Anthony Lacavera is worried that he won’t be able to talk.
It is an unusual predicament for the CEO of Wind Mobile, who is nothing if not loquacious. But as he arrives at the Chase restaurant in the financial district of Toronto for a late lunch, he is feeling muzzled. Not by his PR person or the federal government, but by his new Invisalign braces – clear, removable plastic trays that sit over the teeth.
Getting braces at 39 is tough, but his alignment needs to be corrected before a dead tooth can be capped without risking breakage. That means Mr. Lacavera is stuck with the trays for up to a year. As we order cocktails, he’s only worn them for three hours, but he’s already had enough.
“I have to have them in 22 hours a day,” he says, settling into his chair before opening wide to give me a look. “It’s not going to happen.”
His torment, though, really begins when he tries to take a sip of his drink; a mélange of Grey Goose vodka and soda with a splash of cranberry juice. “My first drink with a tray. It didn’t go down very nice.”
For Mr. Lacavera, there has been a lot to swallow since Wind officially launched its service four years ago with a boast that it would shake up a comfortable Canadian wireless market dominated by Rogers Communications Inc., Telus Corp. and BCE Inc. (which also owns 15 per cent of The Globe and Mail). He is, by turns, praised for having the guts to get Wind off the ground and panned for its “disappointing” results to date. Mouthguard or not, he is not easily silenced.
Toronto Life magazine recently named him one of the 50 most influential people in Toronto, dubbing him the telecom industry’s “shit-disturber-in-chief.” He relishes the handle. Sporting a Dolce & Gabbana suit and a devilish grin, he has come to our lunch ready to ruffle feathers. With pages of typed notes at hand, it becomes apparent that his Bay Street critics and the Big Three carriers have him fired up.
As wireless entrepreneurs go, Mr. Lacavera is the one to watch. Through his holding company, AAL Corp., he maintains voting control of Wind, the largest independent startup carrier. With Public Mobile already sold to Telus, and Mobilicity languishing under court protection from its creditors, Wind has become the linchpin in Ottawa’s wireless strategy – its best hope of ensuring a stable fourth carrier in the key markets of British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario.
When it comes to Wind’s future, depending on one’s view, Mr. Lacavera either holds all the cards or none at all. He may have voting control, but he is not bankrolling the business. And those that are, namely Amsterdam-based VimpelCom Ltd., seem less than enamoured with Canada. VimpelCom’s CEO, Jo Lunder, has publicly stated he prefers a “clean exit” from the country due to regulatory headaches.
Consequently, market speculation is rife that VimpelCom is not committed to funding Wind’s efforts to buy Mobilicity or its plan to bid for more spectrum in January’s auction. Some analysts have declared “game over” for Wind and they question why they should pay heed to Mr. Lacavera if the company cutting the cheques is non-committal.
But Mr. Lacavera says those critics don’t have a clue about what VimpelCom is thinking and are ignoring key facts about Wind.
“VimpelCom is in a spectacular position,” Mr. Lacavera says. “[Wind’s] smaller competitors are dead. Consumers are lined up against incumbents. There is a stable network … We have 3-per-cent market share and our long-term aspirations are 13, 14, 15 per cent. What’s not awesome about this picture?”
He is particularly peeved with Dvai Ghose of Canaccord Genuity, one of Bay Street’s most senior telecom analysts, for suggesting any potential Wind bid for Mobilicity cannot be taken seriously. In that same research note, he stated that Wind has been “less than successful” in terms of attracting subscribers and growing its average revenue per user (ARPU).
“I am actually going to have to speak up with Dvai,” Mr. Lacavera says. “It’s not even approaching analysis any more. At least before he would say, ‘Wind hasn’t been successful but here’s been the reasons. Or here’s the other side of that coin.’ Now it is just incumbent propaganda: ‘The government has failed, Wind has failed.’ ”
Commenting on that rebuke, Mr. Ghose said the facts speak for themselves. Wind’s initial target was to have 1.5 million customers by the end of 2012. It currently has 675,000. Its ARPU, meanwhile, is above $30 but is only half of what big carriers pull in. Moreover, complaints are up despite a brand promise of “freedom” for consumers.
“If he wants to criticize me, that’s entirely his objective. But the fact is, we have estimates. He’s always been below the estimates,” Mr. Ghose says. “Unfortunately, I think the vast majority of people would agree with me – he’s been an abject failure. He’s certainly not been a Clearnet or even a Microcell,” referring to two wireless startups from an earlier time.
