24/7 Executives is a series of stories on high-performing professionals who are as serious at play as they are in the conference room. See the other stories here.
One thought was running through Samer Bishay's head as the small airplane he was piloting skidded off the runway of a remote Colorado airport: "God, make it painless."
It was 2013 and he was en route to a business meeting in Nevada. He had decided to land at Leadville, Colo., elevation 3,000 metres. It's the highest airport in North America and pilots who land there get a special certificate, a veritable badge of honour – for good reason.
Higher-elevation landings are tricky, if not dangerous, because of the lower air pressure. One of the tires on Mr. Bishay's six-seater twin-jet Eclipse had burst, sending him and his two passengers careening. The end of the runway was approaching fast and it looked like a big drop-off was ahead.
"I felt it right away because I didn't have any control," Mr. Bishay says. "I was wondering, am I going to drop off a cliff or is it a steep hill? When you don't know what's coming, that's pretty scary."
Luck was with him as the runway gave way to a gentle, shrub-filled slope. Mr. Bishay and his passengers escaped uninjured while his plane needed just minor repairs. As the saying goes, any landing you can walk away from is a good one.
He looks back on the near-disaster as a learning experience. His mistake was in perhaps being too ambitious, but when uncontrollable circumstances hit, he had no choice but to stay calm and ride them out. Years later, he has no trepidation about flying.
"You'll develop a phobia if you don't get right back into it," he says. "You have to use it as a constructive rather than as a destructive experience."
As the founder and chief executive officer of telecommunications services provider Iristel, Mr. Bishay is no stranger to difficult challenges and unforeseen problems. His company, based in the Toronto suburb of Markham, competes against powerhouses such as Bell and Telus.
Iristel is what is known as a competitive local exchange carrier (CLEC), or a newer rival to long-established phone incumbents that are in many cases former government monopolies.
Iristel is privately held and does not disclose financial data, but it bills itself as Canada's largest CLEC, providing businesses with more than four million phone numbers. Employing 140 people, the company also sells Internet service, plus cellphone access in northern Canada through its majority stake in Ice Wireless.
Mr. Bishay says that Irisitel is Canada's only "truly national CLEC" by virtue of being in every province and territory.
But it wasn't always so. Mr. Bishay, 38, started the company in the living room of his Montreal condo in 1998. A communications science graduate from York University in Toronto, he was working as an engineer for the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) when he came across a magazine article on the then-futuristic technology of voice over Internet protocol – or phone calls over the Internet.
He built his own rig and figured he was on to something. The regulations allowing competition with Canada's big phone incumbents were not yet in place, so he started cold calling telecom companies in Africa, promising big savings if they switched to his new system. He got a bite with a carrier in the Ivory Coast and Iristel was born. The company soon added customers in Egypt, Cameroon, Turkey and Romania.
Mr. Bishay was born in Cairo and moved around Africa as a child with his father, who worked for the World Bank. The family eventually emigrated to Canada in 1989, but not before a passion for flying were sown. As a young boy, he would longingly watch crop dusters buzz by his house. "There wasn't much to do there," he says, "so it became my dream."
His day job in Montreal happened to be situated right across the street from the Saint-Hubert Airport, and CSA staff had standing discounts on flight training. Mr. Bishay couldn't resist, so he signed up.
He didn't get his licence right away, with Iristel's expansion keeping him busy and necessitating a move to Toronto. He ultimately finished his training in 2008, but not until after he had pulled out of Africa and set up shop in Canada.
The 2002 civil war in Ivory Coast and the government's subsequent confiscation of Iristel's equipment forced a rethinking of the business. With regulations finally paving the way for new phone competition in Canada the same year, it was time to come home.
"The ups and downs of it is too much already with the evolving business dynamic, so you can't really have too many variables. You need a constant and Canada was our constant."
Mr. Bishay doesn't have much time for pleasure flying these days, but he does take his plane on business trips about twice a month. Piloting is similar to leading a company, he says, with the same skills coming into play.
"You learn how to manage many things and variables at the same time. In business, you don't ever have a constant. It's always a moving target and you have to change. That's how it is with flying," he says.
"If you don't show that you're in command of that vehicle or that business, you're not going to earn respect from your passengers or your co-workers."