Jay Forbes has never been one to overstay his welcome.
The Manitoba Telecom Services Inc. chief executive officer, who announced a deal this week to sell the company to BCE Inc. for $3.1-billion, believes in "self-selecting out" when he's no longer adding value to a situation.
"I often refer to this role as a journeyman," the 55-year-old said over lunch near the MTS headquarters in Winnipeg in late March. "The organization is in need of a certain leader with certain attributes. You go and do that job. The job might be two years, it might be 20 years."
Those who have worked with Mr. Forbes describe the Nova Scotia native as a rare Canadian executive who can move between industries with ease and quickly identify and implement a winning strategy, all while forging genuine relationships with the people he does business with.
He is no stranger to BCE's chief financial officer Glen LeBlanc, who worked under him at Aliant Inc., the Atlantic Canada telecom where Mr. Forbes was CEO from 2002 to 2006. He recalled this week that the last time he was on an investor call with Mr. LeBlanc was almost a decade ago to the month.
Mr. Forbes had just finished negotiating a landmark deal with then-BCE CEO Michael Sabia that would result in the spinoff of BCE's rural Ontario and Quebec phone operations into Aliant, a transaction engineered to take advantage of the now defunct tax benefits of converting into an income trust. He left Aliant after finalizing the deal, noting that presiding over a stable but "low- to no-growth company just didn't hold a whole lot of interest for me."
Now, just 16 months into the top job at MTS, Mr. Forbes has struck another milestone deal with BCE and it comes fast on the heels of the January closing of the sale of Allstream, the national fibre-optic enterprise services division MTS had long tried but failed to unload.
MTS is one of the few remaining regional telecom operators in the country and its sale to an incumbent has been the fodder of analyst speculation for years, but few expected a deal so soon after the Allstream deal closed.
Mr. Forbes brought in new leadership, cut jobs and stripped costs and established a strategy aimed at improving customer experience. The stock price was steadily climbing back from a low near $23 in February, 2015, to over $32 by late April this year, and though he wasn't looking to sell, Mr. Forbes thinks those changes helped attract the attention of George Cope, BCE's deal-making CEO, who offered $40 a share.
"MTS under Jay's leadership has done a great job of improving the customer experience and running a very efficient and healthy organization with telecom margins north of 40 per cent," Mr. LeBlanc said in an interview on Monday.
Bruce Rothney, country head of Barclays Capital Canada and a long-time telecom banker, has worked with Mr. Forbes on many deals over the years and Barclays was one of MTS's advisers on the BCE sale.
"In our world, investors pay for growth and reduced uncertainty and Jay has, in my estimation, delivered both as well as he could in a short time," Mr. Rothney said in an early April interview, before BCE approached MTS.
Mr. Forbes has experience leading a diverse list of organizations both in and outside of the country and Mr. Rothney says that puts him into a unique management category for Canada.
"In the U.S., from a very young age, CEOs tend to move around a lot, go from city to city at the drop of a hat, and kind of sacrifice. And by doing that, they get a lot of repetitions in different business scenarios, solving different problems, getting experience," he says, drawing a contrast to Canada where "we don't quite have that velocity of experiences and change."
"One of the reasons Jay is great is he's had that repetition, he's gone through that cycle."
David Hay, the former managing director of CIBC World Markets and onetime chief executive of New Brunswick Power, met Mr. Forbes when they were both Atlantic Canada CEOs.
Mr. Forbes is attracted to complexity and relishes solving difficult problems, Mr. Hay says, but he has maintained a Maritime charm and never forgotten "there's nothing wrong with a laugh."
"You don't have to be serious and growly and mean to be an executive. Jay's the epitome of that – he's a lovely guy," Mr. Hay says, noting that Mr. Forbes has built a large network of business contacts and friends in part because he takes a sincere interest in people.
Mr. Forbes speaks in precise, often stilted terms in official settings but is relaxed and engaging in person. He moves easily from discussing how to find growth in a maturing telecom market to why he loves a football underdog to the plot line of The Good Wife, appointment viewing for Mr. Forbes and Carla, his wife of 30 years.
Born in Antigonish, N.S., second in a family of seven children, Mr. Forbes is the son and grandson of entrepreneurs who both ran Canadian Tire dealerships. But his father urged him to seek professional training before deciding to go into business for himself. He studied marketing at Dalhousie University, graduating as class valedictorian, then returning to complete a second major in accounting.
The first act of his career began with the careful planning characteristic of a chartered accountant as he joined the Kentville, N.S., firm Doane Raymond (now Grant Thornton) in 1984. He spent nine years on the partnership track before taking a job as corporate controller at Nova Scotia Power (later privatized and renamed Emera), working his way up to CFO at the utility and eventually landing at Aliant in Saint John, N.B., in 2001.
While at Emera, the CEO asked Mr. Forbes to come up with a system for tracking the company's performance. He did some research and adopted a new strategy management system developed at Harvard University known as the "balanced scorecard," a framework he has implemented at every organization he has joined since then.
In his second act, he embraced uncertainty and an itch to explore, Mr. Forbes says. He has spent the past decade outside of Atlantic Canada, with a Brussels-based role as head of electronics distributor Ingram Micro Inc.'s Europe, Middle East and Africa operations, and a four-year stint as CEO of Toronto-based electronic land registration company Teranet Inc. before signing on with MTS.
Mr. Forbes says he thrives on seeing opportunity where others don't and extracting value by putting the right team and a disciplined strategy in place. But he's less interested in "maintenance mode," which leaves open the question of his next move.
BCE has agreed to make Winnipeg its headquarters for Western Canada. Mr. Forbes, who received total compensation of $3.3-million in 2015, would be entitled to payments totalling $5.2-million if his role is terminated following a change of control, according to an estimate in an MTS securities filing.
For now, he is focused on continuing the transformation at MTS and seeing the sale to BCE through to closing. That promises to be a potentially fraught process as the deal will reshape Manitoba's wireless market, consolidating it to just the Big Three national carriers, and will face close scrutiny from the federal government.
"It's hugely important that I will have positioned my organization and colleagues for a very successful future with BCE," he says. "I would say, thereafter, it's very much, 'We shall see.'"