When Pete Garrett talks about building, people pay attention.
Garrett played a key role in one of the greatest growth stories in Canadian history during a 21-year career with Nortel Networks, where he was once responsible for 1,200 engineers and scientists at seven labs on four continents.
The 44-year-old Calgary native considers himself a specialist in building and commercializing ground-breaking technologies, so he resigned from his post as Nortel’s vice-president of Wireless Access Development when the company began its massive downsizing in 2000.
Garrett then toyed with retirement – until he was recruited by Global Thermoelectric.
The technology may have changed – Global is a developer of fuel cells – but, to Garrett, the game remains the same.
It’s about building.
|Larry MacDougal, Business Edge|
|Once a leader in wireless technology for Nortel in Calgary, Pete Garrett is now making calls on a new kind of cell – a low-cost, environmentally friendly fuel cell. As president and CEO of Global Thermoelectric, Garrett sees real commercial promise in this alternative energy, which he expects to hit the market by 2005. |
1. How did you spend your boyhood years in Calgary?
“I’ve always been an engineer type at heart, always building things and tearing things apart. A lot of my childhood interests were along those lines. There was an endless string of cars and motorcycles and computers. I’ve always loved to explore new technologies and new fields that I previously had no expertise in and figure out how things work.”
2. What was your first job at Nortel Networks?
“I was a test engineer. The business unit I was in was switching systems. Technically, it was very challenging work. My plan was to work there for two years and then go back to school and do a master’s degree. Then, I changed my plan to staying until I stopped have fun. The next thing I knew, it was 21 years later. The ride at Nortel was tremendous. When I started in Calgary, it was 125 people (at the Calgary plant), and when I left it was 3,000. The wireless unit I joined in 1990 and for the next 10 years had a compound annual growth rate of close to 50 per cent.”
3. Why did you leave?
“I left at the point where the downturn started. I’d built my career on building things. I’d built an organization of 1,200 people around the world – in Calgary, Ottawa, Dallas, Brazil, Australia, India and China. Then, all of a sudden, I was being asked to dismantle and lay off large numbers of people. I just didn’t feel like that was something I was prepared to do. I put a stake in the ground. We just weren’t on the same page and we agreed to disagree. And I left.”
4. Why did you put that stake in the ground?
“I felt a very strong sense of allegiance to the people I worked with, and to see that dismantled was hurtful. It wasn’t me. We worked very hard at building what we had and we still had a healthy, thriving business. I guess in 20-20 hindsight, I wasn’t aware of how sick the rest of Nortel was. Perhaps I would have been a little more conciliatory if I was aware of that. I didn’t have full visibility into the rest of the company. Even with that visibility, I probably would have decided that it wasn’t for me to be the guy to dismantle some of these things.”
5. What did you learn from watching Nortel’s fall from grace?
“Technology in general had never gone through a major economic cycle the way other industries have, such as the oil and gas sector. Those of us in technology thought we were immune to any cycles in technology, and I guess the message overall to everyone in technology was that we were not immune to it. Therefore, you have to build your business in such a way that it is not purely focused on growth. A lot of companies, including Nortel, thought the growth would never end and therefore some decisions made sense only in the context of continued growth. People in oil companies make decisions based on how their business will evolve in the lean years, not just the boom years.”
5. How difficult was it to leave Nortel?
“It was and it wasn’t. I was on the page of just retiring. That lasted about two months. And then a friend called me and got me to do consulting a couple days a week. Before I knew it, I was working seven days a week consulting, and then I realized that I needed a full-time job so I could go back to five days a week.”
6. Why did you choose to leap from wireless technology to fuel-cell technology?
“I was breaking a couple of our young, green horses (at a farm near Lacombe) and one of the horses got confused about who was breaking who. I ended up with a separated shoulder and three breaks in the arm. It was while I was in the process of recovering from that when a headhunter repeatedly asked me to go into Global Thermoelectric for an interview. Finally, I broke down and came in for an interview just to get her off my back. I had no intention of coming to work for this company.”
7. So what sold you on this company?
“When I came in, I saw that this company had the right technology and the technology that was most likely to become a commercial success. In my days at Nortel, I saw a lot of start-up companies, and I got pretty good at seeing what makes a good technology company and what makes a bad technology company. I saw that Global had one of the best teams of technical experts of any fuel-cell company in the world. People have come to this company literally from every other fuel-cell company in the world, and they’ve come here because they believe Global has the right technology. I also saw a huge market opportunity. The company was also well funded, sitting on more than $100 million in cash. Then, from a negative perspective, I saw there was a real need for technology commercialization expertise.”
8. How much did you know about fuel cells when you joined Global?
“I didn’t know anything about fuel cells – I know a lot more now – but I knew a lot about technology commercialization, and I knew I could add a lot of value here right off the bat. It was just a perfect fit for me. I like working in sectors that have huge growth potential, and I like surrounding myself with talented people, and this company had that opportunity. My skill set is transferrable from one technology to the other.”
