In the dying days of summer, Nadir Mohamed headed off to laid-back Tofino on Vancouver Island for a short vacation. Before leaving home, he packed his beloved jazz magazines - and a copy of Mojo.
The rock 'n' roll journal was celebrating the music of 1969, which struck a chord, transporting Mr. Mohamed to another time and place. He couldn't put the magazine down. On his way back to Toronto, he hit a Vancouver record shop in search of the classics - King Crimson, the Mothers of Invention and, most important, Mott the Hoople.
"I once had a prized T-shirt of Mott the Hoople - it was black and, eventually, it disintegrated," he says, noting that the British group famous for All the Young Dudes will join jazz master Miles Davis in his iPod rotation.
All this glam-rock nostalgia earned him mockery from his wife, but the story captures the catholic tastes of the man who is the first corporate titan who truly reflects modern Canada. An Ismaili Muslim who was born in Africa, Mr. Mohamed went to school in England (where he learned to rock) and completed his education in Canada, where his family had moved to escape injustice. Now, at 53, he runs the nation's most pervasive communication company.
Last year, Rogers Communications Inc. (RCI) generated revenue of $11.3-billion - more than Manitoba's provincial budget. With 29,000 employees across the country, it is Canada's largest wireless provider and its largest cable company, as well as the owner of magazines, radio and television outlets, the nation's only Major League Baseball team and the stadium that houses it.
But the giant that delivers wireless service to eight million Canadians, as well as cable TV and high-speed Internet to millions of homes, faces a serious challenge: In the next year, four new national rivals will appear on the scene, with regional players to follow. All will be chasing a slice of the wireless pie that Rogers now shares with Telus and Bell Canada.
Last December, RCI lost its iconic founder and leader. Ted Rogers won his first cable licence just two years before young Nadir began listening to Mott the Hoople at boarding school. He died at 75 as one of the richest men in the country.
Now the empire built upon his remarkable vision - and considerable luck - is gambling that Mr. Mohamed, rather than a member of the Rogers family or someone else from the WASP elite, can keep it all together.
The rise of Nadir Mohamed represents a radical change in style: The rambunctious Mr. Rogers, who favoured electric-blue blazers, was the classic mercurial entrepreneur who alternately berated and inspired his managers. His successor is preternaturally self-controlled and consensus-seeking - a cool young dude right down to the unbuttoned, gently rumpled sleeves of his crisp white shirt.
But the cultural change is most breathtaking. Coming from outside the traditional white, European gene pool from which corporate leaders are usually selected, Mr. Mohamed is the business equivalent of Barack Obama, a pioneer from a visible minority, a global wanderer with roots in Africa and ties to the Pacific and, like the U.S. President, half of an emerging power couple.
A chartered accountant like her husband, Shabin Mohamed has set aside her career to meet the crushing demands of his job and is quietly making a mark in volunteerism. "We're partners and soulmates in everything we do," Mr. Mohamed says.
Mr. Rogers also liked to see himself as an outsider, the product of a lost family fortune who cracked the establishment. Yet he was a graduate of exclusive Upper Canada College and reflected the past - the old boys' network, cable TV and commitments to big-league baseball and football (although he was famously ill informed about team sports). Mr. Mohamed resonates with the new Canada of World Cup soccer, cricket and the iPod.
In many ways, the mix on his iPod underscores the challenge he faces, which will define his era at Rogers: how to satisfy customers whose tastes are, like his, increasingly individualistic and immediate. People want their music and information personalized, they want it now, and they really don't care how it reaches them. It isn't just any BlackBerry - it is their BlackBerry, customized to their tastes.
Just as there is room for both Frank Zappa and Miles Davis on his playlist, there is room for more than one technology on his desk, which is a jumble of wires, laptop and phones.
"I think the lines we have drawn historically, whether between cable and phone, wireless and wired, are starting to blur, if not disappear," he says. "The customer is going to pick up a device and say, 'I want to be connected,' and how we deliver it is the company's issue, not the customer's."
COCA-COLA WITH PEANUTS
The road to the 10th-floor corner office at RCI's Toronto headquarters began in Dar es Salaam, then the capital of Tanzania, where Nadir Mohamed grew up in an Indian immigrant family. He remembers his father, a hardware entrepreneur, trudging home at night and sharing snacks of salted peanuts sprinkled into stubby bottles of Coca-Cola.
At that time, Asians in East Africa feared that they could lose what they had built as nationalist fervour bubbled up in their adopted countries. To keep their options open, they sent their children abroad to be educated, and Nadir, barely in his teens, ended up at Kelly College, launched on a Devon estate in 1877 for "sons of naval officers and other gentlemen." What he remembers most: its cricket fields.
Then back in Tanzania, his family's fears came true. The Mohameds' hardware business was nationalized with no compensation. So they fled Africa to Vancouver and picked up the pieces.
