Stewart Lyons’s first business idea had nothing to do with telecom.
He may be best known as the new CEO of TeraGo Inc. and the former president of Mobilicity, but as a young man, Mr. Lyons dreamed of being the guy who would bring Victoria’s Secret to Canada.
About 20 years ago, long before the women’s lingerie retailer arrived in this country, Mr. Lyons wrote a letter to Leslie Wexner, the founder and chairman of U.S. parent L Brands Inc., previously known as Limited Brands. Mr. Lyons was hopeful that he had an “in.” After all, Mr. Wexner knew his grandfather, Bill Drevnig, the founder of Penningtons Stores Ltd., a plus-size women’s retailer that is now a subsidiary of Reitmans.
“I had this whole plan. This was like the entrepreneurial side of me when I was 20 years old,” Mr. Lyons says over lunch at Stratus Restaurant in downtown Toronto. “He was kind enough to write back and said ‘I totally remember your grandfather. He was a great man … We’re not going to do that [take Victoria’s Secret to Canada]. But you can talk to my M&A guy and he can give you some more insight as to what we would do and what we wouldn’t do.’”
Victoria’s Secret ended up expanding to Canada in 2010, after Limited Brands acquired La Senza Corp. Mr. Lyons chalks it up to a learning experience. “They obviously wanted to control the process,” he says, dining on a sesame chicken salad. “But, hey, I didn’t know what I was doing. I was 20 years old.”
Fast forward two decades, and Mr. Lyons is a key player in one of Canada’s most provocative industries. These days, there is little else that is sexier than spectrum – the radio waves that are used to provide a variety of wireless services. A bitter feud between the telecom industry and the federal government has gripped the country for the past year. Not only is a national debate raging over the future of publicly owned spectrum, but there is increasing confusion over the sector’s foreign investment rules.
Mr. Lyons is no longer with Mobilicity, but he continues to have a front-row seat to the drama in his new role at TeraGo. The Thornhill, Ont.-based telecom uses spectrum to provide small and medium-sized businesses with wireless broadband, data and voice services.
Mobilicity and Wind Mobile are now his customers, and he is among those craving clarity on the foreign ownership rules for small telecoms.
TeraGo embarked on a months-long strategic review after the government made legislative changes to allow for small telecoms to be 100-per-cent foreign-owned, but ultimately decided not to proceed with a sale. Nonetheless, Mr. Lyons says companies like TeraGo would benefit from a better understanding of the rules.
“The company went through that process last year. Who knows if the company may or may not go through that again in the future. Clarity around those rules, I think, is pretty important to us – in terms of who is allowed to buy [companies] and when,” Mr. Lyons says. “I understand that security is a concern but people need to operate businesses here and it would be helpful to know what [Ottawa’s] parameters are.”
TeraGo’s stock has fallen sharply since announcing last year that it would proceed with a new strategy – one that involves acquiring data centres and expanding into IT services – instead of a sale. There had been speculation that TeraGo would be scooped up by a U.S. company such as Towerstream Corp. or Airband Communications Inc., and while there was interest from a number of potential buyers, the price was never right.
Mr. Lyons concedes that TeraGo is a bit of a fixer-upper – “half startup, half clean up.” Still, he is confident that he can take the company to the next level. “I am always trying to have multiple Plan Bs, Cs,” he says. “I’ve been in environments where things don’t always work out the way that you anticipated.”
A knack for contingency planning is useful in his personal life as well. He and his wife Nicki, a dentist, have four children: Josh, age 9, Zac, 5, and 3-year-old twin girls, Julia and Abby. “My weekends are like running around between the hockey rink and playing outside. It is all kids, all the time. We make a scene when we go to restaurants. We make a scene when we go on an airplane,” he says.
“We’re not fun for other diners in restaurants. In fact, me and my wife’s joke is we’re not offended if you move tables. That happens to us a lot. We’re a loud family, but we have a lot of fun.”