11 min read

Where are they now?

Their opinions used to fill the pages of IT publications and issue from podiums across the country. Then they seemingly faded from view. We found out what some of these movers and shakers are doing today

Peter De Jager

Presently: Founder of de Jager & Computer Ltd
Time-there: pre-2000
Famous because: Being the Y2K guru
Channel Impact: The Y2K impedding doom created a stir that helped resellers sell more product then ever before

He’s moved on to consult on many different projects since the millennium, but Peter de Jager used to be the go-to guy when organizations needed to know anything about the Y2K bug. de Jager began warning people about the Y2K issue in the early 1990s, and at the moment of truth – January 1, 2000 – the world didn’t end. Was that because the problem wasn’t as serious as thought, or because people like de Jager did a good job getting organizations ready? Many informed industry people feel it’s the latter. “He performed a valuable service,” said Gaylen Duncan, then president of the Information Technology Association of Canada, who credits de Jager with debunking many myths. In May 2001, he was honored by CIPS for his work related to Y2K.

Today de Jager is a speaker, writer and consultant on topics such as problem solving, creativity and change. He tends to use humor in his presentations, which focus on the impact of technology on areas such as privacy, security and business. Besides an international speaking engagement schedule, he writes about a dozen regular columns. He was recently appointed an associate director of The Global Future Forum, a Unisys Corp. initiative.

All of de Jager’s work, including pre-Y2K, has addressed how individuals – and therefore organizations – assimilate change. Note that the Y2K bug is seldom mentioned today. We can thank de Jager partially for that.

Derek Burney

Formerly: CEO of Corel Corp
Time-there: 1984-2004
Famous because: He is the man who replaced Michael Cowpland at Corel
Presently: Working for Microsoft

Derek Burney rose to prominence as the person who in 2000 replaced Michael Cowpland at Corel Corp., which at the time was Canada’s most well-known software vendor.

Burney took over from a scandal-plagued regime that saw the company sink to its lowest point in its history. Cowpland was battling the Ontario Securities Commission, the company’s Linux strategy wasn’t getting any traction and Microsoft had beaten it badly in the Office Suite war. Fact is, even pirated Office out sold WordPerfect Suite.

In came Derek Burney, son of Derek Hudson Burney, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s chief of staff and former Canadian Ambassador to the U.S. Burney senior was instrumental in cutting the famous Canadian/U.S. Free Trade Agreement, which was replaced with the North American Free Trade Agreement or NAFTA.

His son must have learned the art of dealmaking because quietly and without any fanfare, Burney turned Canada’s largest software vendor around.

His vision was to focus the company on its core competencies. He also placed bets on profitable products such as graphics software that could emerge as winners in the future.

Then Burney made a move that cemented his reputation. He stopped competing directly with Microsoft and embraced it as a partner. He spun off the Linux distribution.

He also managed to grow the company through acquisitions such as MicroGraphX and SoftQuad.

Burney was also one of the first executives to embrace the mobile world in deals with RIM and Palm.

A Carleton University computer science graduate, Burney started at Corel as a co-op student. He was lucky enough to be mentored by Cowpland himself. From there his rise throughout the company was meteoric. He became the head of engineering, chief technology officer and then president, CEO and chairman.

In 2003, following an investment presentation Burney made to Vector Capital, the San Francisco venture capital firm bought the company after a controversial fight with shareholders. Amish Mehta, one of Vector’s principals took over as CEO in 2004. Burney left shortly thereafter to join Microsoft.

Today he is the general manager of Microsoft Office FrontPage.

Anthony Decristofaro

Formerly: Vice-President of AST (corporate) and general manager of Canada
Time-there: 1992-1996
Famous because: Taking revenues from $22 million to $380 million in less than four years
Presently: Left to take over start-up MGI Software

Anthony DeCristofaro was doing such a good job running AST Canada in the early ’90s that its U.S. parent, AST Research Inc. used to say ‘Just leave Anthony alone.’ “They said ‘What are you doing there? Why are we not doing it?’ They couldn’t figure out how we were getting $380 million out of 24 million people,” says DeCristofaro. Eventually they asked him to duplicate his successful PC sales model stateside. But he was torn. “I kind of ran my own ship, so I’d be going to the U.S. and I would obviously be the executive vice-president for the Americas . . . but it’s a different world down there. I knew there were challenges politically so I just chose to stay here.”

