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The poker-faced Bradley Shaw pegs his future on WiFi

Bradley Shaw, chief executive officer of Shaw Communications Inc.,

Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail

Just call him the new-age cable guy.

Back in 2005, some five years before Bradley Shaw became chief executive officer of Shaw Communications Inc., he met a Tibetan holy man who taught him a lesson about leadership.

The man, a Buddhist high priest, invited Mr. Shaw and his wife, Michelle, to meet him in Calgary. Before entering the room, a translator cautioned the couple not to drop any object the man might offer because it would most certainly be blessed.

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"I still have it, a little rock," Mr. Shaw says, recounting the story over lunch in his office. "He picks it up from the bedside table and chants on it for about a minute. And then he says 'Oh here.'... I am holding it and Michelle starts to look at me. I am just totally red, and so I give her the rock ... I had third-degree burns on my hands."

Almost a decade later, Mr. Shaw remains mystified by the incident that left him soaking his hands in ice for two days. But the encounter taught him the value of being open to new experiences that test the truisms of his own worldview. Mr. Shaw has since travelled to Tibet a number of times to help fund an orphanage run by the holy man.

"Here's a guy who has meditated in the caves for eight years," Mr. Shaw says, poking at a tossed salad served from the company canteen. "We have a great friendship."

Reflecting on what he has learned, he adds: "The strength of leadership is being vulnerable, being compassionate. There is a power in that, not a weakness."

Striving to be vulnerable may seem odd for a man whose raison d'être is to crush the competition in the rough-and-tumble telecom market. Shaw, much like its cable peers, is grappling with challenges that include slowing growth in its core businesses. Not only are new television and Internet customers harder to find, but the company's chief rival, Telus Corp., is siphoning off market share in western Canada.

Instead of resorting to the knockabout antics of times past, Mr. Shaw staged a retreat. Less than a year after becoming CEO, he nixed plans to launch a billion-dollar cellphone network, instead veering the company into the world of WiFi. The new game plan was to build a less costly network of WiFi hot spots that would blanket key parts of the company's operating territories, providing smartphone and tablet-toting customers who subscribe to Shaw Internet with high-speed service on the go.

It was a strategic shift that still baffles some on Bay Street. Not only is WiFi only a partial substitute for a traditional smartphone plan, but Shaw's residential Internet customers are using it for "free." But Shaw is wagering that WiFi will disrupt the business model for cellphone service. Usage is already skyrocketing in Canada, but customers are continually grousing about price increases on some smartphone plans. For Mr. Shaw, WiFi is wireless 2.0 – an inventive but less risky weapon to win tomorrow's war for the west.

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"We're playing a role in the data world right now in Western Canada. I am sure that [Telus CEO] Darren [Entwistle] is seeing that a little bit," Mr. Shaw says. "And we want to slowly grow that and build that. But we don't want to do that at any cost."

He's the first to admit that a maturing market is necessitating a more prudent approach on wireless at Shaw. During the 1990s and early 2000s, it was relatively easy for the company to ladle up market share by launching new products such as high-speed Internet and home phone. These days a "win" is more modest in scope – achieving growth of 2 to 4 per cent in EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization), while keeping a lid on capex.

"We have to realize where we're at as a company," Mr. Shaw says. "We have to realize where the market's at ...We all like to win."

But critics question the merits of Shaw's strategy since its ability to make money off WiFi remains unclear. Dvai Ghose of Canaccord Genuity is blunt: "We view wireless as 1) the only significant growth driver in the sector; 2) an important hedge against cannibalization of fixed-line data and voice services; and 3) an essential weapon for cable-cos when competing against telcos."

Those who know Mr. Shaw say it would be a mistake to interpret his judicious approach as a signal that he is backing away from the long-term fight.

"I've never played poker against him and I wouldn't want to," says Edward Rogers, deputy chairman of Rogers Communications Inc. who considers Mr. Shaw a business associate and a family friend. "Because whenever you are in business and you're dealing with people, you tend to try to get a sense of what they're thinking by their expressions, their tone, their facial expression ... He is a very thoughtful man, but he's hard to read – which I think is a strength."

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Not only does he have his "own style," Mr. Shaw is "not afraid to make the choices that need to be made" even if that means going against the grain, Mr. Rogers added.

In fact, Mr. Shaw leaves one with the impression that he is anything but a conformist. He may be a Calgary establishment man who lives on a 160-acre ranch west of the city, but he doesn't put on airs. He laughs from his belly and talks with his hands. The day we meet, he is dressed in brown slacks and a tan-coloured shirt – an everyman ensemble accessorized with a pair of eyeglasses perched on the top of his head.