Mr. Lacavera says analysts like Mr. Ghose fail to provide context, including the “unprecedented” regulatory and legal challenges that Wind has faced. Its launch was delayed after the CRTC deemed that Wind did not have sufficient Canadian ownership and control in 2009. Although cabinet intervened, the case wound its way to the Supreme Court of Canada.
Incumbents, meanwhile, launched aggressive discount brands like Rogers’ Chatr, while problems with domestic roaming and tower-sharing rules slowed Wind’s expansion.
Mr. Lacavera also admits to making mistakes, especially by focusing on “prepaid” subscribers at the beginning instead of more lucrative “postpaid” customers, who are billed monthly after usage. Now he is hopeful that Wind can start offering nationwide data and voice plans since Ottawa announced plans to cap the rates that small carriers must pay incumbents for using their networks.
“The wind is really at our back now,” Mr. Lacavera says. “But the wind was really in our face, like hurricane-force winds were in our face, for the first three years.”
Incumbents, he added, have received plenty of help from the Canadian government over the years, including “free” spectrum (for which they pay licensing fees), while also benefiting from previous “monopolies” for local telephone and cable service. “How much of those monopolies were directly or indirectly on the backs of taxpayers? This is going to get me into a lot of trouble, this article.”
It wouldn’t be the first time, but Mr. Lacavera isn’t one to self-censor. Journalists consider it part of his charm. Disarming as he dishes, he tells me of his displeasure with some of my stories. It seems he couldn’t “stomach” reading The Lunch with Bernard Lord, head of the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association, which appeared in this space in December, 2012. (Wind, along with Mobilicity and Public Mobile, split with the CWTA in April.)
When our food arrives, Mr. Lacavera is disheartened to discover that he has to take a pause from our banter to remove his trays before digging in to his fish. “What a nightmare,” he says.
Now best known as being Canada’s wireless underdog, Mr. Lacavera is a third-generation Canadian of Italian origin. He was born and raised in Welland, Ont. His father, then a lawyer, is now a judge with the Ontario Court of Justice in Toronto. His mother is a retired high-school teacher. His younger sister is director of litigation at Google Inc.
He describes himself as a “normal kid” who got good grades, played hockey and acted in school plays. After earning a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering from the University of Toronto in 1997, he started Globalive Communications Corp., now Globalive Holdings. His parents urged him to get some work experience at Nortel Networks before striking out on his own, but he was never excited about working for someone else.
His first competitive customer was a payphone, to which he provided a line, outside a downtown Toronto chicken shop. After the dot-com bust, many of his initial customers went bankrupt, so he started going door to door to sell long distance to hotels. The first one he signed up was the Comfort Inn in Niagara Falls, where he once worked as a front-desk clerk.
During its first year, Globalive Communications had total sales of $3,291. Its 2013 sales will top $300-million.
“I started with zero and have built Globalive from scratch,” he says. “I have always risked everything and that is the main reason people like [Egyptian telecom tycoon] Naguib [Sawiris] have bought into me. If I fail, I am road kill. And investors appreciate when an entrepreneur has their whole life on the line.”
Although the wireless wars have proven more difficult than expected, Mr. Lacavera has no interest in selling out.
He also has other projects on his mind, like starting a family. He currently lives in a downtown condo with his girlfriend of two years, Kimberly Underwood, and their dog, a Morkie named Lulu. “So, [Kimberly] is the CEO of our household. And I would say the dog is certainly a lieutenant and I am the deeply subordinated sous-chef.”
A workout buff, Mr. Lacavera refuses to stay in hotels if the gym isn’t up to snuff. His other hobbies include skiing, flying his plane, producing theatre and binge watching shows like The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad and Star Trek.
He is also fixated with time. He figures that humans have about 80 “useful” years since they can’t really achieve anything before age 10 and need to slow down at 90. That means he has about “450,000 total useful lifetime hours” since humans spend about eight hours a day eating and sleeping.
“Once you start to look at life like that, you just go all in all the time,” he says. In fact, he is so focused on our conversation that he is running late for his next meeting. He’s torn because he has so much left to say – especially about Bell and Rogers. So he offers some parting shots.
“The day that Bell and Rogers stop using their own media assets to advance their own media plan, or the day that I own my own media assets, will be the day that I will stop trying to tell anyone that I can what our message is,” he says. “But until that day, I’m the voice. And I am the only guy standing up for competition.”