Gerry Pond’s career has been marked by a series of serendipitous moments, but there’s much more than chance to the incredible success of the Atlantic angel behind a billion dollars worth of recent technology deals.
“Will you be my best man?” Gerry Pond’s friend asked. It was the spring of 1966. Pond was 21. He’d just graduated from the University of New Brunswick with a degree in economics and psychology, and he was eager to get on with his future. His future seemed clear enough. Having been born in a Quebec lumber town into a family with a long history in the New Brunswick forest industry, and then having come of age spending his own university summers working in the woods, Pond had just been offered a job with Canadian International Paper, a Montreal-based forest products company.
“I can’t,” he told his friend, whose wedding was to take place in Saint John. “I’m about to start a job in Montreal.”
His friend was undeterred. “What if I found you a job here?” His friend’s fiancée’s uncle worked for New Brunswick Telephone Company, the provincial phone monopoly. It so happened NBTel was looking for a bilingual management trainee (“In those days, that was what they called anyone with a university degree”) to work in its Moncton office. Gerry Pond had no particular interest in the telephone company or in Moncton, but he was bilingual. Why not, he thought? He took the job.
While that may have been the first time Gerry Pond made such a momentous, life-altering decision based on simple serendipity, it would not be the last — and wouldn’t, perhaps, even turn out to be the most important.
Although he found himself a non-engineer in a company run by engineers, where the corporate ethos was rooted more in the quality of the technology than the quality of the service, Gerry Pond smoothly navigated his way up the corporate ladder from emptying rural pay phones to the penultimate pinnacle of a vice president’s position by the mid-1980s.
His arrival in senior management coincided (serendipity again) with the beginnings of telephone deregulation and the emergence of digital technology, both of which opened up “great opportunities for someone who wasn’t an engineer.”
That might not have mattered much in another context, he allows today, but his boss, CEO Kenneth Cox, an engineer by training, was an innovator by inclination. Cox’s mantra, “which he projected to me and to others,” was that while NBTel might appear to be a bit player in the global communications business, “we don’t have to take second fiddle to anyone. We can do things as well as anyone else. Why not here?”
Cox told his executives to assume de-regulation had already arrived and encouraged them to each become their own boss. “We were given the freedom to reinvent the business,” Pond says today. “[Cox] was a guiding light for me.”
As VP in charge, variously, of human resources, customer service and planning, Pond helped transform a traditional, monopolistic, corporate-convenience culture into one in which customers needs came first. In the early 1990s, NBTel began offering voicemail services to all of its customers, including those in rural areas, with customers only paying for their use of the services. In 1993, it became the first phone company in North America to change all of its switches to digital, putting paid to party lines and rotary dial phones.
By the time he became CEO in 1994, digital technology was opening up even more new possibilities: touch-tone dialing had spawned caller ID, better customer tracking and record-keeping; long distance capacity begat 1-800-numbers, call centres, data centres and more and different revenue streams. Those stars lined up perfectly in the provincial callcentre, jobs-seeking firmament then being created by New Brunswick premier Frank McKenna, who touted NBTel as his “trump card” whenever he was out wooing international investors.
Because “telephone companies were not great on developing technology,” Pond allows, NBTel had to incubate its own in-house expertise, becoming pioneers in creating software and intellectual property and then selling them to phone companies around the world.
One of those “start-ups inside the mother ship,” as Pond puts it, was an ahead-of-its-time company called iMagic TV, which allowed telephone companies to provide television signals and the Internet over the same copper wire. Launched in 1999 with just five employees inside the NBTel building, it went public in 2001. By 2002 it had grown exponentially, boasting 220 employees in offices around the world. Its president and CEO was an NBTel executive and Pond acolyte named Marcel LeBrun (about whom more later).
One year after iMagic, NBTel launched Innovatia, “a knowledge management solutions company” offering everything from training and e-learning to documentation and technical support for phone and other companies as they attempted to implement “complex technologies and procedures of their own.”
“Anyone could build software,” Pond explains. “We wanted to be the guy selling services to other phone companies.”
Little wonder that international phone company executives began beating a quickly well-worn path to New Brunswick to figure how they could get the NBTel magic to rub off on them; why the Canadian Information Productivity Association named Pond its 1997 Innovator of the Year; and why NBTel won the title “the most innovative local telephone company in North America.”
But then, as Pond himself puts it, “the serendipity seemed to evaporate.”
