

He is also keenly aware that what he has built could collapse if he isn’t careful. I know that in any industry you can be leaders for a while, but if you don’t watch out and make sure you change your business model, you can be washed away in four or five years. Just look at what happened to Nokia or Nortel or BlackBerry. That is the life of being an entrepreneur. I am aware of it so I am prepared for it.”

That preparation began when Mr. Qu arrived in Canada in 1987, shortly after the Chinese government first allowed students to leave the country to study abroad. In his mid-20s at the time, he had an undergraduate physics degree from a Chinese university, and was teaching in a college in Beijing. But teaching was anything but lucrative, and he didn’t make enough to pay for any further overseas education. “I was making something like 76 renminbi per month, and that translates to less than $10,” he said. Consequently, “applying for study abroad meant applying for a scholarship.”

The University of Manitoba gave him that scholarship, an offer he still sees as extraordinarily welcoming, especially at a time when western countries didn’t understand the quality of education in China. “I was very grateful. Canada was a very open and fair society compared to many other countries.”

But wasn’t it a tremendous culture shock coming to a small city in the western prairies? Not as he recalls. “I didn’t feel it. I guess I was young. At that age, you can venture into any place, any culture, and you will survive. Canada is a lawful society, and the infrastructure on campus was good, and people take care of you.There must have been a culture shock, but when I look back I don’t remember it.”

After completing his masters degree in physics in Winnipeg, Mr. Qu moved to the University of Toronto to do a PhD in materials science. That’s where his interest in solar power took hold.

After graduation, he considered jobs in academia or management consulting, but took a position at Ontario Hydro (now called Ontario Power Generation), working on a solar power project inside the Crown corporation. When that project was sold to ATS Automation Tooling Systems in Cambridge, Ont., he went with it. ATS had also bought Photowatt, a French solar product manufacturing firm, and that gave Mr. Qu exposure to yet another culture.

It also gave him a sense of the social value of solar power. One of ATS’s projects was a Canadian government-supported scheme to help with rural electrification in China. His group developed tiny solar cell and battery systems that could power two lamps and a radio. “It was a very interesting project that gave me a chance to visit these remote areas. People really loved it. It made me think about how I could do more in solar … I felt fulfilment.”

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