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Nadir Mohamed, CEO of Rogers Communications. Credit Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail (Anthony Jenkins/Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)
Nadir Mohamed, CEO of Rogers Communications. Credit Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail (Anthony Jenkins/Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)

The lunch

A telecom philosopher? More a lover of sure bets Add to ...

"Let's get this out of the way."

One of the most powerful men in Canadian telecommunications is holding up a menu in a nearly empty Bistro 990, which is on Toronto's Bay Street but distant enough from the heart of the financial district that someone as recognizable as Rogers CEO Nadir Mohamed can eat in relative peace. His command, fortunately, is a reference to ordering - not to our conversation, and certainly not to eating his meal, which he picks at slowly. Instead, he concentrates on delivering a thoughtful treatise on the future of the telecommunications industry, at a time when rapidly changing technologies, a wave of new competitors and crumbling foreign ownership rules are challenging Canadian telecom companies like Rogers Communications. (Oh, and there's also the matter of following a legend, late founder Ted Rogers.)

For a man with this much weighing on him, Mr. Mohamed is relaxed and contemplative. And, befitting his role at the top of one of Canada's most admired businesses (by investors, not by grumbling customers), he has a veneer of confidence that never once wobbles. This is a person who focuses on the task - and the task, right now, happens to be ordering a brie and prosciutto omelette with frites, requesting the meat be replaced with "spinach or something." After some pleasant small talk about our mutual love of British cinema, television, music and cricket, the real discussion begins.

Mr. Mohamed, of course, has an intriguing past in an industry dominated by an old guard of WASP entrepreneurs and the rather macho confluence of technology buffs, network engineers and aggressive family businessmen. He comes from Tanzania, in East Africa, where his father owned a successful business. He went to boarding school in England - where he learned to love cricket - and moved to Vancouver, where he got his start at BC Tel, which later became Telus, before making the jump to Rogers. I ask him about this path, and throw him off. Mr. Mohamed, a director of Ryerson University and no stranger to 7 a.m. games of power tennis, is not accustomed to being asked if he's ever conscious of being the most high-profile visible minority CEO in the country. After a pause, he relents.

"The whole definition of 'Canadian' has evolved," he says. "The truth is, if you look at the next five years, there's going to be a different mix of people that will be defining how business works in Canada. Just like they'll be defining how arts gets shaped, or the education system. That's just the reality."

If Canadian consumers know Rogers for anything, besides the unending customer complaints thrown at every North American telecom operator, it is for usually being the first with new gadgets, like the iPhone, or being more experimental than its rivals with new technologies, like online video. In Mr. Mohamed's world, all this is referred to as "innovation," a word you hear a lot from Rogers, especially since Bell Canada and Telus teamed up against it to build an advanced network together, erasing Rogers' technological lead. But in the average person's world, innovation manifests itself as the hyper-connected, smart-phone-in-bed and Internet-at-the-cottage lifestyle that has slowly transformed modern society, for good and ill. "That world, made easy, is what we're building," he says.

Two of his chief rivals, Bell and Shaw Communications, are buying up huge media properties like CTV and CanWest, respectively, in order to own video content the way Rogers and Quebecor already do. This is the new convergence. But Mr. Mohamed knows full well - as do his rivals - that their core business is still moving around information and entertainment, not creating it.

"We think there's a lot of glory in dumb pipes," he says. This is shortly before he also says, "There's no such thing as dumb pipes."

In a sense, both statements are correct. To be profitable, dumb pipes still need smart operators, and everyman entrepreneur Ted Rogers built his company into one of the smartest. Mr. Mohamed, an accountant by trade known more as a strategic thinker than a bold gambler, has been trying to actively defend the empire that Ted built. In the first round of competition in the cell phone market, Mr. Mohamed oversaw the $1.6-billion acquisition of Microcell Communications Inc. and its feisty Fido cell brand. Then the president of Rogers Wireless, Mr. Mohamed proceeded to dilute the competitiveness of Fido's unlimited calling plans and continued to expand a business many consumers likely forget is owned by Rogers.

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