In 1999, as one more step in what would become the inevitable, inexorable march to telecommunications mergers, NBTel ended up as just another spoke in the hub of Bell Aliant in the ever-larger corporate wheel of Bell. It was no longer possible to imagine yourself as your own boss, even when you technically were. “It was not a good place for anyone who’d been involved in the innovation model.”
By the time the first dot.com bubble burst, cost-cutting higher ups had lost interest in iMagic and Innovatia… and in innovation. In 2001, Gerry Pond himself was squeezed out.
That wasn’t quite how the press release put it, of course. Gerry Pond, whose corporate service had been “admirable,” the release explained, “decided to retire after 35 years in the telecommunications industry.” The news was greeted with predictable, and wellearned, praise. Frank McKenna, by then New Brunswick’s ex-premier, boasted of the “results” achieved under Pond’s leadership, not just for his company but also for his province. “Starting at zero” 15 years before, New Brunswick now boasted 300 IT companies and about 20,000 jobs. Pond “believed in his community and his province, and he didn’t think there was a difference,” McKenna told reporters. “What I can’t overemphasize is that the job didn’t stop at the office for Gerry. He worked at that level of energy and that level of commitment all day and into the night. It was non-stop…”
Gerry Pond certainly could have stopped at that point, and called it a successful career. But he wasn’t quite ready for his neatly arranged retirement. Not yet. He was only 58 and, “at the time, I had 65 in my head as ‘the date.’ I still had energy, and I knew I wanted to find something else…”
Which was when — serendipitously yet again — serendipity intervened, this time in the form of one Brian Flood.
Flood, a well-known local former competitive rower, author of a book about Saint John’s sporting history and operator of a Don Cherry’s Grapevine restaurant outlet, had “discovered” the Internet, or at least its possibilities, back in 1996. In 1999, he traveled to a Las Vegas electronics show where he listened to Bill Gates talk about how to build the Internet and learned about the critical importance of security to the Internet’s future viability.
In 2000, he based himself in a oneroom apartment in Silicon Valley and set about lining up what would eventually turn into hundreds of meetings with investors, creators and tech crazies. His wildly, improbably ambitious goal was to figure out “how to create the next Google, the next Yahoo.”
Sometime in the middle of all of that, a friend from the University of New Brunswick called to invite him back home for a “rubber room” session, during which grad students with smart new ideas get to talk about them with outsiders. “The first few I heard weren’t very interesting,” Flood recalls, “but then this guy, Chris Newton, stands up. He’s dressed in shorts and sandals and he flips open his laptop and shows what looks like an X-ray of the Internet.” Newton, a computer science grad student who also worked full-time helping run the university’s computer network, had designed a system to identify, record and track attacks against the university’s network. Internet security? Flood was suddenly very interested. Afterwards, he approached the young grad student.
“How about doing a start-up?” he suggested to Newton.
“Blank stare,” Flood laughs, remembering Newton’s reaction. “‘What’s a start-up?'”
Soon after, they incorporated Q1 Labs. Flood chose “Q,” he explains today, because Newton reminded him of the Q character in the James Bond films, the guy in charge of research and development for the British Secret Service; “Labs” “because Chris was always frigging around in labs;” and 1 “because we were going to be number one” in Internet security.
The problem: Flood figured they’d need to raise $35-40 million in start-up money “to accomplish what we wanted — hit a colossal home run!” But he’d already come to understand it wouldn’t be easy for a Nowhere, New Brunswick, company to attract tech-savvy international investors. At one point, for example, Flood had approached one of Facebook’s early backers for an investment, but the man confused New Brunswick with Nebraska. “We don’t back firms from Nebraska,” he said flatly.
“New Brunswick,” Flood repeated.
“No, Canada.” Another blank stare.
Then, on another trip back to New Brunswick in October 2001, Flood happened to be listening to the radio when the newscaster reported Gerry Pond’s impending retirement. Flood already understood his fledgling company would require “senior people with good reputations” to sell his vision. “We were complete walk-ons, like in the NFL,” explains Flood, who favours sporting analogies. “Gerry was the kind of person who could offer comfort to venture capitalists who’d never heard of Canada.”
Flood immediately drove to Aliant’s local headquarters, and took the elevator to the top floor. “I’m here to see Gerry Pond,” he declared. He then proceeded to lay out his shoot-for-the-moon, next- Microsoft-Yahoo-Google dream and explained how Gerry Pond could make it all come true.