An opportunity presented itself in Canada in 1996 in the form of a start-up called MGI Software. DeCristofaro was the hired gun president and CEO. It meant a drastic change in scope for him. “All of a sudden when I wanted a file folder it was: ‘Well get up and get it, or go buy it at Business Depot,’” he laughs. But the company had a unique product, PhotoSuite, and beat both Adobe and Microsoft into the digital photography market. With revenues of $48 million, MGI was sold to Roxio/Napster in 2002 for about $85 million.

Today DeCristofaro is at a turning point at the new company he founded in 2003. After about three years of development, iseemedia, Inc. is announcing several new initiatives, including new software that brings together three overlapping digital pictures into one in eight seconds – a natural for real estate or insurance applications.

Next on iseemedia’s agenda: using its patented streaming technology to handle rich digital content (e-mail attachments) for the big push e-mail providers.

Sue Miller

Formerly: President of Merisel Canada
Time-there: 1987-1994
Famous because: Taking Merisel from the number seven distributor to number one
Presently: Left to lead Merisel Europe as managing director

During Sue Miller’s years as president of Merisel Canada, the distributor blossomed from distant competitor to channel leader. Miller chalks it up to having recognized that distribution was a service business, and not a technology business. “Once you understand what your business is then you queue it up differently,” she explains.

After her success in Canada, Miller was tapped to run the seven-country operation that was Merisel Europe, growing revenues from US$850 million to US$1.2 billion before the group was sold.

Her next challenge was short-lived. As president of Compaq Canada in 1997, she went through the Tandem acquisition and left just prior to the company’s purchase of Digital Equipment Corp. It had been a different role than the one she’d imagined. “I hadn’t researched the position as thoroughly as I might have, and I was used to reporting in to the CEO of a worldwide organization and having quite a lot of autonomy. I had limited autonomy.” Still, while she was there revenues grew by about 35 per cent – during a time when the Compaq’s U.S. market share was declining.

Since then, Miller has been CEO of a high-tech seed investment company called Inno-centre Alberta, and president and CEO of a medical device firm called The Litebook Company Ltd., whose light therapy product has been proven to help treat seasonal affective disorder. She has also been brought in as a turnaround expert at other firms.

Today Miller coaches other CEOs on how to improve their leadership and reach goals. For her Calgary firm, Catalyst Enterprises business is good: one of her Toronto clients jumped from $30 million in revenues to $350 million in three years. Recently, Miller even seems to be branching out: someone at the vice-president level has requested coaching. “I’m actually able to help them form a stronger relationship with the CEO and move the company forward,” she says. “It’s all about understanding that your role has an impact, no matter where you are in the organization.

Tom Reeves

Formerly: President, Beamscope Canada
Time-there: 1998-2000
Known For: Building up Beamscope’s PC distribution and retail distribution businesses. When it sold its PC and video game hardware and software unit, along with its video game accessories business, it had a product line of about 65,000 different offerings and network of more than 7,000 retailers across Canada.
Reason for leaving: His resignation came as part of Beamscope’s restructuring plan.

Besides acting as president of Beamscope for what turned out to be two fairly tumultuous years, Tom Reeves is known for having guided both Merisel Canada (as president, from 1994-1998) and Merisel Europe (managing director, 1992-1994). When he started at Merisel’s Canadian division, he was forced to overcome a very difficult SAP conversion he calls “a bit of a body blow” that cost the group about six months of smooth operations. But when he left, the organization’s revenues had grown from $700 million to around $1.1 billion.

Beamscope Canada was his next destination.

“I basically got headhunted by the guys at Beamscope and it was something different, a good and interesting opportunity, says Reeves. “They were doing a lot of other things in consumer products, as well as the Internet business they’d invested in, selling games, selling satellite systems.” Plus, he says, it was the headquarters of a public company as opposed to a subsidiary of a public company.

