After initially turning down Terry Matthews’ offer to join Mitel as its chief financial officer in 2001, Steve Spooner just couldn’t say no the second time Matthews came calling.
That was in 2003, after Spooner had spent a couple of years as CEO of a Toronto tech startup and another year as chief operating officer of a mobile app platform-maker when that field was in its infancy. Already with a couple of decades of experience under his belt as a C-suite executive at a number of tech outfits, the Ottawa native couldn’t resist the chance to reunite with one of his most esteemed business mentors.
“I said, ‘Let’s keep in touch,’” Spooner, 60, recalled during a recent interview with OBJ. “Well, two years later, he came back and said, ‘Come on, let’s do this.’”
It was the beginning of a very fruitful partnership. The firm that then had a top line of about $400 million and was struggling to break even now has annual revenues of more than $1.3 billion and is on track to turn a $200-million profit in fiscal 2018.
Spooner’s role in Mitel’s ascent, along with his wide-ranging background as a tech executive, made him a clear-cut choice to be the first recipient of OBJ and the Ottawa Board of Trade’s inaugural CFO of the Year award for his financial and community leadership. Spooner was selected by a committee of business and financial leaders that included Mark Noonan of Deloitte Ottawa; Ian Sherman, a partner at Ernst & Young and chair of the board of trade; Ian Faris, the board of trade’s CEO; and OBJ publisher Michael Curran.
The affable grandfather of four, who has been married to wife Donna for 41 years, is one of the most highly regarded tech execs in the capital region. His latest accolade was cheered throughout the city’s close-knit tech community, not least by the man who lured him to Mitel.
“Talent is the natural resource of the tech industry – the precious metal that drives business growth and success – and Steve Spooner has set the gold standard for best-in-class financial leadership and integrity in Ottawa, Canada and the world,” Matthews said.
“I am personally grateful for the contributions he has made to companies I am involved in, and for his close friendship. I congratulate him on this extraordinary and well-deserved honour.”
An Ottawan through and through, Spooner graduated from J.S. Woodsworth Secondary School before earning his bachelor of commerce degree from Carleton University in 1980.
He started his career at the Ottawa office of Arthur Andersen, then one of the largest accounting firms in the world. Although he had his heart set on working his way up to partner at a major firm, the pull of the tech industry soon proved too much to resist.
Spooner did stints in finance at now-defunct computer manufacturers Digital Equipment and Wang, relocating to Toronto when Digital moved its head office there in the 1980s. After serving as CFO of Wang’s Canadian operations, he returned to his hometown in 1993 to become a vice-president at SHL Systemhouse, then a major tech player with annual revenues of more than $1 billion.
From there, he moved on to CrossKeys Systems, a spinoff of Matthews’ Newbridge Networks, where, in 1997, he spearheaded the company’s initial public offering on the NASDAQ and Toronto Stock Exchange. As a “seasoned business guy,” he was brought in to provide mentorship to a young executive team that included Bruce Linton, now the head of Canopy Growth Corp. and Ottawa’s 2018 CEO of the Year.
“Bruce and I worked together for five years and had a lot of fun,” Spooner said.
He then had a two-year stint piloting telecom startup Stream Intelligent Networks through turbulent waters during the tech downturn of the early 2000s, a job that prompted him to turn down Matthews’ initial offer to join Mitel as CFO after the tech magnate bought back the firm he’d founded and turned it private.
Following “a fun gig” as chief operating officer of mobile app platform Wysdom in 2002-03, Spooner got another call from his friend and mentor. This time, his answer was yes.
‘The modern CFO’
In 15 years at one of the region’s largest companies, Spooner has partnered with CEO Rich McBee to become a central figure in Mitel’s evolution into a one of the world’s leading cloud communications providers.
“Steve is an outstanding model for what I call the ‘modern CFO,’” McBee said. “He is not only a master of corporate finance, but also has a clear vision of the big picture with a deep understanding of the whole organization – from sales and R&D to supply chain – and a passion for helping shape our corporate growth strategy and mindset.
“It’s difficult to overstate the value of the broader perspective Steve has had on my success and Mitel’s. I can’t think of another person more deserving for the recognition as CFO of the Year, in Ottawa or anywhere else.”
"I can't think of another person more deserving for the recognition as CFO of the Year, in Ottawa or anywhere else."
In 2010, Spooner paved the way for the largest IPO in Ottawa history, Mitel’s $147-million debut on the NASDAQ. After helping guide Mitel through numerous acquisitions over the past decade, he was on the other side of the table earlier this year when the firm agreed to be sold to California-based Searchlight Capital Partners in a $2-billion deal that will again take the company private. The transaction is expected to close before the end of December.
Before coming back into the Matthews fold, Spooner had worked for seven employers in his first 20 years in tech. Clearly, he’s found a home at Mitel.
“My wife makes the joke that when I get bored, I leave,” he said with a laugh. “I’ve been here 15 years, so boredom has not been an issue for me, and I don’t think it will be in the future. I’m excited about what lies ahead for Mitel, and I hope to be a part of it certainly for the next few years, and we’ll see how things go from there.
“We have a great team here, and I’m hugely proud of what we’ve achieved as a company. We’ve transformed this company and emerged as a leading cloud player. It’s been a great ride.”
Spooner will be honoured at the Best Ottawa Business Awards Nov. 16 at the Westin Ottawa.