CEO of the Year 2007: Dobson ushers in new era for Corel with ‘quiet confidence’

By KRYSTLE CHOW
Special feature for the Ottawa Business Journal.
Published in the OBJ’s print edition and on the website.
Nov. 12, 2007

Corel CEO David Dobson.
Corel CEO David Dobson.
Photo by DARREN BROWN for the Ottawa Business Journal

It took a week of frantic calls and e-mails to arrange my meeting with Corel Corp. CEO David Dobson, a man who spends about 30 hours a month on a plane.

I caught up with Mr. Dobson – the OBJ‘s 2007 CEO of the Year – in his sparse, white-walled Ottawa office. There are few personal trappings in the room, save for a couple of photos of his wife, Laura, and two sons.

Such minimalism is fitting, considering that the 44-year-old makes it clear that work and home are two completely separate things, and that he’s not comfortable bringing too many details of his personal life into the public eye.

“An office for me is not a place of comfort; it’s a place where you can store some things and use as a base to work out of,” says Mr. Dobson.

“I’ve never really spent a lot of time trying to make the place feel like home, because it’s not home. I tend to spend more time out of my office than in it, whether I’m in a meeting with the rest of the team in a boardroom or a meeting on any of the floors in this building, but more importantly, travelling.”

Travel is a big part of Mr. Dobson’s life. He estimates that he racks up about 200,000 air miles a year, whether it’s making the weekly commute back home to Toronto where his wife and children live, or flying out to one of the 11 global Corel offices across North America, Europe and Asia.

“I’ll spend a good chunk of my life on an airplane,” he says, noting that it gives him a lot of time to keep abreast of news and trends in the software world.

The gruelling schedule is something he’s willing to endure to ensure he’s in touch with the team. This is no one-man show, a fact that has caught the attention of former colleagues and software industry observers.

“He was really always looking to draw out from people their thoughts in group meetings or sessions,” says Ed Kilroy, former IBM Canada president and current CEO of Symcor. “He emerged as a leader, not because he was really outspoken, but because he really tried to bring everyone’s thoughts together and make them more cohesive … he had the ability to pull the team together and get them to rally around an idea.

PERSONAL CHARISMA

“Whether he was dealing with people doing break-fix in the field, or research in the tech labs, or who were driving trucks, he identified with them and they identified with him and wanted to be on his team because of his personal charisma and style.”

Mr. Kilroy had the chance to observe that style in the 19 years that Mr. Dobson spent at IBM.

It’s an old-fashioned story that one doesn’t hear very often any more. Mr. Dobson joined IBM fresh out of school and moved through 15 different positions at Big Blue’s Canadian and American operations to climb the corporate ladder, rather than jumping from company to company.

Mr. Dobson graduated from McMaster University with bachelor’s degrees in electrical engineering and business, and started out at IBM Canada as a “finance guy.” He worked in Markham, Ont., New York and Colorado, reaching the rank of corporate vice-president of strategy, before coming to Corel.

Born in 1962, Mr. Dobson grew up in Toronto with a “pretty normal” family of two parents and one brother. Weekends were spent at the family horse farm north of the city, which he still visits during his spare time.

“I used to be a pretty avid weekend farmer, not in the true sense of the word, but in the sense of planting trees and repairing fences and cutting grass,” he says.

“(The family farm is) a great place to do stress relaxation, being able to go in and do some manual labour on the farm, building things, working with my hands … that’s what I enjoy doing. I haven’t been able to do it as I’ve been outside of Canada quite a bit, so it’s a rare luxury.”

Those kinds of hands-on activities on the farm might have helped Mr. Dobson prepare for the task of reconstructing a tech casualty almost from the ground up.

Indeed, one crucial step in his journey to the top was learning how to build the right team, something which he says helped him make the transition from IBM to Corel.

He worked more with selling and marketing hardware while at IBM, with the closest he came to software being when he led the company’s printing and document management business in the early 2000s.

But the most significant difference between Mr. Dobson’s old and new jobs was the shift in focus to the individual consumer at Corel – quite the change from Big Blue’s enterprise-centred strategy.

COLLABORATIVE TEAM BUILDER

“The way I’ve certainly compensated for that over the last two and a half years is hire people and surround myself with people that know the consumer marketplace better than I do, and have my skills at operations or finance or selling or marketing be complementary to people that understand consumer marketing better than I do,” he says.

In fact, Mr. Dobson lists team-building as one of his main strengths.

“I really try not to run a company based on ‘Here’s what Dave says is the right answer,'” he says.

