Life after Cognos

Courtney Symons
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Michael Potter sets his sights sky-high and reflects on legacy of $5-billion acquisition

When Michael Potter retired from his position as CEO of Cognos in 1995, he stayed on the board of directors for a few years, but he no longer wanted to be directly involved with Ottawa's tech community.

Michael Potter, former CEO of Cognos.

Instead, his personal hobby of buying old-fashioned planes turned into the creation of a public foundation called Vintage Wings of Canada, a museum operating out of a hangar in Gatineau and showcasing historic planes, intended to preserve and celebrate Canada's aviation history.

His time away from technology, he says, has left him with little to offer the local tech community.

"It's so easy for others to overestimate the skills and experience developed at a company like Cognos," he says, adding that technology changes so rapidly that one becomes dated quickly, and that each organization faces unique challenges.

"People underestimate good luck and fortunate timing in my success," he says humbly.

Venture capital is part of his portfolio, Mr. Potter says, but he prefers to work through professional organizations, and so the experience is not hands-on.

"As a mentor, I'd love to stay in touch, but under no pretense 15 years later could I suggest that I know the answers to the questions a tech entrepreneur would ask today," he says.

There are other ways, he adds, in which he is giving back to the Ottawa community, where he has lived for many years and is now raising his three children.


Vintage Wings has kept Mr. Potter busy since its inception in 2004 after he discovered the enormous amount of public interest in vintage planes.

Last September, 22,000 people attended the Vintage Wings air show to share recollections from wartimes, discuss the history of Canadian aviation and celebrate the heroism of fighter pilots in an event that was educational, rather than being pure fanfare.

"Those people were there to learn," Mr. Potter says. "It wasn't a NASCAR experience where they're there to see cars make noise."

This year's air show will feature expanded programming and an estimated 30,000 attendees, according to the foundation's website.

The aviation collection consists of 18 planes, three of which are restoration projects. The planes fill the hangar in Gatineau and give guests lots to look at when they visit.

There's no need to be any bigger right now, Mr. Potter says, but one thing he is planning on expanding is the Vintage Wing's paraphernalia store called Gear Up, which began in the hangar but recently expanded to the Ottawa International Airport.

Plans are in the works to expand to six Canadian airports, but negotiations for the other locations have yet to begin, Mr. Potter says. Eventually, the Ottawa airport location may move from its current spot in the arrivals area to departures, where patrons have more time to spend perusing products.


After nearly two decades of being away from Cognos - which was acquired by IBM for $5 billion in 2008 - Mr. Potter says he still has admiration for all the people who made Cognos the success story that it is.

"They created what an objective observer might call the most successful software company in Canada's history," he says.

Cognos was able to withstand many changes in the tech cycle, he adds, and the company is still successful today as part of IBM.

"It probably makes a case ... that the eventual acquisition doesn't stop the company from being a contributor to the economy," he says.

Although less visible, the company still provides a high level of employment and skill in Ottawa, and contributes to one of the most well-known software firms in the world.

"They didn't go away," Mr. Potter says of Cognos employees. "People are hired and learning and moving on. The buildings are full."

Organizations: Cognos, IBM, NASCAR

Geographic location: Canada, Ottawa, Gatineau

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Recent comments

  • Peter Quinlan
    June 12, 2012 - 23:51

    I think "Gear Up" would do very well here in St. John's (NFLD) or perhaps Gander.

  • Ronald Watt
    June 11, 2012 - 20:36

    I've been lucky enough to view the Vintage Wings airplanes out here in Western Canada. What Vintage Wings does as a charity to preserve the memory of our proud aviation tradition is very moving. Thier pilots and office staff put in tremendous efforts to span Canada and display these airplanes to tell the story. Hats off to Mr. Potter for establishing this extremely worthwhile organization that truly "gives back".