“You’ll be chairman of the board.”
“Who’s on the board?”
“We’ll get one.”
“Where’s the office?”
“We’ll rent one.”
“After two hours,” Flood says with a laugh, “he said OK.” No blank stare this time. But Pond told Flood he would need an office. He was in the process of packing up his career at NBTel in more than a dozen memorabilia boxes. “Don’t bring those home,” his wife had warned him.
So Flood immediately went downstairs to the building’s landlord to see about office space. There were offices available two floors below Pond’s current one. That was the clincher. Pond wouldn’t have far to cart the boxes.
And that was the serendipitous beginning of Gerry Pond’s second, and perhaps most regionally significant career: as an innovation rainmaker, an angel investor, a social entrepreneur and a forward thinker, shape shifting his Maritime home and native land from its resource-rooted history, where he himself began, to the collaborative digital future space he’s still helping to create.
Although Q1 would go through what Pond describes as “three very rough years,” traversing a rollercoaster journey that took it skyward ever so slowly before it plummeted back close to earth, then up again, then down, then up before finally becoming stable and successful enough (with 1,700 customers worldwide, from healthcare providers and retailers to utility companies and financial institutions as well as government agencies, not to forget its own “world class” research and development hubs in Saint John, Fredericton and Ireland) to make itself a ripe target for takeover.
On October 4, 2011, almost exactly 10 years to the day after Brian Flood burst into Gerry Pond’s Aliant offices to spin his giddily optimistic next-Google tale, IBM announced it had acquired Q1 for a reported $600 million. “We crushed it out of the park!” to use Flood’s words.
And that sale came just seven months after San Francisco-based Salesforce. com had scooped up another New Brunswick technology firm called Radian6 for $326 million.
Gerry Pond had been in the middle of that project from the beginning too. He was not only its first investor but he’d also helped bring together Q1’s idea guy Newton (whose new idea was to create software that would eventually allow more than 3,000 customer companies, many of them of the Fortune 500 flavour, to monitor and react to what people were saying about them on social media) with a former Microsoft employee named Chris Ramsey and Marcel LeBrun.
LeBrun? You may remember him as that former NBTel executive and Pond protégé who’d once served as president and CEO of iMagic. At Pond’s urging, LeBrun joined Radian6 in April 2007 and quickly helped bring in more than $10 million in funding.
After Salesforce bought Radian6 four years later, Pond confided to the Globe and Mail that that deal alone had “produced a payday that eclipsed his NBTel career earnings.”
The potential downside to all of this growing and selling, of course, is that the Maritimes, instead of playing our traditional role as hewers of wood for outside capital, now become incubators for future successful high tech companies that fly off to Boston or San Francisco the moment they become successful.
Gerry Pond sees the future differently. Not only do the companies gobbling up New Brunswick’s tech fledglings recognize the value of what’s been created and keep at least some of their research and development operations here, but many of those investorcreators made rich by the sale of their companies will also re-invest in more new businesses here.
Chris Newton, for example, didn’t follow Q1 Labs head office when it relocated to Boston before it was sold to IBM. Instead, he set his mind to creating what became Radian6 and another big payday. One of his own ambitions, he has since said, is to become an angel investor himself — like his mentor Gerry Pond.
Connections, especially NBTel connections, have been important to Gerry Pond, and to the success of the ventures he invests in.
Jeff White, whom Pond had recruited to NBTel in the 1990s and who also played a key role at iMagic TV, served as CFO at both Q1 and Radian6, where he helped negotiate the sale to Salesforce. Today, he is chief operating officer at East Valley Ventures, one of two New Brunswick-based firms Pond helped create as a way of “helping passionate Atlantic Canadian founders launch meaningful and enduring technology companies.”
In 2003, Pond and still other former fellow NBTel executive-travelers — Curtis Howe, ex-chief technology officer; Bob Justason, former VP of engineering, and Jack Travis, one-time president — set up Mariner Partners, “an independent New Brunswick-based consulting company with expertise in business transformation and operational management. We specialize in bringing strategic change in the company. The investors need a rapid turnaround in the way you are operating so you become profitable quicker.”
Pond, who currently has investment fingers in more than a dozen wannabe Q1 and Radian6 pies, was recently honoured with StartUp Canada’s “Wolf Blass Lifetime Achievement Award” for Atlantic Canada (he’s now up for the national prize). That will fit nicely on the shelf with his Canadian Angel of the Year prize from TechVibes and KPMG, as well as two Atlantic Canada Top CEO awards (from 2003 and 2005) presented by this magazine.