“In meetings I try to be highly collaborative with the people around me and I really want to hear from them. I want to hear if I say the answer is white and they think the answer’s red. I like to have the debate, and some of the best meetings are when we have really intensive debates and discussions around different viewpoints around the table. And that really comes from a strong belief that you put the right people into the right roles, you give them a lot of latitude to make decisions, and you continue to move the business forward.”

Nick Davies agrees. Corel’s vice-president of graphics and productivity says Mr. Dobson’s listening skills and ability to let executives do their job without micro-managing are “exceptional” qualities.

“My ability to go to David and explain the particular requirement of the users to whom my products are targeted, and therefore the requirements that we have as a division … and his ability to understand that and balance that with the other priorities in the company, has given me the insight that I’m dealing very much with a colleague despite being my boss, someone who has the time to listen to me,” he says.

At the same time, however, Mr. Dobson is quick to ask detailed questions to ensure that everything is well-researched and planned out, rather than accepting things at face value, Mr. Davies adds.

This means that Mr. Dobson often tries out Corel’s products for himself to make sure he understands the customer experience.

“The day after we launched Painter Essentials 4, he said to me, ‘What a great product this is,’ and showed me examples that he’d done with family photographs he’d taken of his kids. It was very human, opening up his family essentially to something he was very proud of doing,” recalls Mr. Davies.

“Since then he’s become a tremendous champion for this product, which obviously in my situation is the best way to be, when the CEO is championing one of your products and using his family photos to be able to push that out there.”

As a result of this hands-on, back-and-forth process, Mr. Davies says he feels he has Mr. Dobson’s full backing at the end of the day.

“Knowing where you stand is vital in any business, and he brings that clarity to it,” Mr. Davies says. “He’s very good at certain levels of the company to bring in the right people to voice opinions and to listen to those opinions that we have. It allows a balanced view of what needs to be done and everybody’s involved in what is and what we’re trying to do.”

ON THE ROAD

It’s clear that Mr. Dobson’s focus on the team has shaped a lot of things in his career, from the way he runs his business to how he decorates his office.

“The best time I have in the company is when I’m out in front of the team, whether it’s in Fremont, Calif. or Tokyo or Taipei, or Maidenhead in Europe … we have so many locations that I’m always cognizant of not making this office a place where I say, ‘Boy, I really want to get into my office, shut the door and do e-mail.’ That to me is really not a good use of my time,” he says.

He points to a well-used whiteboard and the round table that we’re sitting at as the most important things in his office besides the pictures of his family.

“Why?” I ask.

“I have a lot of meetings one-on-one and one-on-few with people and this (table) is where we do a lot of thinking about the business,” he explains.

“In fact, if I can have my way – which I have, I guess – I’d want to surround these walls with whiteboards, and that’s what we did with the boardroom.

“So I spend more of my times in a room where the walls are covered in whiteboards because it’s an opportunity for us to think. I don’t put a lot of thought into the (other) trappings of what’s around me on the walls.”

Mr. Dobson’s calm, single-minded focus on the company and its team is another trait that stands out for business associates such as Ottawa Centre for Research and Innovation chief Jeffrey Dale.

“The Dave I know is extremely professional, well-spoken, articulate and focused on the business,” says Mr. Dale. “He’s focused on the strategy and implementation of business, and he’s able to articulate the direction he wants to take the company clearly and concisely … and he’s got a very quiet credibility, he’s not boisterous or talking about himself, but about where the company is going and where the markets are driving them.”

Mr. Kilroy agrees that Mr. Dobson’s ability to remain calm in the midst of heavy debate was a key factor for the latter’s success at IBM.

AN OPEN EAR

“He was in control not only of his thoughts, but of his personal behaviour and emotions, which gives you more confidence in the individual you’re speaking with, to know that they’re listening intently even if they don’t agree,” Mr. Kilroy says.

“He’s taking it in, evaluating the content, so you know things are being considered and not just being dismissed from a personal preference. He exemplified that and that’s how he ended up in a strategy role, because of his ability to take input in and formulate it into a point of view or direction.”

It’s quite a different approach from that of Corel founder and former CEO Michael Cowpland, the Welsh maverick who took the company through a broad series of ambitious acquisitions in various verticals in the late ’90s and early 2000s and dared to take on the big guys like Microsoft and Adobe.

Instead, when Mr. Dobson took charge in 2005, he decided to sell off a dozen or so of the company’s brands to concentrate on the five top-selling lines at the time – CorelDraw, Word-Perfect, Designer, Painter and iGraphics.

