Tributes pour in for former Cognos CEO Ron Zambonini

Rob Ashe still remembers the sage words of his mentor, Ron Zambonini, when Mr. Ashe succeeded the veteran tech executive as CEO of Cognos in 2004.

“Ron told me from the start, just be yourself, like he did,” Mr. Ashe told OBJ on Tuesday. “It was something we preached at Cognos, that people just be comfortable with who they were.”

Few took that mantra to heart more readily than Mr. Zambonini, who died Sunday of lung cancer at the age of 70. In a career that spanned three and a half decades, the native of Scotland gained legions of friends and admirers, both for his business acumen and for a down-to-earth manner that was spiced with a hint of showmanship.

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This was, after all, a man who once pledged to deliver a quarterly conference call naked if a Cognos product failed to meet sales targets. (The software ended up exceeding expectations.)

“More than most, he put himself out there on behalf of the company and its people in ways that very few people could,” Mr. Ashe said. “People wanted to be led by him, people wanted to be around him. He just had this incredible ability to get people onto his team.”

Tributes poured in Tuesday for the former tech leader, who was named OBJ’s CEO of Year in 2002 and turned one of the city’s most promising tech firms into a global software powerhouse.

Born in 1946 in Motherwell, Scotland, to a family of Italian heritage, Mr. Zambonini moved to Canada in the 1970s and worked as a programmer before joining Cognos in 1989 as vice-president of research and development.

In a 2002 interview with OBJ, Mr. Zambonini recalled that morale was low when he joined the company as it struggled to find a place for its core product in the software market.

“People were down. People had lost a little bit of faith,” he said in 2002. “My biggest challenge was motivation – getting people to get excited and believe in themselves again. It wasn’t any big technical idea. We just got the product up and running.”

He was named president and chief operating officer in 1993 before becoming the company’s CEO in 1995, replacing founder Michael Potter.

“He had a lot to learn and a lot to do, and he accomplished that by getting people to the table to help him,” Mr. Ashe said. “People wanted him to be successful.”

Ron Zambonini, seen in 2002.

During his nearly decade-long run at the helm of Cognos, Mr. Zambonini was credited with helping to grow Cognos beyond its business consultancy roots and into a global business intelligence software leader that was ultimately acquired by IBM in 2008 for $5 billion.

Under his watch, the company grew its revenues from a reported US$120 million to more than US$683 million in 2004, when it also posted a US$101-million profit before Mr. Zambonini announced he was retiring as CEO and moving to the position of chairman.

The timing of Cognos’ explosive growth was especially important to Mr. Zambonini’s adopted home, as it came when many Ottawa technology companies were drastically slashing spending and reducing their headcount in the aftermath of the dot-com bubble bursting.

Willingness to go out on a limb

One of the industry’s most colourful chief executives, the flamboyant Mr. Zambonini was known to dress up as William Wallace from Braveheart, Zorro and Scottie from Star Trek.

“The showmanship probably helped more in the sales area,” Mr. Zambonini said in a 2004 interview with the Globe and Mail. “When you go down to the Americans’ (software) kickoffs, your people want to see the CEO’s willingness to go out on a limb. They want to see that brashness. You have to be credible too, but to put on a Braveheart costume – it’s a question of building up a persona.”

The anecdote illustrates Mr. Zambonini’s strengths as both a tenacious salesman and inspiring leader. However, the high-tech executive often joked that there was one skill that alluded him for much of his career.

“I’m not a super-techie,” he said in 2002. “I (once) found that the person in the next cubicle was doing stuff twice as quickly as me with half the number and lines of code. That’s when I knew I was destined for management.”

However, his friends describe a man who was very different away from the office – a devoted father and, later, grandfather who enjoyed spending quiet time with family and excelled at his favourite pastime, playing bridge. A few years ago, Mr. Zambonini and his wife Gail moved to Toronto to be closer to their son and grandchildren.

“He had a big public persona, but he was a private guy,” Mr. Ashe said. “He loved a movie at home at night with his wife, a quiet night out at the shows, as he called them. He was not a flamboyant character in his personal life. He was a role model, really. He was just a down-to-earth, solid guy, and people just loved him for it.”

Timeline of Ron Zambonini’s early career

1969: Three years after Mr. Zambonini drops out of university, he begins work as a computer operator at Honeywell

1974: As Honeywell begins to restructure its operations, Mr. Zambonini spots an advertisement in a Glasgow newspaper for COBOL programmers with Comtech Group International in Toronto. He is hired and arrives in Canada on Thanksgiving Day.

1974-80: Mr. Zambonini starts his job at Comtech as a programmer for the company’s payroll services project. The end result is an early version of the payroll platforms that would later be controlled by banks and companies such as Ceridian. During this stint, he spent two two years (1977-79) in Ireland setting up an R&D facility for Comtech in Cork.

1980-85: Mr. Zambonini is recruited to work for Warrington Inc. in Mississauga. The company distributed products such as Bauer skates and Kodiak boots.

1986-89: Mr. Zambonini joins Boston firm Cullinet Software.

1989: Mr. Zambonini is appointed president and chief operating officer of Cognos.

1995: In September, Mr. Zambonini is selected to succeed Michael Potter as the company’s CEO.

– With files from Peter Kovessy

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