After finishing college, Mr. Mohamed joined his parents and sister in Canada, settling into the West Coast's vibrant Ismaili community.
The Ismailis are a branch of Shia Islam led by the Aga Khan, who is a descendent of the Prophet Mohammed. Dispersed around the globe, Ismailis have been able to adapt through hard work and an ethic of service.
"You're always helping give food to elders, helping people get from point A to B, and helping new Ismailis settle in Canada," says Reza Satchu, a Toronto friend of Mr. Mohamed who believes this engagement with the world helped to define his friend's management style.
"Nadir is a pragmatic, intuitive leader who leads by understanding human nature," a former colleague says.
"He knows what makes people tick."
Vancouver is where Nadir met his future wife, another expatriate from Africa. Originally from Kenya, Shabin was just 15 at the time. "She would describe it as stealing her from the cradle," her husband says with a chuckle. "I told her that, when I'm 90 and you're 85, it won't matter so much. It seemed to work as an argument."
After a commerce degree at the University of British Columbia, Mr. Mohamed became a chartered accountant, and then fate intervened in his life: A friend dropped out of an interview with BC Tel, and he went instead, landing a finance job at the phone utility.
There, he soon caught the attention of Fares Salloum, a hard-nosed engineer who was building a team for a new technology called cellular mobility. In 1985, this idea was so radical that BC Tel put the business in a unit by itself.
FOUND HIS NICHE
Joining the mobility arm meant career risks, but for anyone on the ground floor of a big new technology, the potential rewards are huge - and Mr. Mohamed scored big.
He insisted that, rather than being just a "numbers guy," he wanted to help build strategy. The Egyptian-born Mr. Salloum liked that attitude, and became a mentor.
The two men also bonded because they were outside the Canadian mainstream - a perspective that may be Mr. Mohamed's great advantage because he has learned to avoid entrenched positions, listening carefully and weighing arguments.
He rose to become president of the wireless unit, but then came the 1999 merger of BC Tel with Alberta's Telus Corp. In the scramble, Mr. Mohamed wound up as head of marketing for the new company, a job he found constricting.
Aware that he was unhappy, his rivals at Rogers went into head-hunting mode. The decisive moment came during a marathon meeting with Ted Rogers that began at his home in Toronto's elite Forest Hill district. The RCI people knew that Mr. Mohamed was ripe to make a move, but there was no point unless he and the boss could get along.
The jury was out until Mr. Rogers grew misty-eyed as he spoke of his father, a pioneer of Canadian radio who had died suddenly at 38 a few weeks before his son's sixth birthday. Nadir, whose own father had struggled to rebuild his life in Canada, was touched. He got the job.
Leaving their friends and family was a wrenching experience for the couple. "We are West Coasters in many ways," Mr. Mohamed says, but the chance to run Rogers Wireless was irresistible. "After a while, you get much crisper on what drives you. To me, it was clear that running businesses and winning were what drove me."
The move to Toronto put him in the right place at the right time. He was the wireless guy, and wireless became king, as laptop computers, BlackBerrys and iPhones came to pervade business and family life.
His wife, meanwhile, was plunging into the Toronto art and charity world. She became a key player in Partners in Art, a group of power women who support art projects. As a director of the Power Plant contemporary art gallery, she co-chaired the 2005 fundraising ball with Suzanne Cohon, whose husband, Mark, is commissioner of the Canadian Football League and son of McDonald's of Canada founder George Cohon.
Ms. Mohamed complemented Ms. Cohon, a non-stop bundle of energy, says someone who watched the two in action. "Shabin takes it at a different pace, relaxed and comfortable. She enjoys taking in the scenery."
Toronto media executive John Clinton, a member of the Power Plant board (which Ms. Mohamed has since left), says Shabin and her husband have cut a swath in the Toronto cultural scene, and "she is considered a player."
Her eye for design is put to use in furnishing homes in Rosedale, another upscale Toronto neighbourhood where the Mohameds like to entertain, and in Palm Beach, Fla.
According to Mr. Satchu, her husband's friend, Shabin "is a firecracker, she is smart and she plays a huge role in Nadir's success." (Not that she is much of a publicity hound; an invitation to be interviewed for this article was declined.)
REACH FOR THE TOP
After he got established in Toronto, it wasn't long before Mr. Mohamed was thrust into the intricate politics of succession at RCI. Some company-watchers argue that even by hiring and promoting him, Mr. Rogers was looking to he future and thinking strategically about his family.
Two of his four children were in the company. Edward Rogers, head of cable, and sister Melinda, in charge of strategy and development, were both capable but lacked deep experience and often appeared to be rivals.
Phil Lind, an RCI director and long-time confidant of Ted Rogers, says he and his old friend realized that the cable company they had built was morphing into a wireless company, and clearly that operation was running well with Mr. Mohamed in charge. He says they decided, "Okay, if the guy can do this, the guy can do anything."