Gerry Pond remains bullish about the future of innovation in his home province. “I can assure you,” he told the Globe and Mail after the sales of Q1 and Radian6 had resulted in the creation of more than 50 new New Brunswick millionaires, “that there will be a third and a fourth [start-up] of global scale.”
Stephanie Gough, a New Brunswick freelance journalist who is writing a book about Pond, describes him as a “magical elf” in the world of innovation start-ups. “He seeks change, he likes change,” she says, enumerating the qualities that have made him successful. “He’s adept at branding ideas. But he’s also fully in the moment when he’s talking with you, and very giving of himself when it comes to helping others.”
Brian Flood tries to put his finger on what makes Pond tick too. “He’s curious,” he suggests. “Incredibly curious. And resourceful. And innovative… He’s a great guy.”
Yes. And no.
Gerry Pond may have found himself in the right places at the right times, but he’s more than made the most of both.
And Pond’s larger vision now extends not just to the borders of his New Brunswick home but to the entire Maritimes, which he sees as one city. “If you’re going to grow fast and need to hire hundreds of people quickly, you can’t do that in New Brunswick alone… I view the market for labour and capital to be one continuous market,” he suggests, including Saint John, Fredericton, Moncton, Bathurst, Halifax and Charlottetown, “and I’d include Newfoundland too,” in his Atlantic Canadian one-big city. We need to think that way, he says, in order to compete with urban metropolises like Toronto and San Francisco where it is easy to find qualified employees for growing high tech start-ups within easy commuting distance. Which may be why he likes to talk about the potential for a regional commuter airline to shrink the distance between communities…
Although he’s keen to encourage greater regional government cooperation to smooth accreditation, unite policies and reduce red tape — “If we can do it for gambling (Atlantic Lottery Corporation), we should be able to do it for economic growth” — and although he is quick to praise the three Maritime governments’ role in launching Build Ventures, a recently announced $50-million venture capital fund, Pond has the free enterpriser’s aversion to government mucking about in the private sector.
That said, he does see a key role for the private sector in the traditional public sphere of social and community development.
The Gerry Pond-as-social-entrepreneur-andsocial- policy-guru began (again serendipitously) in late 2008 when New Brunswick Premier Shawn Graham asked him to be part of a three-person task force tasked to confront the reality that one in eight News Brunswickers and one in seven New Brunswick children live in poverty. Their goal: find “a better approach to social development, with the support of the business and non-profit sectors.”
Eighteen months and one report later, Pond was appointed vice chair of the province’s new Economic and Social Inclusion Corporation, whose job is to implement the task force’s anti-poverty recommendations. Though he insists he is still “a blue-blood capitalist,” Pond allowed that he had “been converted into a more communityengaged business person.”
“Big change is needed and business must become part of the big change,” he told a Halifax business breakfast. “They need to understand the cost-benefit of change. When businesses gain this understanding, they will be dissatisfied with the current situation and join those who are already dissatisfied — those who are poor, the people who provide services to them, the politicians and the public servants. Change only happens when people are dissatisfied.”
Pond describes his approach as applying “entrepreneurial principles to social issues.”
He was quick to put his money where his words were. Although he acknowledges he could have rested on his winnings — “after two home runs in one year from the same team, it seemed like we’d blown the odds and it was time to cash out and buy a big boat — I wasn’t interested in that.”
Instead, he joined forces with another University of New Brunswick alumnus named Gururaj Deshpande who’d become an Indian technology millionaire, in order to establish the $5-million Pond Deshpande Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at UNB. Although part of the goal remains kick-starting the next Q1 or Radian6, Pond told the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal the larger objective is to “turn that innovation into a business model for social gain or economic gain. Some people will say, ‘We can’t mix capitalism and socialism…’ I’m still very much a capitalist. Every day I get up and try to figure out how to run a business … but I’m trying to understand how to build a stronger community at the same time.”
During the course of his own now- 13-year post-NBTel career, Gerry Pond has long since slipped passed “the date” when he originally expected he’d retire, and well past the date too when he needs to keep working. He has no plans to stop now.
“What drives me now is the overarching goal,” he says, repeating the mantra he learned long ago from Ken Cox, his own boss and mentor at NBTel: “We can do it here.”