Lessons from Charles Sirois, founder, chairman and CEO of Telesystem

Charles Sirois is the founder, chairman and CEO of Telesystem, a Canadian private equity company. In 1978 he launched his business career by taking over its family-owned paging company. The paging company became the leading player in Canada and 1987 he merged his companies with Bell Cellular to form BCE Mobile Communications, with him as CEO. After BCE, he engineered a hostile takeover of Teleglobe, a provider of international long distance and broadband services. In 1994, he founded Telesystem, as building block of his telecom interests. In 1995, he founded Microcell Telecommunications, a cellular service known for Fido brand. In 2000, he sold Teleglobe to BCE for $6.5 billion, the subsequent bursting of the internet bubble and telecom bust forced Teleglobe into bankruptcy in 2002. Charles has been described as "bold and imaginative with an earthy sense of humour and a self-deprecating wit. He can also be ruthless and calculating. He is not afraid to make the hard decisions or go against conventional thinking."

1. On building a great team: "We've created an environment of openness, where everybody can challenge everyone else, including myself. I don't own the truth. I just make judgments, and can change my mind. I prefer to hire more competent people than me, so when I go to sleep at night, I know that the store is in good hands. I don't want to look good, I just want the stock price to go up."

2. On the importance of picking the right market: "Sirois, surveying the sea change in communications and media ownership, uses a nautical image. You can have the greatest vessel in the world, he notes, but when the lake recedes, the best boat will drop with all of the others. But if you pick a good lake, ah, the crummiest little craft will float on top, along with all the others. It's the lake, not the canoe, that matters."

3. On managing investors and meeting your targets: "You always want to meet your targets. You always want to make sure that the market sees the world the same way that you're seeing it. Obviously, you're not pleased to have missed your results and essentially you increase your work to go back on track and make sure that now you deliver the results that the investors are expecting."

4. On the importance of having plans: "Charles always has a plan. He has a plan for the day, the month, the year, five years and 10 years."

5. How he sees deal making: "What Charles is able to do is project 10 years out and get a foothold before other people line up. He knows that out of 10 deals, he may only have three winners, but he's not afraid. He thinks of the winners, not the losers. Charles is a financial engineer, who can see the future value of a concept, and within the concept, where the money is. He's one of the few persons in Canada with a macroeconomic view of the industry. He understands the technology. He sees the big picture."

6. On the difference between venture capital and buy-out: "Buy-out is driven by financial engineers, venture capital is driven by humans. VC is a tough business to be in. We selected it because we like it, not because it's easy. I love entrepreneurs."

7. On the advantage of being small: "We can afford to pick and choose our niches. We can allow ourselves to cruise, like a little fish underneath the whale."

8. On expanding from the core: "Sirois likes to compare the development of Telesystem to the process of crystal formation. First a core is born. Once the core is solidly developed, other neighboring elements link to it by natural attraction. This results in a crystalline structure, the solidity of which depends on the quality of the nucleus and the strength of the links that bind it to the peripheral elements."

9. On the entrepreneurial process: "Money is not a goal, it's a tool to realize dreams. The more money you have, the more risk you can take. This is what we need in our society. Society needs rich entrepreneurs who are ready to take risks. If you're wrong, you lose your money and your reputation. If you're right, you have more money to build. Look is a three-foot wave that will become a 20-foot wave. The entrepreneur is like a surfer who can see the wave when it's small. When it's very big, you cannot get up on top of the wave."

10. How entrepreneurs develop and what makes great entrepreneurs: "I think an entrepreneur is developing like an artist. It takes techniques, but then we develop an artist by exposing him to as many artists as possible so that he is able to interact with his peers. One of the first qualities to become an entrepreneur is the rejection of the status quo. If you accept the current situation, you are not an entrepreneur. If we reject the status quo, we must have a vision. You have to be creative. If we stop there, we become a dreamer. You have to turn your vision into belief. You have to be judgmental and be able to convince others. It's all an art! It takes perseverance and a whole series of qualities to get through that."

11. On how to build and deploy a vision: "First of all, we must rely on a "system approach"; a way of doing that takes into account the external world, the market and its fluctuations, as well as the relationships you have with your employees. Second, you must also demonstrate an unyielding spirit of initiative, reconfiguring your organization, if necessary, and proposing new ways of doing things, while remaining open to unexpected opportunities. After having analyzed the market without moderation and modulating your modus operandi, we must finally put together viable solutions. It will be essential to rest all this gymnastics on knowledge, reflection, intuition (of course!) and rigorous verification of information stored throughout this process."

12. On how to approach strategy in a demand-oriented marketplace: "A demand-dominated marketplace reflects the changing tastes of consumers, the whimsical judgment of markets, and the unexpected fluctuations in stock prices. In fact, it ridicules the notion of control and seriously complicates the exercise of forecasting. Success requires not an ability to predict the future, but a capacity to respond instinctively to the present. One must adapt in the face of the inexorable evolution that is pushing us all forward. Adaptability should be both the strategy and the management approach of the future. Companies and organizations must realize they can no longer develop strategic plans by following the traditional method of analysis. By the time those plans are on paper and moving toward execution, they'll be obsolete. The process of executing strategy does not depend on accurate forecasting, but on adaptation to the multiple variables in the marketplace."

Source:
[1] Charles Sirois: Next master of the universe. Peter C. Newman. Maclean's. 11/25/96, Vol. 109 Issue 48, p111.
[2] It's the lake, not the canoe. Robert Lewis Maclean's. 09/25/2000, Vol. 113 Issue 39, p4. 2/3p.
[3] A year of setbacks for Charles Sirois: A year of setbacks for Charles Sirois The man at the top of Teleglobe's stumbling empire is going through his roughest year ever. Andy Riga. The Ottawa Citizen; Ottawa, Ont. [Ottawa, Ont] 24 Aug 1999: F3.
[4, 5] The great communicator. M. Posner. Canadian Business. Mar 92, Vol. 65 Issue 3, p28. 6p.
[6] Entrepreneur puts eggs in Quebec basket. Don Mills, National Post; Ont. 7 Dec 2007: FP1.
[7] Southam News 1990
[8] The networker: bit by bit, Teleglobe CEO Charles Sirois has built a formidable telecom empire. Jean-Benoit Nadeau. Financial Post Magazine; Toronto (Sep 1998): 30-36.
[9] A man with 'too many assets' Charles Sirois has ideas, but he says voters would be suspicious if he ran for office. National Post. 2000.
[10] Charles Sirois n’était pas intéressé à devenir entrepreneur. Diane Tremblay. April 30, 2015. Journal de Montreal.
[11] La vision, selon Charles Sirois. Les Affaires. Eric Paquette. 2017.
[12] Adapting to democracy of demand. Charles Sirois. World Trade. Dec97, Vol. 10 Issue 12, p84.