Five easy secrets

The keys to Ted Rogers’ success
Ted Rogers


In his autobiography, Relentless (HarperCollins), written with Robert Brehl, Ted Rogers offered his five rules for entrepreneurial success:

Do I have any special insight into entrepreneurialism? Can what I learned over my life somehow help budding entrepreneurs? Have I found the “secret sauce” of entrepreneurialism? Those are heady questions, but over the years I have travelled through entrepreneurial valleys and climbed many peaks. Often I am asked, what is the secret to my success and how do I handle the enormous stress of being an entrepreneur when everything is on the line? The answers do not fit into a nice little box tied up with a ribbon because situations and people are different. What worked for me may not work for someone else. But I shall do my best to address them from my perspective.

First I should mention that I have always looked for industries just starting to grow. The momentum of growth has made up for a lot of my errors and has carried my companies. Second, being an entrepreneur is not for the faint of heart. It requires a healthy appetite for risk and a belly that can digest setbacks, even failure. I learned early that failure is a necessary component of success and an entrepreneur cannot let setbacks sideline him or her from objectives.

Over the course of my life I have followed five consistent concepts or strategies. I have boiled down each to one word: Perseverance; Build; Listen; Partnerships; Customers.

Perseverance is one of those words that is a lot easier said than done for many people.

I was fortunate, very fortunate. From the earliest age my mother drilled into me the need to work hard, never give up and get back what the family lost. At the age of eight or nine, I would fall asleep at boarding school thinking of ways to get back my father’s radio station, CFRB. We came close to losing everything more than once, but we didn’t. We had good people and I was lucky at times, but I also worked extremely hard.

Also at Ted Rogers—in pictures

It may be worth adding that perseverance is important in life, too. For example, just before I launched into the cable TV business, I quit smoking. Until then, I was puffing on three packs of Export A cigarettes a day. It was a great decision to quit. One day, I said to myself, “See if you can go all day without a cigarette.” That worked. Then I tried it again the next day and the next day, until I never gave cigarettes more than a passing thought. A friend teases me that the only reason I quit was because they brought in lower life insurance premiums for non-smokers around then, in the 1960s. That may have played a role, but with my family history and my own health challenges, I just knew I had to quit.

I get so frustrated when people tell me they can’t quit smoking. If they really wanted to, they would. If somebody said to them, “The hearse is coming with a casket at eight o’clock tomorrow morning unless you quit smoking right now,” you know they would quit.

Turning back to business, over the years I have come to realize that I am often not the smartest person in the room. But I always want to be the best prepared person in the room. This comes from my legal training. In a courtroom, the best prepared side has the advantage. The same holds true for business. Solid and thorough preparation can trump just about anything.

Perseverance must be backed by faith and belief, not only in the underlying business, but in yourself. When times are dark, you must believe, roll up your sleeves and work, work, work. When times are good—as they are right now for my company—you must ring alarm bells because the sun does not shine every day. The rains can come more quickly than imagined.

You have to storm-proof your company. You have to take some of the money you make in the good times and spend it on getting really locked in and solid as a rock. It could be spending wisely on research and development or marketing; or it could be building new engineering technologies and computer systems. You simply can’t take your eye off the ball even if things are rolling along wonderfully.

The good times can be a killer for an entrepreneur who starts thinking, I’m pretty damn good. Sure, you’ve got to build people up and you want to thank them and all that. But you’ve got to guard against the leadership suffocating on its accolades or believing all its press clippings in the good times.

Being an entrepreneur is almost as much about giving things up as it is about getting things done. An entrepreneur does not enjoy as much family time as the average person. An entrepreneur does not play as much golf or engage in as many other leisure activities. A successful entrepreneur must constantly be thinking about the business and working toward objectives.

Having said that, as I get older I believe more and more in balance, and I freely admit my life could have used more of it. I have been strictly about work and family. I really have no hobbies, as [my wife] Loretta does with her painting, though I suppose over the years you could say politics, music and the Sigma Chi fraternity have been important outside interests.

I’ve always believed that successful entrepreneurs must combine vision with passion and constantly strive for action. Driving forward and getting things done is essential, whether it’s a multi-billion-dollar deal to buy a company or simply upgrading the company’s information technology system. Get it done and get it done as quickly as possible. I am not advocating that speed take the place of preparation and due diligence, but once a decision has been made, act on it and get it done. It is better to do 10 things really well and in a timely fashion than to try to do 50 things poorly and slowly.

Few things drive me as crazy as people putting decisions off for budget reasons; spreading a project out over time so that it doesn’t look like such a hit all at once makes for stranded capital and can be a drag on the business. If something is not worth doing as fast as possible, it’s not worth doing.

As you can tell, I love speed. When you launch new products and services, try to be first to the market. Yes, there may be hiccups, especially when technology is involved, but it is so important to get your business’s stake in the ground, to be a leader not a follower.

