Opinion: Sir Terry Matthews talks turkey

Say what you want about Sir Terry Matthews, arguably Ottawa's best-known serial entrepreneur.

Just don't talk to him about life after business.

"Well ,what do you want me to do... retire?" asks the Mitel Networks founder, when questioned about why he still does what he does at nearly 70 years of age. It's fair to say many – especially in the rapidly-changing technology realm in which Mr. Matthews plays – may have quietly found reasons to fade into the background, enjoying the spoils of their already-successful careers.

"Well, that's up to them," he responds.

"I think about one day of twiddling my toes in the sand is about all I can tolerate.  I can't take more than that."

Simon Gwatkin, a Wesley Clover executive and one of Mr. Matthews' right hands, chuckles in the background.  "Some people might enjoy retiring, but I don't," adds Mr. Matthews, also the founder of heavy hitters Newbridge Networks and March Networks.

"It's not my thing."

Surely, then, his business model – which involves harnessing the power of bright, young university graduates by incubating and funding the startups they've conceived - is about some sense of giving back to the technology community?

"No," he says with a bit of a laugh, "I'm about as capitalist as you could possibly be. Capitalism runs right through my body, and it's all about generating wealth."

Indeed, Mr. Matthews knows a few things about the latter. His biggest company, Mitel, recently completed a $147-million initial public offering in the U.S. and Canada. And though its stock price has slid from an estimated $18 to $20 when it made its U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filing, to $14 upon its market debut, to around $9 at press time, he says it was the right move for the company.

"Taking a company public is the right thing to do when the time is right. And we managed to do that in a rotten market, so I'm feeling pretty good about it," he says. "Following the problems in the banking industry down in New York, it was pretty phenomenal that we managed to take it public. It shows that there was support."

Support also seems strong for his new commercialization fund meant for early-stage technology companies, launched in January. It's now nearly reached the $100-million mark and counting, he says.

The fund – launched with a goal of at least $100 million – is currently circling potential partners, Mr. Matthews adds, and is "focused on reaching $150 million.

"Which tells you that I've got quite a few partners circled. They're circled, and you would certainly know their names.

"But I can't tell you who they are."

Dang. Can't blame me for trying, at least.

The Wales-born Mr. Matthews, who now has over 80 startups under his gwregys – that's Welsh for "belt," by the way – sat down with OBJ prior to an event with International Business Wales at the Marshes Golf Club in late June. He presented alongside executives from two of his companies, Ottawa's Magor Communications and Isca Networks of Wales, on the benefits of doing business in both countries.

But what so often gets lost in the events, press clippings and headlines – and he's had a few of those lately, considering he's hosting the Ryder Cup golf tournament at his Celtic Manor Resort in Wales in just a couple of months – is that he's crafted an entire team of like-minded folks around him, each essential cogs in the Matthews Machine. 

"I work with people who enjoy building companies," he says. "And Simon is just as enthusiastic about what we do here as I am."

"Yes," Mr. Gwatkin agrees. "For sure."

"If I retire, what the hell would Simon do? I'll do anything to keep him busy."

We all laugh, but the point is well taken. Mr. Gwatkin, along with fellow team members Paul Chiarelli, Christa Plumley, Simon Gibson, Andrew Fisher, Michael Turner and others, have conspired to create a formidable force in Wesley Clover and its stable of companies such as OBJ Startup to Watch Benbria and mobile games maker Glitchsoft.

The essence of the model involves funding university grad-led startups targeting niche vertical markets. All the while, he says, those startups utilize strategic partnerships with established companies such as Mitel to serve as already-existing sales channels.

"And it's working," he says. "The fact of the matter is, over many decades I've built up a first-class team that enjoys creating industrial growth. We enjoy that. It's about creating industry.  That is what we do."

But don't think Mr. Matthews is exclusively a technology mover. Far from it – aside from owning Kanata's Brookstreet Hotel and attached golf course, he also bought his famed Celtic Manor in 1980 into which he pumped millions of dollars.

But his most recent acquisition?

"A pub on the river," he says, in Wales.

"The Newbridge Inn."

 jim.donnelly@transcontinental.ca