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Tracking down the enigma of Silicon Valley North

Since our inaugural Top 1000 issue in 1984, Report on Business magazine has been reporting on the highs and lows in business, from around the world. Some of the juiciest stories, however, were the ones we never reported. Read all 12 articles here.


The lobby at Newbridge Networks' head office was becoming tediously familiar. For the third time, I had trekked out to the Ottawa suburb of Kanata to interview the company's founder, Terry Matthews.

My previous two trips had involved spending several increasingly uncomfortable hours with an increasingly embarrassed company spokesman. Both times, after breaking for an equally uncomfortable lunch and much study of data-networking trade magazines, I returned home in the evening having not even caught a glimpse of Matthews, let alone conducting our scheduled interview.

But it was 1998 and Matthews, along with his former partner, Michael Cowpland, were the kings of Silicon Valley North, as Ottawa was then called. Their first venture, Mitel, had exploited both the breakup of AT&T in the United States and the arrival of digital telecommunications technology to give Canada its first international tech player (other than the company that eventually called itself Nortel Networks, housed just down the road).

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Besides both being British, Cowpland and Matthews could not be more different. Cowpland thrived on public attention. Corel, his second venture, operated from a gold-mirrored office that matched the $14-million mansion he had built in Rockliffe. His wife, Marlen, was the city's most prominent socialite, and Cowpland roared around town in a variety of sports cars.

All anyone knew about Matthews was that he drove a sensible Volvo station wagon and was keen about rugby. He was an enigma.

After my first two failed interview attempts, I feared he might remain that way. But the third time was lucky, sort of. The interview began about an hour late, with Matthews walking into the room and asking, "Am I the bastard who stood you up twice before?" He then warned me to avoid "things that are a bit sensitive"–presumably, Newbridge's then-declining sales and share price. After a few minutes, he left the room to take a call–a break that extended well into the afternoon.

When he finally returned, it became apparent that the only thing more unnerving for Matthews's PR people than having their boss blow off an interview was having him participate in one. Over the better part of 90 minutes, his voice frequently rose to a shout as he scribbled elaborate diagrams of his networking vision. When asked what he had learned during Mitel's brush with death in the early 1980s, Matthews began to vigorously mimic wielding an axe on employees. "Don't try to be a nice guy," he said. "You just have to say: 'Screw it! Where's the axe?' "

Matthews sold Newbridge to Alcatel for $10.3-billion in stock in 2000, just before the crash. Not long after, the centre of Canada's tech universe moved to Waterloo, and Matthews began spending more time in his native Wales than in Ottawa. But he's still a king in these parts–he has funded many local tech start-ups, in search of the next Newbridge.

Ian Austen is the Canada correspondent for The New York Times, based in Ottawa, and has been writing about technology for more than 25 years.

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