Ted Rogers: The passing of a visionary

Rogers Communications, Canadian telecom industry enter new era as country loses one of its greatest entrepreneurs.

With the death of Ted Rogers on Tuesday, Rogers Communications (TSX: RCI) enters a new era. It is a challenge for anyone to accurately assess the impact of his passing, at age 75, mere hours after the announcement, but it’s made more difficult by his incomparable approach to business. As the consummate scrappy, quick-witted, wheeling-and-dealing entrepreneur, Rogers bet big — on radio, on cable television, on wireless telecommunications, on broadband Internet and local telephony, even on brand-building experiments like the Blue Jays baseball club and their stadium — and in the end positioned his company (which includes Canadian Business magazine and this website) at the pinnacle of two converging industries: media and communications.

And to think it all started in 1960 in a dingy, third-rate Toronto radio station, CHFI. Canada hasn’t seen many entrepreneurs like Ted Rogers. One can only hope we will again.

As has been often noted during the last year, when two books on his life were published (one of them an autobiography launched just in October, and the other a project on which he co-operated), Rogers’ motivation for a lifetime of relentless corporate expansion was quite simple: to make his father proud. Edward Samuel Rogers Sr., inventor of the world’s first AC radio tube — an innovation that led to the batteryless radio — died from an aneurysm at 39, when Ted was just five years old. After his father’s businesses slipped out of family control, Rogers was driven to reclaim what he viewed as his misappropriated birthright — and in particular, CFRB, Toronto’s first radio station.

Rogers never did acquire CFRB, currently owned by Astral Media (TSX: ACM.B), but the empire he built now has a far greater reach than his father could possibly have imagined. Canadian Business magazine’s annual Rich List issue (sent to press mere days before his death and set to hit newsstands Thursday) ranked Rogers as of Nov. 3 as the fourth wealthiest person in Canada, at an estimated worth of $5.05 billion.

He built Rogers Communications in part by betting heavily on technologies that the incumbents of the day viewed with skepticism: FM radio, cable TV, broadband Internet and GSM wireless. All of those once-fledgling standards ultimately prevailed in the market, and RCI is now in an unparalleled competitive position against Telus and BCE, the two other communication giants vying for Canadian consumers’ monthly subscription fees.

It is perhaps fitting that Rogers dies with his company worth more in market capitalization than his longtime arch rival, BCE, and just as that company is in the throes of its own cataclysm: the collapse of its $52-billion privatization deal. Meanwhile, new competitors are planning to launch in the wireless industry. A new era is dawning in the Canadian communications industry.

RCI chairman and longtime Rogers associate Alan Horn is acting as interim CEO, and a process will begin by which the board will form a special search committee to assess both internal and external candidates. Rogers’ son, Edward, 39, a director and the president of the company’s cable operations, and his daughter Melinda, also a director and the senior vice-president of strategy and development, are both possible candidates. But at this point, the most likely choice might be the well-respected Nadir Mohamed, president and chief operating officer of the company’s communications division, which includes the wireless, cable and telecom operations.

Whoever steps into the CEO role will never be able to fill the shoes of its founder. Only a founder — and, perhaps even among entrepreneurs, only Rogers himself — could risk so much, walk “the razor blade of bankruptcy,” as one analyst put it, and win so big. RCI’s new leader will be challenged to define a vision and future for the company without Rogers. There is a risk that under new management, RCI will rest on its laurels, or become too cautious and miss the fleeting windows of opportunities that Rogers was so adept at spotting. He conquered so much that RCI’s new CEO will be hard pressed to come up with his or her own bold moves.

A company run by its founding entrepreneur is a different beast than one managed by a so-called professional. How will RCI change? What will be its new, audacious strategic vision? Only Rogers’ ultimate successor can answer those questions. But whoever it is will have to face a huge challenge, as he or she he tries to live up to Ted Rogers’ optimistic motto: “The best is yet to come.”