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Pierre Blouin, CEO of Manitoba Telecom

In his early career at Bell Canada, Pierre Blouin gathered hard experience as a crisis manager. It hasn't got a lot easier in his past four years as chief executive officer of Canada's No. 3 national telecom carrier, Manitoba Telecom Services Inc. From the MTS head office in Winnipeg, he has observed a global economic collapse and a wireless spectrum auction that has spawned new players. All the time, MTS and its business-network subsidiary MTS Allstream Inc. have been the focus of constant speculation about their future role in the communications industry.

How do you manage in such challenging times?

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You've got to keep calm, really look at the situation and stay on your plan. Consistency right now is very important. Having a plan, and having a plan B as well, are absolute keys to success. Don't let the short-term events have too much impact on the direction of your company, or affect your fundamentals.

Did you get that sense of calm working in the Bell system?

I have been the kind of executive who was a fireman, who was thrown into problem areas with a mandate to solve them, to improve them, and turn them around. I have been doing that all my career. It is how I learned to take the situation for what it was and work with the people who were there.

At MTS, do you have to play this turnaround role?

In today's world, you've got to be kind of a fireman regardless of where you are. One issue is the speed of change in this environment, and the uncertainty that comes with the lack of confidence by consumers and corporations. As a leader, you really have to take all of this, try to plan for it, but then have your basic strategy and be ready to react very fast if something happens.

Where does MTS fit into the Canadian communications sector?

MTS is a very different telecom player. It's a regional incumbent and very successful in Manitoba. We are pretty fortunate to operate there, where the recession has had a lot less impact than in many other parts of the country. But it is a regional incumbent that also went national a few years ago, before I arrived. It had purchased Allstream and became a national telecom player in the business market. That piece means that we are an incumbent but we are also a competitor to the incumbent [Bell Canada]nationally.

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Having these two sides makes us act differently. We are a $2-billion company, which is a fair size but smaller than our larger competitors. It enables us to be much more agile and innovative, and we have products nobody else has in this country.

Why didn't you go big into the national wireless auction?

Wireless is very important for us. Our wireless business in Manitoba is very successful and we are the leader in that province. We did announce an intention of purchasing national spectrum. That did not materialize, as pricing got out of hand in our opinion. We didn't pursue the auction other than for Manitoba.

We recently announced a new partnership with Rogers for Manitoba - and for a business wireless product nationally using the Rogers network. It is a pretty interesting avenue because we have the opportunity to launch wireless across the country to our customers. It's not a startup but we are adding wireless as a product line using our same sales force.

The saga continues with the ruling against Globalive - for foreign ownership reasons - by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission. Are you now interested in that space?

I get asked that a lot and there are lots of rumours about us. It is unfortunate when you have two agencies of the federal government [CRTC and Industry Canada]taking different decisions with the same facts. It is sad and I don't think we look great from outside the country. Putting that aside, I don't know how it is going to be resolved.

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But we are not necessarily an investor in wireless. If we have an opportunity to leverage our current business using wireless, that is interesting. We have been talking to all the new entrants because we are trying to sell them products. There is an interesting business in supplying back-haul [network linkages]and other services to new entrants. Other than that, we have the Rogers agreement, which we are happy about.

Can you run a national company from Winnipeg?

I think we can. It's no different than running it from anywhere else in the country. You have to be close to your customers, to your markets, and one of our big markets is Manitoba. Half the business is from there, so it is important we are there, too. And nationally, we have no difficulty.

I probably spend half my time in Toronto. Ontario is a very large market for Allstream, and a lot of our shareholders are in Toronto.

I live both in Montreal [where his family resides]and Winnipeg. In a national company, where you live is irrelevant because you are everywhere all the time and you must go to all your offices, all your customers.

Why is the Manitoba economy holding up so well?

It probably has no peaks, so it doesn't go up or down in a very big way. It's supported by a mix of industry so you don't have one that is very large. The government is pretty involved in the province. Agriculture has rebounded recently and we are the largest publicly traded company in Manitoba. The population is still growing and we have a great immigration program bringing a lot of new people to Manitoba. So it is pretty stable.

When was the moment when you knew you would be a CEO?

I'm a strong, hard-at-it person. I always had a desire to be not necessarily president or CEO but to move things forward. I've found through the years that being in senior positions, you could move the yardstick faster, particularly in a large organization like Bell.

The key moment in my career was being promoted to president of Bell Mobility. I was coming from a career on the corporate side of the organization and being thrown into an environment that is fully operational and public. It was an exciting time for Bell Mobility, which was growing 25 per cent year over year. We were adding a million customers a year at that time, so that was a lot of fun. It was the moment in my career that turned me around and pushed me to new challenges. Was it just the realization you could do those things? Correct. At that time, I was thrown into being the fireman. There were issues of performance. They were No. 3 in the market and the goal was to turn the company back to No. 1. And we realized that in about a year. It showed my style, which was to get everyone into the room and say, "Put your craziest ideas on the table and figure out how we can execute them," and get them to execute their own ideas, which was a tremendous success.

Isn't there disappointment that MTS has not performed to expectations?

I'm not sure it is disappointment, but we have a team that is working extremely hard at it and implementing the right strategies. But we're in an environment where the economy doesn't respond fully to what is done.

Our results are no different than for any other telecom company in North America. Why the results are more visible on our side is that the enterprise sector, which is normally 25 per cent of a telecom's business, is actually 50 per cent for us.

I would disagree that the results have been disappointing. The parts that are going to be important for the future of our business are doing very well - whether the IT suite of products, Manitoba or the whole consumer piece.

Pierre Blouin

Title: Chief executive officer, Manitoba Telecom Services Inc., Winnipeg

Born: Feb. 25, 1958, in Granby, Que.

Education: 1982: Bachelor's degree, École des Hautes Études Commerciales, Montreal

Career highlights:

First job after school: Bank of Montreal

Joined Bell Canada and moved up the ranks to president and CEO of Bell Mobility, 2000 to 2002

CEO of Emergis Inc., 2002-2003

Group president, consumer markets, Bell Canada, 2003 to 2005

December, 2005: Appointed CEO of Manitoba Telecom Services Inc. and MTS Allstream

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About the Author
Senior Writer, Report on Business

Gordon Pitts is an author, public speaker and business journalist, with a focus on management, strategy, and leadership. He was the 2009 winner of Canada's National Business Book Award for his fifth book, Stampede: The Rise of the West and Canada's New Power Elite. More

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