As for my second point, I have always tried to build from scratch or cultivate other people’s great ideas if they have chosen to undernourish them. Acquisitions and financial engineering have their place, but they set a higher return threshold. The best bang for the buck is most often gained by the person who develops the business from the early days. The value of this stratagem has been proven by our track record in FM radio, cable television in both Canada and the U.S., wireless telephony, high-speed Internet to the home and more. We rescued our full-time ethnic TV station, now called OMNI, from the liquidator, just as we did with The Shopping Channel (TSC). We spent many years nourishing them until both became viable, dynamic and profitable enterprises.

As you’re building, always keep the No. 1 in the market in your crosshairs. Avoid getting distracted by targeting No. 4 or 5. There’s a reason those companies are not No. 1. Always aim high and look for vulnerability in the market leader.

Another advantage of building from scratch is that it provides the opportunity to “overbuild.” In our business, we built cable and wireless networks with capacity far beyond what anyone at the time thought we would need. Services that would suck up bandwidth weren’t even dreamt of at the time, but when they came along, we could handle them better than the competition. At Rogers, we have a 50-year history of doing this. Sometimes we’re accused of being on the “bleeding edge,” and there has been many a time when I got hell from bankers and shareholders for spending too much money on advanced networks and equipment. Or we’d get ripped in the business press with descriptions like “debt-laden Rogers” or “debt-riddled Rogers.”

But look at what we’ve built and the value we have created for shareholders. If you had invested $1,000 in Rogers when the company converted to a publicly traded corporation in 1979 and just left it alone, it would be worth $126,000 at mid-2008. By comparison, if you took that same $1,000 and put it in an investment with a guaranteed annual return of eight per cent, it would be worth $8,965 over the same period of time. If you put the same $1,000 into the Toronto Stock Exchange composite index, it would do better, but still would earn only $16,602.

Now for my next point: I have always tried to listen to people, especially to trusted advisers. I don’t have all the answers, not by a long shot. There is an old saying that none of us is as smart as all of us. Other people have lots of great ideas but ideas can die on the vine if they are not harvested in a timely fashion. An entrepreneur must try to foster a culture where ideas are exchanged and explored.

When you build a team, look for integrity, intelligence and ambition in each and every member. There is a reason why I put integrity at the top of the list. So much flows from that one word. I cannot overstress the importance of integrity. If you hire someone without integrity you’re better off if the person lacks intelligence and ambition too. Think about it. A smart and ambitious member on the team without integrity can wreak havoc. I have enough worries without having those sorts of people on our team.

I am proud that Rogers Communications is a “family company,” with me as the head of the family. Now, with 29,000 employees in the family, it’s impossible to listen to everyone, but I try to listen to anyone who has a great idea to improve the company. I like to chat with the employees who answer the phone, with customer service reps, with the wizards in engineering, with anyone who has ideas. Like my dad, I talk to everybody and pick up an idea here and an idea there. I put that idea together with an idea I have and come up with something totally different.

Partnerships are essential for the entrepreneur. It is an entrepreneur’s greatest flaw to think he or she can do everything alone. I’m sure that some readers are rolling their eyes hearing that from Ted Rogers. (When Ryerson University changed the name of its business school to the Ted Rogers School of Management, my good friend John H. Tory—son of John A.—said it should have been named the Ted Rogers School of Micromanagement.) Yes, I have been guilty too often of thinking I could do everything myself and that’s what qualifies me to offer this advice. It’s just not possible to do everything and trying to do so will limit the entrepreneur’s potential.

An important point about partnerships: there has to be someone in charge. Partnerships don’t work by committee. I don’t always have to be in charge (witness my partnership with John Bassett) to make it successful, but I do prefer to have my hand on the tiller. Look out if you’re in a partnership where two or three people think they’re in charge. I have always respected my partners and believe that this increases the chances of being respected by them, too.

At the end of the day, it’s all about the customers. In a play on Bill Clinton’s campaign slogan in 1992, “It’s the economy, stupid,” I like to say, “It’s the customer, stupid.” Find a need and fill it has always been my slogan. There is no sense selling a product or service if it doesn’t have a market. Fill a need and a market will be created, not the other way around. FM radio, cable television, wireless phones, high-speed Internet services, ethnic TV programming in the mother tongue of viewers, electronic shopping, all-news radio: they all fill a need for customers.

These days, the management consultants and the various “suits” out there would label what Rogers has done as “disruptive innovation,” “paradigm shifts,” and with other buzzwords. When Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, or when my father introduced the world to the plug-in radio, no doubt the big talkers of those eras said similar things. To me, you don’t need big words and fancy charts to build a business. You need to know what customers want and give it to them.

Abridged from: Relentless: The True Story of the Man Behind Rogers Communications by Ted Rogers with Robert Brehl by permission of HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. ©2008 ELM². All rights reserved.