The company also moved out of the large-enterprise, high-end software space where Adobe and Microsoft each have their respective strongholds, and into the emerging markets such as China, South America and Eastern Europe.

“For the example of CorelDraw, the largest competitor is the Adobe Creative Suite product, and what we’ve done is we’ve refocused CorelDraw into industry verticals like sign-making and embroidery marketplaces and in emerging markets where we have the opportunity to take our value proposition, which is very high-function product at a very competitive price point,” says Mr. Dobson.

The strategy is a much more cautious one than has been employed by others during the company’s history. But it appears to be an approach that’s impressing industry observers.

“One thing he’s not doing is giving up profitability to try to grow too fast, and it’s probably the right strategy with Corel,” says Mike Olson, an analyst with investment firm Piper Jaffray. “There have been many cases where CEOs come into the company and try to move too fast and that ultimately results in an impact on profitability. (Mr. Dobson’s team has) managed to keep the company firmly intact while getting some of its businesses to have faster growth.”

MARKET STILL LOOKING FOR MORE

However, Mr. Olson says Piper Jaffray is expecting Corel to grow by almost 10 per cent in 2008, while “decent growth,” could be stronger.

“There’s no question that David still has a lot of work to do to bring growth rates up to what many on the street want to see,” he says. “Corel needs to get to 10 to 15 per cent to get people really excited again.”

Nonetheless, Bruce Lazenby, of the Ottawa Software Cluster, agrees that Mr. Dobson has been a key figure in Corel’s comeback.

Mr. Lazenby doesn’t know Mr. Dobson personally, but he says the current Corel CEO has done a lot to bring Ottawa closer to its former reputation as a software city.

“Corel was on shaky ground at one point, and the community wasn’t proud of it. But those days are over, and we’re proud of Corel based on (Mr. Dobson’s) focus. Unlike Mike Cowpland who was all over town, David Dobson has been very much keeping his head down and focusing on shareholders and the business, which are probably the reasons for his success,” says Mr. Lazenby.

“His leadership style is very much about focus and quiet confidence, and it’s a recipe for long-term success. He’s not flamboyant or a flashy flash-in-the-pan, he’s a serious man building a serious business.”

That’s not to say that Mr. Dobson is all about the conservative and careful in business. He counts Steve Jobs of Apple as one of the businesspeople he most admires, for his creativity and vision for the industry, alongside team-oriented Jeff Immelt of General Electric and IBM executives Lou Gertsner and Sam Palmisano.

CLEAR PRIORITIES

So, is there anyone with whom he would like to switch places for a day?

“I never even think about it. I like who I am, the family I’ve got, and I never think about it any other way,” Mr. Dobson says.

In fact, if he has no time to play golf because he’s out playing sports with his sons Michael, eight, and 11-year-old David Jr., that’s OK by him.

“They’re both very active in athletics, and they’re both great young athletes which I have a lot of fun with. I’m living vicariously through them right now because they’re much better than I was,” he says with a laugh.

“That leads me to what’s important to me in my life, which is when I think of how fortunate I am and we are, my wife and I with the health and security and capability of our two young boys, I think about what if that was different, what if I didn’t have it so lucky? What if we were in a situation where we needed some help, and to me that’s a priority,” he adds by way of explaining his selection of the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario as his chosen charity.

Pointing to the top shelf in his office, he notes there’s a picture of his family there along with other key “wins” in his life, including plaques commemorating Corel’s privatization by Vector Capital in 2003 and its return to the public markets in 2006, a “Corel Ironman Award” given by the company’s employees for “Herculean strength, endurance and fortitude” during the company’s IPO process, and a few bottles of fine wine from his board members in San Francisco after winning a bet about getting a large new company account.

“To me what’s exciting and what motivates me every day when I come to work, wherever work happens to be … is being able to stand up with and in front of the team and be able to talk about our accomplishments,” he says.

“It’s highly motivating to see this company that’s gone from, quite frankly, left for dead back in the early 2000s, and have it not only be alive, but having it shape the future of consumer, packaged or individual software the way we are today. And being able to go in and be in a position of being able to acquire and build products and make them successful is highly motivating. And then to share those experiences and wins with the team is exciting.”

It’s been a long road for Mr. Dobson, who adds that going from working for almost two decades at a very large company to a smaller firm has been an “enormous exercise.”

“I’m using different muscles (in this job) … it’s invigorating, and the ability to move fast is really exciting,” he says. “I feel really good about what I’ve been able to accomplish, and I’m looking forward to many things ahead.”

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