Even so, after his father's death, 40-year-old Edward made a surprisingly strong bid for the job of chief executive officer. But Mr. Mohamed had more experience and, in a company that often acted like Ted Rogers's extended family, was refreshingly free of baggage. Besides, he had meshed well with the boss, patiently listening to his tirades as well as his enthusiasms.
As for the notion that his ascendancy represents a step forward for the business community of a country whose complexion is changing rapidly, Mr. Mohamed seems taken off guard when asked if he sees himself as a corporate leader for a new Canada:
"I don't look at it as someone who comes from a different set of circumstances," he replies. "For me, it has never been about the past. It's an opportunity to run the company and build on its success.
"That leverages on a number of factors, from where I grew up to spending eight years working with a master. It's all that bundled in."
Mr. Lind insists that Mr. Mohamed's skills are what define him. In his view, RCI's entrepreneurial phase is over, and different times call for different leaders. "Ted got us here," he explains, "and now we're being managed like a regular company."
That "regular company" is approaching unfamiliar terrain. For years, Rogers experienced phenomenal growth, but now the task is to protect its hard-won franchises in cable, wireless and the media from interlopers, including the new wave of wireless invaders.
RCI's dilemma can be seen in a work by West Coast photographer Greg Girard that hangs in Mr. Mohamed's office, a picture of an old Shanghai building exposed and crumbling in a pile of rubble, as a new, larger structure rises behind it.
The kicker is that the building is being demolished by the very workers who once lived in it, making the demolition an act of cannibalization. That is, in essence, the task that Mr. Mohamed faces.
In its ads, for example, the Rogers-owned cell service Fido urges customers to "cut the cord" and go wireless, but its parent company still owns a great deal of wire. So just as the old Shanghai building gave birth to something new, Mr. Mohamed, with 25 years of experience in the wireless industry, must decide the fate of Rogers's large media business as well as its sprawling cable system. The disparate parts must be forged into a single customer offering, or cast off.
How will he do it?
At this point, Mr. Mohamed will say only that he is still learning about other Rogers businesses, such as the Blue Jays. (The baseball team is suffering through another losing season and imploding fan support, but he says the company is still committed to it.)
Ted Rogers, he points out, protected and expanded his businesses at the same time. But "that was a different cycle and, yes, there are new competitors," he says. He hopes that the Mohamed era will be defined by another kind of growth - in cash flow, which requires greater efficiency and tighter cost control, instead of just chasing new customers and revenue.
He also must confront the hierarchical confusion in RCI's upper echelons. For the past five months, Edward Rogers, as the cable boss, has reported directly to Mr. Mohamed. Yet, as the person who votes his family's controlling block of shares, he is also Mr. Mohamed's ultimate employer.
The relationship between the two men shifted somewhat this week. Mr. Rogers still reports to the CEO, but has been appointed deputy chairman and taken on a special mandate to oversee strategic initiatives - including mergers and acquisitions - while Mr. Mohamed remains in charge of day-to-day operations.
For some observers, it seemed like an effective splitting of the CEO's job between the two, with Mr. Mohamed having to share authority for corporate strategy. But distancing the founder's son from operations, and his increased focus on corporate and board issues, may be a more rational division of labour, and liberating for the new CEO's team.
Mr. Mohamed will need all his collaborative skills to make the relationship work. As a friend of both men says, Mr. Rogers has to hold any bruised feelings he may have in check and understand that, when Mr. Mohamed looks good, the family does too.
THE ROAD AHEAD
As the demands of running the company increase, Mr. Mohamed's personal life will change. It will be harder to jet off to a World Cup final, as he did in 2006 with Mr. Satchu, watching Italy play France in Berlin's Olympic Stadium.
Before the game, Mr. Satchu painted the map of France on his face, while Mr. Mohamed went with Italy and, ever-competitive, revelled in the fact that his side won. "Everybody has their own way to express things," he says. "I'm a sports nut and a music nut."
Clearly he is not your typical middle-aged executive, but neither is Mr. Mohamed still a "young dude" (even if Mott the Hoople is starting warm-ups next weekend for its long-awaited reunion shows).
He is the symbol of change in Canada's corner offices - but it's also an age in which those who lead national corporations are expected to stand for something more than just good management.
Phil Lind argues that he still needs to grow as a public personality. "As he meets business people, they are impressed with him, but the word on the street is: 'We don't really know this guy all that well.' He'll have to get better known."
Sitting in his office next to Mr. Lind's, Mr. Mohamed says he will be known by what he accomplishes for customers, shareholders and employees. If he does the right thing for those key groups, he says, "life will work out."
Gordon Pitts is a senior writer with The Globe and Mail and winner of this year's National Business Book Award for Stampede, The Rise of the West and Canada's New Power Elite, published by Key Porter.