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“The company just didn’t move fast enough,” said former Nortel CEO John Roth years after its implosion. “In hindsight, we should have focused more on the booming Internet sector.” (Daniel Cremin For The Globe and Mail)
“The company just didn’t move fast enough,” said former Nortel CEO John Roth years after its implosion. “In hindsight, we should have focused more on the booming Internet sector.” (Daniel Cremin For The Globe and Mail)

Voices of Nortel still haunt me Add to ...

Since our inaugural Top 1000 issue in 1984, Report on Business magazine has been reporting on the highs and lows in business, from around the world. Some of the juiciest stories, however, were the ones we never reported. Read all 12 articles here.


Those voices haunted me from the very first phone call. They still do.

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Over a span of months, while putting together an oral history of Nortel for this magazine, I talked to engineers, to executives, to the guys who had to climb all those telephone poles, about the iconic Canadian company’s rise and eventual fall. I naively thought these conversations would involve a lot of switches and routers and other stuff I didn’t really understand. But when I started mining people’s memories, I realized I wasn’t writing a tech story at all. It became something much more, something deeply human. It was a funeral, essentially, with dozens of employees giving their own private eulogies.

There was the engineer first hired all the way back in 1947, designing equipment for the dawn of the television era. The installer who spent four years in the Arctic Circle setting up early-warning radar systems at the height of the Cold War. The guy who was able to buy his family a chicken dinner on Friday nights thanks to his Nortel salary–$1.65 an hour, back in the ‘50s. I talked to the fellow who designed the first Canadian telephone. To the guy whose switching patents, developed at Nortel, became the industry standard. To the HR guru who, at one point, was recruiting 75 per cent of all Canadian PhDs.

The success became so massive, it’s kind of remarkable to remember. At the height of the dot-com boom, it had become an environment akin to the “Roman Empire,” as one employee recalled. With the stock price shooting up daily, money was washing around liberally. Houses were paid for in cash and luxury cars bought with stock option payouts.

Eventually, of course, it all came apart, setting off a string of seemingly endless layoffs–tens of thousands of them, by the time it was all over–and gutting an R&D division that had been responsible for some of the biggest innovations of the 20th century.

Left in that wake were the people of Nortel–folks who had worked there for decades, devoting their lives to that company and that name and that logo. Now, their dreams were disintegrating before their eyes (along with their pensions) as their employer was sold off for scrap. In a sense, all those years were being erased.

It was hard to listen to. There was disbelief, even a kind of horror, in their voices. I got the sense that most people still didn’t quite accept what was happening, even after years of turmoil. It was like writing an article about the dismantling of something quintessentially Canadian, like the Montreal Canadiens or the CBC. And I was, really. Nortel was astride the world for a time, and then, suddenly, it wasn’t.

If all you ever knew just went away one day, then what exactly is left?

Chris Taylor is a personal finance columnist for Reuters in New York City. A former senior writer for The Wall Street Journal’s SmartMoney magazine, the Vancouver native has been published in Fortune, Money, Bloomberg Businessweek and more.

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