But while the work was interesting, Reeves says it was “a tough road” that ended with significant writeoffs and restructuring, as well as the company’s exit from the distribution business. After a stint at ASP

Borderfree, whose services made it easier for international customers to buy products on the Internet, Reeves joined

OccuLogix in 2004, where he remains today as president and COO. OccuLogix’s products are focused on preventing age-related macular degeneration as well as glaucoma. Reeves says the company, which raised $100 million and went public in 2004, sounded like an exciting opportunity, “somewhere I could learn a lot about different businesses and a different industry, and ultimately one that can help people a lot. Our focus is to prevent people from going blind, so it’s a neat business to be in.”

Occulogix has provided him with interesting work, says Reeves, but it’s very different from the computer industry, and specifically the channel. But still there are channels.

Malcolm MacTaggart

Formerly: General Manager for Microsoft Canada
Time-there: 1984-1986
Known For: Microsoft pre-IPO “evangelizing” to the emerging Canadian computer channel
Reason for leaving: Disagreement with Bill Gates over how to grow the business in Canada. Also became president of CRYPTOCard

When he heard Bill Gates in 1983 describe a future vision of the computer interface – moving from the character-based A-prompt to visual to voice – it resonated with Malcolm MacTaggart. So when a headhunter called about six months later asking him if he wanted to join the company’s Canadian subsidiary, he was quick to say yes.

“Back in those days I’d had experience on the financial side – I’d gotten involved in the industry in 1981 – and on the marketing side, and there probably weren’t too many people with the right mix of skills. Probably me and one other guy, and he might have turned it down,” jokes MacTaggart.

Of his first 365 days, he was on the road for 200, criss-crossing the country and meeting with every PC or Mac user group imaginable. “Okay, well maybe not the one in Yellowknife, but it was next on the list,” he laughs.

These were early, and not yet glamorous, days for Microsoft Canada: When MacTaggart started, the company boasted three staff and was run out of an office above a Golden Griddle on an industrial road in Toronto. But MacTaggart fed off the atmosphere. “What I’ve always loved is the very early days when you’re doing everything you can, involved in both strategizing and developing the tactics and then being malleable enough to adapt to the roles that are required in order to grow the business.”

It was not to last. After six years it was clear that MacTaggart and Gates didn’t see eye to eye on a number of fronts, including how best to develop the Canadian market, “or even the need for there to be a Canada, when it’s just an artificial line on the map,” he says. “So, in a nutshell, we had a pretty heated discussion and he said ‘Get out,’” MacTaggart recounts.

But as he had been fortunate enough to get “a couple of dollars” out of the split, MacTaggart took a year or so off. He then spent time teaching math and statistics at York University (1992-1996) and completed his MBA at the University of Western Ontario (1993-1994). During this time, he came to see that his interest lay in evolving or emerging technologies and being involved in the development of a company right from the embryonic stage. He liked the strategic and logistical challenges brought about by “having to do different things with goo
Gaylen Duncan

Formerly: President, Information Technology Association of Canada
Time-there: 1996-2003
Known For: Leading ITAC through the tech boom
Reason for leaving: To set up his own consulting company

Through the boom years of the late 1990s, this tireless and oft-quoted president of the Information Technology Association of Canada (ITAC) helped keep the industry’s voice heard across the country.

Respected enough to be a member of the Y2K Task Force 2000, Gaylen Duncan could be found addressing the Empire Club one day and on TV the next between 1996 and 2004.

He’s been a member of the National Research Council’s Advisory Committee on the Industrial Research Assistance program, a member of the Round Table on E-Business Opportunities and co-chair of the Conference Board Advisory Council on Canadian Connections.

But today he describes himself as “basically retired, but looking for some fun projects” as a private consultant.

Often that means advising foreign governments on the best way to work with their IT sectors. His most recent work was for Sri Lanka as a sub-contractor to a USAid project in that country.