He still gets his kicks by listening to classic rock and roll such as AC/DC and The Who. "That gets me all fired up coming into work, listening to a crazy tune," he says with a grin. "I like still like that banger stuff."

Mr. Shaw may be the family scion, but there is nothing ostentatious about his office. There is a rack of hand weights in a corner, a testament to a healthy lifestyle that includes eschewing beef and pork. "I try to eat as properly as I can as I am coming up to 50 years old. So, I am starting to make sure I am listening to my wife and my kids."

He and his wife Michelle will celebrate their 22nd anniversary this summer. They have four children: daughters Sierra, 20, and Hannah, 9, and sons Phelan, 16, and Logan, 13.

Pictures of the kids, his own and those from the Tibetan orphanage, are prominently displayed. His youngest daughter has also left her mark on his whiteboard, decorating it with colourful hearts and a message reading "I love you Dad so much."

Work-life balance, he says, is the key to being a hands-on dad. "I try to go to every hockey game I can, every event they do. I try to take calls whenever they call in ... Of course, my daughter just texts and thinks that I should respond immediately," he says.

Mr. Shaw is himself the youngest of four siblings. He never imagined that he would be the man in charge of the family business – growing up on a farm, he was more familiar with cattle than cable. He was about 14 before he really understood what his father did for a living.

The elder Mr. Shaw, however, was eager to leave a legacy for his kids. JR Shaw (formerly James Robert but now legally JR, with "no dots") founded Shaw in Edmonton as Capital Cable Television Co. Ltd. in 1966, later building an empire through his legendary "handshake deals."

Bradley Shaw cut his teeth as a customer service representative in 1987, before working his way up to various roles in the company's cable and satellite divisions.

"I remember my first cable management job was in Hinton, Alta. – 2,200 customers. I thought I was paralyzed, not really learning anything. I said to Dad, 'Is this really a learning opportunity? There's not a lot going on here.'"

But over the years, he did learn – especially from his father and his brother, Jim Shaw, who served as CEO from 1998 to 2010. Jim is known as much for his pugnacious personality as his daring deal making. Although preparations were already under way to hand the reins to his younger brother, Jim hastily resigned less than a week after an outburst at an investor lunch in Vancouver – a move that thrust Bradley Shaw into the CEO job two months ahead of schedule.

When Bradley took control, it became apparent that the two men couldn't be more different. Even so, Mr. Shaw says his brother left big shoes to fill.

"I think with Jim it is just his sheer willingness to just drive the business and as he says 'call the ball' and 'my give-a-shit button's broken' and all of those things," Mr. Shaw says. "And the time was perfect for our company because we were consolidating, we were growing. So, I just had a real sense of wow – to have the balls and guts for some of the calls he made."

When asked how his management style is different from that of his brother and his dad, Mr. Shaw chortles. "They'll probably kill me for this article," he starts.

"Well, Jim is very controlling. You know, and very much wanted to manage every little piece of things ... For me, I am much more giving of the information. I want to allow people to grow. I am not going to be one to micromanage you."

Although he believes he is more "easy going" than his father: "They tell me I am a little impatient."

Mr. Shaw hasn't said how long he plans to serve as CEO. But he is not counting on his own kids, or those of his siblings for that matter, to take over the family business.

"When I leave... well, will someone actually be capable? I don't think so," he says. "It's been JR, Jim and then myself. And then I really see professional management after this. As a time frame, as we've talked about, no one is going to be ready. We were fortunate to grow up in the business at the right size and the right level. And moved into that as we grew. So, it's different."

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On speculation about Shaw buying Corus Entertainment Inc.: "The family might be able to get a bit of money but that doesn't make sense from a business and strategy and a growth point of view because I'm not sure we'd spend the $2- or $2.5-billion or whatever it would be."

On speculation about Rogers buying Shaw: "I think you're always open to looking at where is the opportunity, what makes sense … I'm not sure in this regulatory environment what that looks like and what the possibility of that is. I think you look at us. We're an operating family. We all operate. We're very much involved in the day-to-day operations. We're not an investor."

On whether Shaw will proceed with its spectrum transfer deal with Rogers in September, despite Ottawa's wireless policies: "We've got a deal with Rogers and we're going to continue down that path … As we look at September ... I think we have some time beyond that [where] the agreement is still live ... I think we're pretty clearly going to get the message in September of which way this is going to land."

On foreign investment rules for telecom: "I've always said in the past that we want to be treated fairly. So if we're going to look at telecom, we should be looking at cable at the same time. We don't want to be disadvantaged. We want access to foreign capital if the competitors do."

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