Like his heroes, legendary Silicon Valley pioneers David Packard and William Hewlett, Lorne Trottier is a shirtsleeves kind of guy.
In the spirit of the Hewlett-Packard Co. founders, who worked from modest, linoleum-floored offices, Mr. Trottier's quarters at the sprawling head office of Montreal's Matrox Graphics Inc. are a nondescript, open alcove tucked away in the vast, bland confines of Building No. 2.
His fellow electrical engineers Mr. Packard and Mr. Hewlett lavished gifts on their alma mater, California's Stanford University, in gratitude for the education that proved so materially rewarding. Likewise, Mr. Trottier is a firm believer in giving back.
The self-described "full-fledged geek" made headlines recently when he pledged $10-million to his alma mater, Montreal's McGill University, for construction of a new information technology (IT) teaching facility at the downtown campus.
This act of generosity by publicity-shy Mr. Trottier is more than marketing-driven grandstanding in a sector that has come under fire for its alleged cheapness on the philanthropic front.
For one of Canada's newest big-time benefactors, it's a logical step in the growth of his 26-year-old private company, which makes computer graphics chips for products such as video games and boasts sales of $750-million for last year, and in his personal evolution.
"It's an idea I've grown into as I got a bit older," the 52-year-old Mr. Trottier says during an interview in his document-strewn office on Montreal's West Island, its walls plastered with pictures of the universe. (He is passionate about space exploration and astronomy.)
"As we've become successful, you sit back and reflect: 'Okay, what do you want to do with this now?' "
Ultimately, he views the gift as an investment in Matrox's future. The industry is starved for top electronics and software engineering graduates, and past government cutbacks have severely stunted the supply.
The new McGill facility, to be named after Mr. Trottier, will allow the university to nearly double enrolment in its IT technology programs and create new degrees in microelectronics and software engineering.
Mr. Trottier is fervently committed to the notion of private-sector involvement in university affairs. A number of years ago, he was invited to join the engineering faculty's advisory board.
He became involved at a time when budgets were being cut, professors lost and student enrolment was dropping. He became part of the strategy to help reverse funding cuts.
One day last year, dean of engineering John Gruzleski invited Mr. Trottier to dinner, mentioned the plan to build a new facility, and asked whether he knew of anybody who might be feeling generous.
" 'I'm you're man,' I told him," Mr. Trottier recalls.
"This [electronics engineering]is an area where private funding can make a difference. The government here has begun restoring some of the funding to the universities, but some high-demand areas suffered because they didn't get the money they expected."
Mr. Gruzleski says his first impression of Mr. Trottier was that "for someone so successful, he's such a quiet, unassuming kind of guy."
Unlike many benefactors, he isn't the type who insists on closely tracking how every penny of his endowment will be spent, Mr. Gruzleski says. "He doesn't want to be one of those donors who dictate things down to the minutiae level."
Mr. Trottier presides over a committee, jointly established by the provincial ministry of education and Montreal TechnoVision -- a non-profit organization promoting the city's high-tech strengths -- that aims to double the number of IT graduates in the province over six years.
But he is also laying the groundwork for his own philanthropic foundation, again following in the footsteps of Mr. Hewlett and Mr. Packard. Higher education is his preferred area of giving, but he isn't ruling out other causes.
Going the foundation route is the latest trend among wealthy New Economy entrepreneurs. Cisco Systems Inc. in San Jose, Calif., has just hired an on-site "giving counsellor" to help so-inclined employees pick the worthy onetime donation or foundation that's just right for them.
Citing articles that in the past have criticized Microsoft Corp.'s Bill Gates for alleged stinginess, Mr. Trottier says the tech sector is finally coming around.
"Articles not too long ago slammed Gates for his wealth and for not honouring this tradition of philanthropy the previous generation had engaged in," says Mr. Trottier, who is married and has two daughters.
"What we've noticed in the last two years has been a definite move in that direction. Many IT entrepreneurs have, in fact, begun engaging in major philanthropy, mostly in the United States, but it looks like some of that is spreading to Canada."
The son of a Quebec anglophone mother and an Ontario francophone father who peddled pastries and bread to Montreal restaurants and convenience stores, Mr. Trottier says he experienced a kind of "awakening of my mind" at the age of 11 or 12 when he fell in with some schoolmates who were keen about things electrical and electronic.
"I was fascinated by the idea you could actually understand how things worked. I was awestruck by the idea you could understand how the universe works."
He made his own crystal and ham radios and got into radio-controlled airplanes, assembling not just the aircraft but the transmitter as well.
(He still flies the miniature planes today, but says he lacks the time to pilot the real thing.)
He was the gold medalist in his 1970 graduating class, then took a master's degree -- also at McGill -- and ended up at Canadian Marconi in Montreal, where he worked as a design engineer. There he met Branko Matic, with whom he would go on to found Matrox. (The name is derived from "Ma" in Matic and "Tro" in Trottier.)
The company they founded in 1976 specialized at first in circuitry that made possible faster and sharper images and graphics on computer screens.
Plans are afoot to take Matrox public within the next year or so.
"Part of it is to prepare the succession in the company and part is to create a more liquid asset," Mr. Trottier says. "Shares of a private company are not liquid and there are a lot of demands from employees for stock options. We would also be able to do things like acquisitions."
Asked about the advantages of donating stock as opposed to hard cash, Mr. Trottier replies: "Oh, any way is good.
"There's an old saying, 'You can't take it with you.' "