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Dale Morgan: ‘To be a good leader, I think you need honesty and transparency’

Dale Morgan is the CEO of Astound.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Dale Morgan, 42, is the CEO of Astound, a design and fabrication company that creates exhibits and experiences for trade shows, brands and live events. Astound has 250 employees, with offices in Toronto, Oakville, Ont., and Las Vegas.

I grew up in Burlington [Ont.], the youngest of three brothers. I was class clown all through high school, not really that great of a student. Not because I wasn't capable – it was more that if I didn't have to do something, I wouldn't. I had one binder and never had a textbook, I always borrowed a pen. I played basketball all through high school, so I was more of a gym rat than a student. But I was an artist. I did a lot of drawing, always had a good eye for detail.

A friend was an installer for a trade show company, and they were sending him all over the world for trade shows. He would send me postcards from Africa or Japan, and I was like, that sounds like a lot of fun. So right out of high school, I started working for the same company.

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I ended up meeting a lot of people on the road by walking the show floor, and seeing much larger, more elaborate exhibits. The tipping point – when I realized I could do something better – was when they sent me to a semiconductor show in Taiwan. I met an experienced guy in the trade-show industry and we came up with this idea that we would serve the Silicon Valley companies exhibiting in Asia, because it was a real struggle to do that at the time. We had two separate companies, but we'd work together and help each other.

I decided it could be a lot more than just consulting for a single industry. I founded Astound on my own in 2001 at my house in Burlington, in my second bedroom.

When the economic downturn of 2008 happened, that was the very worst of times. We were really heavily invested in the semiconductor industry and suddenly, it was gone. Within a period of two weeks, almost all of our clients told us they aren't doing any more shows. And here we are, 40 people at this point, in a big office.

We had to scale back and let most people go. The bright spot was that I was watching the semiconductor industry to see where they were going and they were going into solar. I thought, "This is a global trend we're going to follow."

From there, I thought, "What's hot? What are the global trends?" Mobile phones. So I went to the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona with no clients just to walk the show and check it out. And now it's one of our biggest industries.

I have always been a news junkie and I keep my eye on what's going on in the world. So the company is really built on that idea – digging deep into an industry, understanding it, then becoming an invaluable partner to our clients, rather than a localized vendor.

Now we're at a really exciting transition phase. We're building a 350,000-square-foot facility in Las Vegas, which will make us the largest exhibit builder in Las Vegas. Trade shows and exhibits are 50 per cent of our business, the other side is doing anything from architectural mill-work to interactive engagement pieces to pop-up retail. The challenge is being able to adapt as the business scales, and being able to step outside designing and building experiences to realize that in order to scale, the business needs proper systems and infrastructure. It needs the right people in all these different positions, and those people need to evolve and change.

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To be a good leader, I think you need honesty and transparency. There aren't two sides to me. I'm the same guy drinking beers as giving a speech or talking to the media.

My advice to entrepreneurs is worry about culture first and set the tone for what kind of company you're going to be. Knowing what your values are and communicating that from the get-go is really important.

In the beginning, "Have fun" was in our mission statement. The event industry has to be fun. It's hard work, it's a high-demand industry, so people have to be wired that way. And by presenting our values the way we do, really clearly from the beginning, it acts as a filter for the right people. Without that love of what we do, doing it would not be possible.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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