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Bradley Shaw, chief executive officer of Shaw Communications Inc., (Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)
Bradley Shaw, chief executive officer of Shaw Communications Inc., (Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)

The Lunch

The poker-faced Bradley Shaw pegs his future on WiFi Add to ...

Just call him the new-age cable guy.

Back in 2005, some five years before Bradley Shaw became chief executive officer of Shaw Communications Inc., he met a Tibetan holy man who taught him a lesson about leadership.

The man, a Buddhist high priest, invited Mr. Shaw and his wife, Michelle, to meet him in Calgary. Before entering the room, a translator cautioned the couple not to drop any object the man might offer because it would most certainly be blessed.

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“I still have it, a little rock,” Mr. Shaw says, recounting the story over lunch in his office. “He picks it up from the bedside table and chants on it for about a minute. And then he says ‘Oh here.’... I am holding it and Michelle starts to look at me. I am just totally red, and so I give her the rock ... I had third-degree burns on my hands.”

Almost a decade later, Mr. Shaw remains mystified by the incident that left him soaking his hands in ice for two days. But the encounter taught him the value of being open to new experiences that test the truisms of his own worldview. Mr. Shaw has since travelled to Tibet a number of times to help fund an orphanage run by the holy man.

“Here’s a guy who has meditated in the caves for eight years,” Mr. Shaw says, poking at a tossed salad served from the company canteen. “We have a great friendship.”

Reflecting on what he has learned, he adds: “The strength of leadership is being vulnerable, being compassionate. There is a power in that, not a weakness.”

Striving to be vulnerable may seem odd for a man whose raison d’être is to crush the competition in the rough-and-tumble telecom market. Shaw, much like its cable peers, is grappling with challenges that include slowing growth in its core businesses. Not only are new television and Internet customers harder to find, but the company’s chief rival, Telus Corp., is siphoning off market share in western Canada.

Instead of resorting to the knockabout antics of times past, Mr. Shaw staged a retreat. Less than a year after becoming CEO, he nixed plans to launch a billion-dollar cellphone network, instead veering the company into the world of WiFi. The new game plan was to build a less costly network of WiFi hot spots that would blanket key parts of the company’s operating territories, providing smartphone and tablet-toting customers who subscribe to Shaw Internet with high-speed service on the go.

It was a strategic shift that still baffles some on Bay Street. Not only is WiFi only a partial substitute for a traditional smartphone plan, but Shaw’s residential Internet customers are using it for “free.” But Shaw is wagering that WiFi will disrupt the business model for cellphone service. Usage is already skyrocketing in Canada, but customers are continually grousing about price increases on some smartphone plans. For Mr. Shaw, WiFi is wireless 2.0 – an inventive but less risky weapon to win tomorrow’s war for the west.

“We’re playing a role in the data world right now in Western Canada. I am sure that [Telus CEO] Darren [Entwistle] is seeing that a little bit,” Mr. Shaw says. “And we want to slowly grow that and build that. But we don’t want to do that at any cost.”

He’s the first to admit that a maturing market is necessitating a more prudent approach on wireless at Shaw. During the 1990s and early 2000s, it was relatively easy for the company to ladle up market share by launching new products such as high-speed Internet and home phone. These days a “win” is more modest in scope – achieving growth of 2 to 4 per cent in EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization), while keeping a lid on capex.

“We have to realize where we’re at as a company,” Mr. Shaw says. “We have to realize where the market’s at ...We all like to win.”

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