Potter’s gambles paid off for Ottawa

Longtime Cognos chief executive ‘dreamed big’ and turned company into global software juggernaut, former colleagues say

Knowing his former boss’s affinity for sailing, Alan Rottenberg didn’t hesitate to use a nautical analogy when asked what made Michael Potter one of the city’s top tech executives during his two decade at the helm of Cognos.

Every business must navigate its way through “all kinds of storms” on the road to success, said Mr. Rottenberg, the company’s former vice-president of business intelligence.

“Not all the sailors believe you’re going to make it through the storm.”

But Mr. Potter, this year’s recipient of the OBJ-Ottawa Chamber of Commerce Lifetime Achievement Award, stayed the course when less courageous executives would have steered towards calmer waters, he added.

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Mr. Potter will be honoured Thursday evening at the Best Ottawa Business Awards.

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That was never more apparent than when Mr. Rottenberg was getting the firm’s new business intelligence software branch off the ground in the late ’80s and early ’90s.

When the venture stumbled out of the gate, some within the company were calling for it to be scrapped, he recalled.

Mr. Potter, however, had other ideas.

“Mike stuck with it and refused to consider, really, anything but, ‘Let’s keep going here, guys, because this is important to the company, and we’ve got to give it more time,’” Mr. Rottenberg said. “Without that focus that he gave it, it could have gone by the wayside and Cognos would have had to find another way to be successful.”

Before long, business intelligence software was the company’s lifeblood, driving revenues to new heights and turning the firm into a billion-dollar enterprise.

Former Cognos executive Rob Ashe hailed Mr. Potter’s leadership in pursuing the shift to business intelligence software, saying it rejuvenated the company.

“A lot of people bet against us,” he said. “These are industry-defining decisions. Mike made those decisions and a lot of people benefited from them.”

Mr. Potter’s bold quest to transform the venture then known as Quasar Systems from a consulting firm to a software maker beginning in the late ’70s was equally fearless, Mr. Ashe added.

“He’s a risk-taker,” he said of Mr. Potter, who took over the firm in 1975 and served as chief executive until his retirement two decades later. “That was a huge bet at the time. It changed the trajectory of the company completely.”

Meticulous and hard-working, Mr. Potter had a knack for finding just the right people to help the company achieve his vision, his former colleagues said.

“Cognos was filled with an amazing amount of talent,” Mr. Rottenberg said. “My first six, eight months there, I was blown away by the talent of the people up and down the organization. It was spectacular, both in terms of their character and their competence.”

Mr. Ashe, who joined Cognos in the mid-1980s and rose up the ranks to become chief executive himself before retiring in 2012, said he couldn’t think of a more deserving recipient of the Lifetime Achievement honour than Mr. Potter.

“I think his influence was felt across the whole Canadian technology scene,” he said. “He saw an opportunity for a global leader. He dreamed big. He was all about substance, and at Cognos, we were really proud of that.”