Smith feted as OBJ CEO of the Year

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Peter Kovessy
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Reflecting on three decades in Ottawa’s business community, Mitel CEO Don Smith said he has a few wishes to help turn a “great” technology hub into something even better.

CMHC's Karen Kinsley, last year's award winner, presents the CEO of the Year award to Mitel's Don Smith. (Lois Siegel)

Among them is a hope Ottawa residents start enthusiastically supporting local businesses, similar to how a “viral” devotion to the Senators spread across the city when the hockey club made its run for the Stanley Cup in 2007.

“We should celebrate our business achievements and feel good about it,” Mr. Smith told a crowd of 215 people duirng a lunchtime speech Tuesday at the Westin Hotel, where he was celebrated as OBJ’s CEO of the Year.

In his trademark straight-talk style – a characteristic highlighted by his fellow Mitel executives – Mr. Smith said there is still a tendency for Ottawa business observers to see the glass half-empty.

It was a theme also picked up on by Mitel chief financial officer Steve Spooner, who briefly touched on some of the negative press the company garnered over its initial public offering, despite being priced at a higher earnings ratio than rival Cisco.

But the overall mood of the afternoon was much more light-hearted as Mr. Smith was praised for turning a “somewhat tired” legacy PBX hardware supplier into a leading-edge IP communications and software firm.

“The technology changes have been dramatic in the last 10 years, and Don has guided (Mitel) through it in an exemplary manner,” said Mitel chairman and local tech mogul Terry Matthews in a video tribute.

As a symbol of the changes in his industry, the afternoon's emcee, CTV's Paul Brent, presented Mr. Smith with a black Northern Electric rotary phone.

"I couldn't think of a better home for this," he joked.

Mr. Spooner also poked gentle fun at his boss’s age, height and math skills during a tribute speech.

He noted that when Mr. Smith took Mitel’s helm in 2001, he set out to take the company public in a year or two. It ended being nine years before Mitel made its debut on the stock exchange.

“It must be those pub math skills again,” joked Mr. Spooner, referring to Mr. Smith’s oft-repeated anecdote about learning mental math while serving pints in an English pub at the age of 13.

Mr. Smith, OBJ’s 11th CEO of the Year, also shared some pearls of wisdom cultivated while working at the Oyster Inn in Butley, U.K.

Pain is inevitable when making tough decisions, but suffering is optional so you may as well get on with it, he opined. He said he also takes the “What’s the worst that can happen?” approach when approaching a deal.

Tuesday’s luncheon raised $5,400 for the Ottawa Hospital Foundation through a live auction and a $10 contribution from the sale of each ticket.

See also: Mitel's Don Smith: From pints to processors

For a short photo gallery on the OBJ CEO of the Year luncheon, click here.

Organizations: Mitel, Cisco, Oyster Inn Ottawa Hospital Foundation

Geographic location: Ottawa, Butley, U.K.

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