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Illustration of Daniel Friedmann, chief executive officer of MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates Ltd. (Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail/Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)
Illustration of Daniel Friedmann, chief executive officer of MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates Ltd. (Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail/Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)

THE LUNCH

MDA's Daniel Friedmann likes the Earth under his feet Add to ...

The head of Canada’s leading space company is decidedly earthbound.

Daniel Friedmann, long-time chief executive officer of MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates Ltd., cycles year-round to and from his home in Vancouver’s Kitsilano neighbourhood to the space-technology company’s Richmond headquarters. He pedals 45 minutes each way on a bike he bought at Costco, listening to podcast lectures on an iPod. In summer months, the spry 55-year-old sea kayaks, hikes and rock climbs. From October to June, he loves skiing, especially in the backcountry.

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“I have no interest in going to space,” says Mr. Friedmann, who was schooled in engineering physics. “I’m self-powered. I’m not into engines.”

So it’s no surprise that Mr. Friedmann’s go-to business book is barely about business at all, steeped instead in the rigours and dangers of wild frontiers. Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why investigates the DNA of disaster. The book’s broad conclusion is that people tend to battle distress by fixating on previously held plans, even as all evidence screams to the contrary.

Mr. Friedmann bought copies of Deep Survival for top executives at the firm. The stories in the book – about a hiker lost in the mountains, a boat wreck in the Atlantic, a pilot who crashed in the Second World War – resonated as cautionary and instructive business tales for Mr. Friedmann. The people in Deep Survival who die are the ones who fail to confront and adapt to traumatic circumstances.

“That’s exactly what goes on in business,” Mr. Friedmann says over lunch in a boardroom at the company’s unadorned headquarters. “Say things are going down, people aren’t spending money. A CEO says: ‘Well, it’s just temporary, it’s a blip, don’t worry about it.’ When people get lost, they do that.”

Mr. Friedmann has never been sentimental about business, even if MDA is the only company he has worked for since graduating from university in 1979.

The company had been founded a decade before Mr. Friedmann’s arrival, first specializing in electronics and software for satellite ground stations. It then became big in satellites – designing Canada’s Radarsat – and also got into real estate/property information. Total revenue peaked at $1.2-billion in 2007, up tenfold in Mr. Friedmann’s tenure as CEO.

In early 2008, with his property-information software arm growing rapidly, Mr. Friedmann tried to jettison the company’s foundation, the slow-growing space business, for $1.3-billion to Alliant Techsystems of Minnesota. Ottawa vetoed the sale on national-security grounds.

It was a lucky escape from a near disaster. The sale price was handsome but Mr. Friedmann would have been left with a company focused on real estate at exactly the wrong time, sales plummeting and profit evaporating. MDA would have suffered if Stephen Harper hadn’t intervened.

MDA hammered down costs at the property information unit just as real estate was sinking in the United States and the United Kingdom.

“You readjust,” Mr. Friedmann says. “Everyone else was saying, ‘A couple months, it’ll all be back like wildfire.’ Six months later, our competition was going under and we had already cut costs.”

Then, in late 2010, the company sold the property unit for $850-million to a Texas private equity firm, TPG Capital, a heavyweight with a $48-billion portfolio.

Mr. Friedmann’s hike-up-the-mountain personality is imbued in MDA. He has a cubbyhole office whose opaque glass fronts the small atrium of the company headquarters. On the Tuesday of our lunch, he has some yoga gear in his office, for an after-work class.

Lunch takes place in a cramped boardroom, labelled “Calgary.” Anne Beattie, Mr. Friedmann’s long-time assistant (“she knows everything”), declares the room a “mess” with its tangle of chairs, and straightens them. Mr. Friedmann arrives a minute later and declares there are too many chairs in the room. He wears a white dress shirt, open collared, and black pants. Lunch is veggies – carrots, green peppers, zucchini – with rice and grilled salmon (somewhat dry).

MDA tried to spend the money it got from TPG on a big-impact acquisition to give it much more heft in the space technology market in the United States, where it has struggled because it is foreign, a big reason Mr. Friedmann tried to sell the division in 2008.

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