Michael Potter named Ottawa’s 2016 Lifetime Achievement Award recipient

Michael Potter has held many titles in his career: Chief executive, Philanthropist of the Year and even Honorary Colonel in the Royal Canadian Air Force.
Next month, he’ll be adding one more.

Mr. Potter, who led Cognos for two decades and turned it into one of the largest software companies in this city’s history, is the Ottawa Business Journal-Ottawa Chamber of Commerce 2016 Lifetime Achievement Award recipient.

The award will be officially presented during the Best Ottawa Business Awards (BOBs) gala at the Westin Ottawa on Thursday, Nov. 10.

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Mr. Potter told OBJ that he was “completely surprised” at receiving the news and quickly highlighted how there was a large team behind Cognos’ accomplishments.

“The most striking and enduring memory of my Cognos years is how broadly the credit for the great success of the company is shared,” Mr. Potter said. “So many of the innovative product ideas and the effective marketing strategies that made Cognos into Canada’s premier software firm bubbled up from rank-and-file employees and not down from the executive suite.”

Born in London in 1944, Mr. Potter moved to Canada at the age of seven with his family. He attended the Royal Military College of Canada and later earned a master’s degree from the University of British Columbia.

He joined the forerunner to Cognos, Quasar Systems Ltd., in the early 1970s and eventually bought out its co-founders. Under Mr. Potter’s leadership, the company underwent several key transformations including a shift from government consulting to software sales.

“The development of Cognos into a billion-dollar enterprise was a 30-year story. During that time, the technology environment for the software sector transitioned through multiple generations … Very few companies of that era were able to manage such transitions,” Mr. Potter said.

For years, Cognos was Ottawa’s most valuable publicly traded company and employed thousands of people. The developer of business intelligence software was sold to IBM for $4.9 billion in 2007, slightly more than a decade after Mr. Potter departed.

While he humbly downplayed his contributions to Ottawa’s current crop of startups in a 2012 interview with OBJ, others argue that his impact continues to be felt in Ottawa’s business community.

EY managing partner Gary Zed, who describes Mr. Potter as a “close friend,” said Mr. Potter helped influence the next generation of local tech leaders.

“A few years back, I introduced Mike to a very senior Shopify friend who extended a simple thank-you to Mike for mentoring and paving the way for the next generation and inspiring young entrepreneurs in the city,” Mr. Zed recalled. EY is the lead sponsor of the Lifetime Achievement Award.

Ian Faris, the president and CEO of the Ottawa Chamber of Commerce, said Mr. Potter laid the groundwork for many of the city’s companies.

“Ottawa’s tech sector would not be where it is today if not for pioneers like Mr. Potter,” Mr. Faris said. “His tireless efforts and outstanding business leadership has certainly paved the way for our tech sector to reach new altitudes.”

Mr. Potter also supports several charitable causes, focusing on the arts, health and education, and was named the Individual Philanthropist of the Year at the 2009 Annual Ottawa Philanthropy awards.

One of his most well-known charitable endeavors is Vintage Wings of Canada. After his passion for aviation led him to start collecting vintage aircraft, Mr. Potter launched a not-for-profit foundation to acquire, maintain and operate planes of historical importance to Canada and the world.

This helped result in Mr. Potter becoming the Honorary Colonel of the RCAF Snowbirds Air Demonstration Squadron as well as bringing an annual airshow featuring the Snowbirds back to the National Capital Region in recent years.

Tickets for the gala honouring Mr. Potter can be purchased online here.

The BOBs will also celebrate the city’s top business performers in more than a half-dozen categories and recognize the city’s 2016 CEO of the Year, David Ross.

Mr. Potter will also take his place in the Plaza of Honour outside the World Exchange Plaza in the new year, where his name will join past recipients including Shirley Westeinde, Roger Greenberg and John Kelly.

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