“Sri Lanka was quite unique,” he says. “In all of the consulting I’ve done, it’s usually industry that knows what it wants and government that lacks direction. In Sri Lanka it was exactly the opposite: The newly-elected government had a vision that included technology as one of its main planks. They had a plan for developing the high-tech industry. But the industry had no association, they lacked a forum to build a consensus and articulate what they thought they needed.”

The government’s position was formed by people who weren’t from the industry, he said. The industry felt some ideas were wrong, but didn’t know what to do. So Duncan was hired to stimulate the creation of an ITAC-like organization.

What he told the companies is that while they have private interests, they won’t get anywhere unless they form a group that can create a consensus on the interests of the industry.

“I tried to create an environment where the companies began to recognize that as an industry they were more powerful, rather than each company lobbying. They should continue to do that, but also form an industry lobby.”

He also suggested they hire a full-time person to lead the association, ideally recruited from a Sri Lankan who is working overseas and understands how to work with government but wants to come home.

Before that he worked for five years advising Vietnam on how to stimulate its IT industry. Reflecting the American influence, southern Vietnam was ‘Let’s do it and then we’ll figure out how to make it all work together,’ he said, while reflecting its former Communist influence, northern Vietnam was ‘Lets think, let’s talk, let’s plan.’

His next project may be urging governments to get serious about malicious Internet activity through such activity as spam.

When he’s not roaming the world, Duncan spends time reading business books and fiction either at his Toronto home or his cottage in Quebec.Interestingly, the man who is often a spokesman for IT doesn’t have a Web site for his business. “If you don’t know about me by word of mouth,” he says, “I probably can’t help you.”

Ron Austin

Formerly: Globelle CEO
Time-there: 1985-1999
Known For: Saving Globelle from U.S. expansion disaster
Reason for leaving: Acquired by Tech Data. He became president of Action Front Data Recovery Labs, which was later acquired by Seagate Technology

Ron Austin was one of the channel’s better-known movers and shakers.

He cut some of the most historic deals in distribution such as the TechData/Globelle acquisition of 1999.

Austin got his start in IT at a small software company in 1981. It was there where he met Nir Shafrir (see page 12).

In 1985, Shafrir founded Computer Brokers of Canada (CBC) and formed a partnership with Austin.

Computer Brokers acquired GBC in 1993 and became an international company. Austin said that the company knew it had to change its name.

“I came up with the name Globelle. I always liked the name Intel and Novell and I was reading the Globe and Mail and I thought of my daughter Danielle and that is how I got the name,” Austin said.

The company went public that same year and in a few years tried to enter the U.S. market. Globelle did not fare well in the U.S. market, but Austin managed to salvage the distributor and stayed solely as a Canadian company until the Tech Data acquisition.

After 14 years at a distributor, Austin ventured into the unpredictable world of Internet entrepreneurship. He helped to start InfoPreneur and Geo Sign. InfoPreneur was quickly acquired by March Networks, a company owned by Mitel founder Terry Matthews.

Geo Sign was formed in Guelph, Ont. and was backed by Tim Nye and Jim Estill of EMJ Data Systems (see page 8).

“The project was to create a geographic index of the Internet and we were very ambitious,” he said.

However, the market had no appetite for it at the time. But Geo Sign is still chugging along in Guelph.

By 2001, he was hired on by Nick Majors, the founder of Data Recovery Labs, which eventually became Action Front Data Recovery Labs. ActionFront is one of the leading vendors in resolving business-critical data loss.

“That was a crazy fall (with the tech bubble) and we all went through it and in some ways it was the most fun I had in my career. The industry was turned upside down,” he said.

In November of 2005, Austin, as the president of Action Front, entered into an acquisition deal with Seagate Technology.

Austin is currently enjoying his family time up at his Muskoka, Ont. cottage. He says he is considering plans to retire.

“I personally had a great time working with great people (during my career). I did very well for myself. Every day I wake up grateful for the disk drive. If you go back to the beginning of CBC we distributed mostly hard drives. When I ended up at ActionFront it was full circle. The disk drive has been very good to me,” Austin said.