It took two tries for Daniel Friedmann to put himself out of a job at Richmond, B.C.-based MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd. (MDA), the company where he worked for 37 years, the last 20 of them as CEO. Each time, he says, it was to keep the satellite company from nose-diving. The first attempt was in 2008, when Friedmann reluctantly staged the sale of MDA's dominant division to U.S.-based Alliant Techsystems Inc. for $1.3 billion. The federal government blocked the deal, saying MDA's Radarsat-2 satellite, which keeps an eye on the Arctic, ought to stay in Canadian hands. Now, Friedmann has handed over the reins to Howard Lance so MDA can go American in a different way.
Why are you leaving?
It boils down to the company's strategy of trying to access the U.S. market and trying to get more development for all of its commercial products. The best and perhaps the only viable solution is to have an American in charge, based in the U.S., who has the security clearance needed.
What was the best thing about your job?
It's an amazing business. You get to communicate, to explore the universe, go to Mars. We've done so many projects. They all give you goosebumps when you win them, when you launch them, like the Canadarm and Radarsat—the ones people are familiar with in Canada.
What was the most challenging part of the job?
Building a big, successful high-tech company in Canada is unbelievably hard and frustrating because we just don't have the industrial policy and political understanding of what it takes to do those things and to keep those companies going. I was trying to build a lasting, multibillion-dollar company in Canada. It's like farming in bad soil; you need to have some help in terms of policies and environment.
What was your biggest accomplishment?
Ever since I've been CEO, every quarter has been profitable. I guess it's about 80 quarters over 20 years. Having a steady, profitable, diversified business is an amazing challenge, and I think that's the biggest accomplishment.
What was your biggest mistake?
People think that in this job, if someone were to mark you in school, you'd score 90%. I think you're doing okay if you score 60%. It's a fast-moving world and you make mistakes all of the time. In retrospect, it doesn't matter if something is a mistake; it's how you react to it.
What are your thoughts today about Ottawa blocking the Alliant takeover?
I didn't want to do it. I would've been out of a job. We had to do it. I was actually physically ill for about a week before I went to the board to suggest [a sale]. It was the first time I believed that some sicknesses are psychologically induced. I went through with it because I just didn't think we could survive. When it got turned down, it was a good thing for me personally. I kept my job. The government then proceeded to put $1 billion of work into MDA and it all worked out. I personally don't think the $1 billion would've come otherwise. I don't have any regrets. It was the right thing to do at the time for the company.
What do you plan to do next?
I'm not retiring. That's not a word in my vocabulary. Being an engineer, I'm going to sit down and go through the process of what to do next. I love learning. I'm going to catch up on my quantum mechanics and artificial intelligence and some cosmology stuff I haven't been able to keep up with, and a pile of religious texts that I haven't had a chance to read. That's where my spare time is going to go, at least in the short term.
What will you take from your office on the way out?
Pictures of my daughter. Also my calculator, because I really like it.
This interview has been condensed and edited.