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Dressing up as Braveheart was just one of the zany things Scottish-born Ron Zambonini did in his nine years as CEO of Cognos Inc.

He also offered to strip naked if a software product failed to meet sales expectations. (It met them.) But beyond the craziness lay Congos's results - strong revenue and profit growth, plus status as a world leader in business intelligence software. Zambonini retires from the top job in late June, but will stay on at Cognos as its non-executive chairman.

Why are you leaving?

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I'm 57 and feeling the need to slow down. The company is on a bit of a roll and it seems to be a good time to hand over the reins. Rob Ashe, my successor as CEO, has been training for this job for a couple of years, and is ready to take over.

How will you fill the days?

I'll be the non-executive chairman and I'm on the board of another software company [Reynolds & Reynolds] My hobbies are golf and contract bridge, and I'll pursue them, and spend time with family.

What was the toughest thing in your CEO career?

In May, 2001, we had to do a layoff [of 300 employees] Every company had to do it when the bubble burst but, gee, it wasn't easy. I often say a failure of management preceded it but, as I look back, I couldn't see it coming. We've come back very strong since then. But, you know, you disrupted people's lives, so it's sad.

Should Rob Ashe worry about being second-guessed by the new chairman?

I've done everything I want to do; I don't need to second-guess him. We've been working together since I came here [in 1989] and most intimately for the past nine years. I've really helped him with his career, and I think I'm leaving this company with a better CEO. When you're the CEO, you form an idea of the demarcation line between what the board does and what the CEO does.

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I have a good idea of that and I would hate to think I would cramp Rob's style in any way.

Did your showmanship help in leading people?

The showmanship probably helped more in the sales area. When you go down to the Americans' [software]kickoffs, your people want to see the CEO's willingness to go out on a limb. They want to see that brashness. You have to be credible too, but to put on a Braveheart costume--it's a question of building up a persona.

So it helps to be prudent while offering this wild image?

I hope that people would call me conservative in management. We've been able to have pretty good results. But there's that zaniness--it's the combination that works.

You've had what you describe as a "hate-hate relationship" with rival Business Objects SA of France. Is it that personal?

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It's definitely personal.This has been a very strong competitive war over 10 years. It's still going on.

The regret was that we never buried them.. . .They sued us for intellectual property and we ended up handing them $24 million. [Cognos agreed to a negotiated settlement in a patent infringement lawsuit.]You can imagine my face when I handed that over. [The public]doesn't see all the things--a lot of sales situations where perhaps the tactics they used were nowhere near what I would do. It just makes you angry.

So these are not people you would have a drink with?

I certainly wouldn't. Actually, I've had a chance to debate [Business Objects CEO]Bernard Liautaud in public. I think people could see the difference between us. Bernard is younger and has built the company from nothing to almost a billion dollars, so he's a very smart guy. But he's good-looking and slim and I'm not good-looking and I'm chubby.

He hasn't got the sense of humour that I have, nor the openness. I'm just not his favourite guy. He's not my favourite guy.

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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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