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The Globe and Mail

A telecom philosopher? More a lover of sure bets

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

Anthony Jenkins/Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail

"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.

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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.

Now, as CEO, he is staring down a new set of wireless competitors, chief among them Wind Mobile and the new wireless networks of Rogers' cable cohorts: Quebecor's Vidéotron unit in Quebec, which just launched service, and Shaw in the West, which will do so next year. Quickly, Rogers unleashed a new unlimited talk-and-text discount brand, Chatr Wireless, with pricing and market presence identical to Wind's.

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But that's merely to head them off at the pass. Mr. Mohamed's real end game is to lead the Canadian industry on, very specifically, wireless data - from the bits surging through your smart phone in downtown Vancouver to the radio waves connecting your laptop in rural Ontario. "People should recognize ... we've built these networks over 25-plus years. And it will take a while for anyone to match them. It's going to be a long way from parity. No question." Though wireless penetration in urban Canada is inching ever closer to 100 per cent, Mr. Mohamed explains eloquently how new technologies and services still provide ample room for growth. Think devices that talk to each other, he says - for example, your laptop reading the meter on the side of your house, wirelessly, then paying the bill automatically.

Engaged, I explain that I see him as the resident philosopher among Canada's telecom CEOs, the one most likely to grip the lectern and become excited by ideas. He bristles, stares down at his food, then appears impatient to offer a rejoinder. I'm realizing that the term "philosopher" is probably an insult to the chief executive of Canada's biggest cellphone provider.

"We'll do deals," he says, the first hint of corner office bravado. For the 10 minutes after I use the term "a dramatic big bet" to describe Bell's $1.3-billion bid for CTV, Mr. Mohamed peppers his own speech with the word "bet." A bet on this, a bet on that. Rogers has already "made those bets" by buying up media properties like CITY-TV and Maclean's magazine, he says, which is true. But in the communications business, a bet is only risky if you can't see what lies ahead.

"When we bought Microcell, some people would say that was a big bet, but frankly it came from an intuitive understanding of where the business is going. We've been blessed to have a mix that others, we would argue, are replicating," Mr. Mohamed says. "The bets - you don't do bets for the sake of it. You make bets on the basis of where things are going.

"Increasingly, those bets are less about technology, and more on where the technology is taking us. And that's why, if I define 'the bet,' it's on this view that the world is going to be defined by experiences. And to make that happen, we'll make whatever bets are required." (As if to prove his point, the week after our lunch, Rogers purchases fibre-optic provider Atria Networks for $425-million and becomes the first major telecom provider to announce it's testing advanced 4G wireless networks that will be faster and more capable of handling millions of the next big gadget.) Suddenly, a hostess appears and taps him on the shoulder. He jumps. She whispers in his ear. "Uh oh, what time is it?" he asks.

It's 1:14 p.m. and we are half an hour over a poorly enforced time limit. With effusive apologies, he explains that an auditorium of 150 Rogers employees has been waiting about 15 minutes for him to show up and give a speech. I apologize for violating the edicts of his busy schedule. He's late, but that's okay. Mr. Mohamed's mind is trained - and valued for - thinking much farther into the future than a measly 15 minutes.

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The man

54 years old.

Educated at the University of British Columbia.

The home life

Lives in Toronto.

Married to Shabin Mohamed; no children.

Hobbies include playing tennis, listening to jazz and watching cricket.

The biography

An Ismaili Muslim from Tanzania who began his career articling at Price Waterhouse in Vancouver, then rose through the ranks of various Canadian telecom companies to succeed Ted Rogers in 2009 as CEO of Rogers Communications.

Has steered Rogers through various challenges to its wireless dominance, and attempted to extend its national influence with various deals, such as buying naming rights to Rogers Arena (formerly GM Place) in B.C.

Favourite artists

Mott the Hoople and Miles Davis.

On the goal of a telecom company

"It's all about making it seamless for our customers, not only across devices, but across platforms. "

On the Canadian telecom market

"There's going to be more regional competition than national. ... If you look at the next few years - whether it's Quebec, the West, or Eastern Canada - regional variations and regional marketing will become important."

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