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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 ...

Canadian Solar is expanding in Canada, and recently opened a panel-making facility in London, Ont., in addition to its first panel-making factory in Guelph. The corporate headquarters are also in the Guelph facility, which Mr. Qu visits about once a month.

And, he insists, despite the frequent characterization of his company as Canadian in name only, it really is Canadian. Indeed, the only time he becomes really animated during our chat is when I bring up the company’s nationality.

“It is a Canadian company,” he says, his voice rising slightly. “It is registered here. We pay Canadian tax. We have a major operation here. For 2014, Canadian revenue will probably be half of the company’s total revenue. So we do more business in Canada than any other places. So why are we not a Canadian company?”

And, he points out, “lots of companies do manufacturing in China. So what? Look at Apple. Where do they make their cellphones?”

In fact, he says, good Canadian companies should be international. “I hope that Canadians will develop this kind of international mindset.”

Mr. Qu, who is a Canadian citizen, does spend the majority of his time in China, where he lives near the company’s biggest manufacturing plant in Suzhou, just outside Shanghai. But he is on the road – or rather in airplanes – a great deal of time, and he uses that time to e-mail and read industry materials.

Okay, you’re an engineer and you work like mad, I acknowledge, but don’t you have any diversions? He said he does take the occasional ski vacation – often in Japan – and he swims every other day when he is at home, putting in 1,000 metres each time at a health club near his house.

But he’s not a big spender, and admits he doesn’t even know how to shop online. He leaves that up to his children.

Success hasn’t changed him much, although he says he gets less anxious about the business than he once did, since he has delegated a lot of the day-to-day work to his management team. Now he can be the big picture guy.

Since he has a little more free time than he used to, he’s even starting to read some novels. A current favourite author is Chinese writer Mo Yan, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2012, and whose novels often deal with politics and sex.

That should be a bit of a diversion for a “boring engineer.”

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Personal

Born in Beijing

50 years old

Married with three children

Education

BSc in applied physics from Tsinghua University in Beijing

MSc in physics from the University of Manitoba

PhD in material science from the University of Toronto

Career highlights

Worked on a solar project at Ontario Hydro, before moving to ATS Automation Tooling systems

Founded Canadian Solar in Ontario in 2001

Began manufacturing in China in 2002

Opened Canadian Solar’s first a plant in Guelph, Ont. in 2011, then one in London, Ont. in 2014

In his own words

“My dream was to see solar panels on every household … to create a clean world for the next generation, for our children.”

“I manage a new economy, new energy, business in a very traditional way. I guess I am quite different from other entrepreneurs who start companies. It is very different from the Facebook style.”

“The conventional energy industry receives more tax breaks and incentives than the solar industry. People just don’t see them.”

“We will see costs going down and prices going down, and solar becoming more economic. It will be more and more competitive compared with conventional power sources.”

“Banks and investors are becoming more familiar with solar. They are starting to see solar as a good investment with very predictable incomes. Financial institutions have started to see solar as an investment grade asset.”

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