BUSINESS

The color of money

Mitel’s founder succeeds on a second try

JOHN DALY July 20 1992
BUSINESS

The color of money

Mitel’s founder succeeds on a second try

JOHN DALY July 20 1992

The color of money

BUSINESS

Mitel’s founder succeeds on a second try

The event was a flashback to the Michael Cowpland of old. In a promotion reminiscent of the Ottawa entrepreneur’s initial prominence in the 1970s as the founder of the high-flying electronics firm Mitel Inc., his latest corporate creation, Corel Systems Corp. sponsored what amounted to the Academy Awards of computer art earlier this year. Lured by $1 million in prizes, artists from Canada and 30 other countries submitted 3,374 entries created with Corel’s state-ofthe-art graphics software. During a black-tie and champagne reception in the Great Hall of Ottawa’s National Gallery on May 15, more than 50 judges reviewed final entries in nine categories—and crowned Vancouver graphic designer Bill Frymire as the overall winner of a one-kilogram gold bar worth $10,000, and other prizes, for an elaborate depiction of his pet iguana. In characteristically flamboyant fashion, Cowpland ended the day with a fireworks display over Parliament Hill. Declared Cowpland, 49, who founded Corel with $7 million of the proceeds he earned from selling his Mitel stake in 1985: “I could have played squash and tennis for eight hours a day, but I can’t think of having any more fun than this.” Indeed, Cowpland has combined a flair for enjoying life with a forward-looking business style throughout his career. During the 1970s, his penchant for high-priced perquisites, including a personal helicopter pad at his $2million summer home on the south bank of the

Ottawa River, drew wide attention, some of it hostile, to Mitel. But that company, which makes phone-switching equipment, ran into difficulty in the early 1980s when its debt ballooned to $200 million. In 1985, Cowpland sold his interest in Mitel and began searching for new ventures. Seven years later, his new company is flourishing: Corel’s revenues have doubled in each of the past two years to $52 million in 1991, when the company earned a profit of $11.4 million. In the second quarter ended May 31, Corel’s revenues jumped by 53 per cent over the same period last year to $20.7 million, although profits declined to $1.6 million from $3.6 million due to the initial cost of launching the latest version of its CorelDRAW software in May. Cowpland has also learned some lessons from his experience at Mitel.

Corel, he insists, will stay focused and pay for its expansion as it goes. “You don’t want to waste time talking to banks,” he told Maclean’s.

There is another difference: the product that Cowpland is betting on now is, quite literally, far more colorful than Mitel’s telephone

switches. CorelDRAW allows users of personal computers to create and manipulate detailed images that formerly could be created only on much more powerful computers designed for engineers and other specialists. The programs appeal to a broad range of users, from those engaged in desktop publishing to large corporations. Since introducing the first version of CorelDRAW in January, 1989, Corel has sold more than 300,000 copies of it worldwide.

That success, however, did not emerge immediately for the chastened former whiz-kid of the cluster of high-tech companies that sprouted up in the Ottawa area in the 1970s and 1980s. After Cowpland sold his Mitel interest, some of his forays into new ventures failed.

But extracting himself from other ventures allowed Cowpland to channel his energy into Corel. He formed the company in 1985 with a handful of engineers. That enterprise also groped to find its way at first. Originally, Corel planned to specialize in technology that would integrate different types of computers. Graphics software was initially only a sideline. “When we started, we thought we would sell only 2,000 software packages,” said Corel’s chief engineer, Patrick Beime. “Now, we sometimes sell 2,000 copies in a day.” Cowpland’s private life also appears to be on a steadier course. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the English-born engineer attracted as much attention for his activities outside the office as for his business dealings. At the height of Mitel’s success, Cowpland owned three tennis clubs, a townhouse and a restaurant, in addition to a 227-acre summer estate 30 km west of the city that he bought from developer Robert Campeau in 1981. Cowpland then spent more than $1 million on additions, including the helicopter pad, a swimming pool and a discotheque with a Mitel logo on the dance floor.

Now, his only residence is a less ostentatious three-bedroom house in Ottawa’s Rockcliffe Park district. Last year, he divorced Darlene, his wife of 23 years. And last month, he married Marilyn Therrien, 33. His two daughters from his first marriage, Paula, 23, and Christine, 20, are both studying medicine at the University of Toronto. And Cowpland still plays tennis at least four times a week.

His primary attention, however, is devoted to Corel. Cowpland directs a staff of 325 from a semicircular windowed office, which employees call “the fishbowl,” on the fourth floor of a suburban Ottawa office building, where he claims that he spends “190 per cent’ ' of his working hours. But as his celebration of computer art demonstrated, even if Cowpland’s corporate style is more cautious than it once was, he can still I put on a good show.

JOHN DALY in Ottawa