9. What was it with Global’s fuel-cell technology that made you believe in its potential?
“The proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel-cell technology that Ballard popularized operates at low temperatures. That’s attractive, but really it is only viable with a hydrogen infrastructure. You need to feed their fuel cell hydrogen for it to be really viable. The neat thing about Global’s fuel-cell technology is that you can run it off natural gas or propane just fine. With PEM technology, it’s difficult to have a business case for your company independent of deployment of that hydrogen infrastructure, which is going to be caught up in political issues and subsidization issues. The nice thing about Global is that we’ve sidestepped all of that.”
10. What are the advantages of Global’s technology?
“When you look at solid oxide technology, it’s a plainer technology which has the ability to be mass produced at low cost and could be deployed immediately with today’s infrastructure. We have technical challenges to overcome, but I believe, with the right focus in the company, we can go from being a technology organization to being a product-development organization. It’s not without risk, but I think we stand a much greater chance of making it than most other fuel-cell companies.”
11. What’s your time frame for making the technology a commercial success?
“We’ve publicly stated that we’ll be deploying systems commercially by 2005. Right now, we have a prototype system operating on our shop floor. We’re working closely with our partners to demonstrate that technology this year. “Next year and in 2004, we’ll be moving those prototypes closer and closer to commercial levels of performance, both in terms of the cost of the system and the dependability and life of the system.”
12. What’s your long-term vision for this company?
“The long-term vision is to get the cost and dependability of the system to a point where it’s just another commodity product that people think of as an appliance. Today, you think nothing of having a microwave in your home, whereas 20 years ago no one had a microwave. Our vision is one where every business and every residence could have a fuel-cell (product) on their property producing electricity and heat in an efficient manner – efficient in terms of lowering costs and providing environmental benefits and co2 savings. There’s definitely a Kyoto angle to this story.”
13. What does the fuel-cell industry have to do to sell itself to the public and investors?
“The problem the fuel-cell industry has in general has been a lot of overselling of capability and creating expectations that haven’t been delivered on in terms of the timing of when products will become commercial. I think Global has been better at this than most other fuel-cell companies. The capital markets have turned away from alternative energy, and our challenge is to rebuild that credibility by delivering real product that works as advertised.”
14. What’s your approach in meeting that challenge?
“I’m the kind of person who believes in making commitments where I have a true bottom-up plan to deliver on. I’d rather take my lumps at the beginning than take them at the end for failing to deliver. We’re now at the point where we have bottom-up plans to deliver commercial product by 2005 and we’re willing to put a stake in the ground pretty hard that we’ll achieve that. We’ll let ourselves be measured in 2005.There were commitments made in the fuel-cell industry that haven’t been realized, and that has caused problems.”
15. What’s your transition been like into the CEO role here?
“There’s been a lot of learning about the challenges of being a CEO of a public corporation. Luckily, I have a really great CFO here (Paul Crilly) who has been able to mentor me a lot. I think, between the two of us, we make a pretty powerful team.”
16. How would you describe your management style?
“I have an end in mind that I want to drive aggressively towards, but I have a very participatory style in getting there. I ask people to tell me what they can deliver on. I ask them if they have a bottom-up plan to make sure they can deliver on it. And then I get the hell out of the way and let them deliver. So I focus very much on the process, on enabling people, empowering them and holding them accountable for commitments they’ve made. So if you talk to people who have worked with me or for me in the past, I think I have a very strong reputation of being a good manager, someone who focuses on developing people and someone who has high expectations but is reasonable at the same time. I demand high performance, but at the same time I like to have fun along the way. It’s kind of a work-hard, play-hard mentality.”
17. What’s the key to getting the most out of employees?
“Having a vision that everyone can buy into, creating a high-performance team environment and getting everybody juiced up about what we’re trying to achieve. We’re working in an area of technology that has the potential of changing the world, and a lot of people are working here because of that potential. So we have to articulate that into a compelling vision that people can get all revved up about and get the fire in the belly.”
18. Who’s the business leader you most admire?
“That’s a difficult question in today’s environment. A lot of the names I’d have picked two years ago aren’t on the list today. I admire people that achieve success in spite of the world believing their successes are not possible, people who fight the uphill battle and make it happen anyway and people who are doing new and innovative things that haven’t been done before. They’re the ones redefining the world we live in. No, there are no names that jump out right now. (Laughing) There used to be. I’ll leave it at that.”
19. What was former Nortel CEO John Roth like to work for?
“I worked for John when he was president of the wireless division. John was a very technical individual. He knew the technology marketplace and he knew the technology well. He was very articulate. He was a visionary. He motivated people to do impossible things. He was very, very positive. As he moved on as president of Nortel, I was less involved with him. Now, it’s hard to look at the job he did in a positive way when the stock has done what it has done and when the company has done what it has done revenue-wise. To a certain extent, that’s a symptom of the overall industry, but the company was clearly headed in a direction of growth and had never really contemplated the downside scenario.”
20. What are your goals beyond business?
“I’m a father of two boys, so raising them is an important aspect of my life. Beyond business, I’m a sports enthusiast. I play a lot of sports, particularly squash.”
IN PROFILE: Pete Garrett
* Born/raised/age: Calgary, AB; 44.
* Title: President/CEO, Global Thermoelectric (since July).
* Education: University of Calgary, Bachelor of Science, electrical engineering (graduated with distinction).
* Career: Before joining Global as chief
operating officer in 2001, Garrett spent 21 years with Nortel Networks, including the last four years as vice-president of Wireless Access Development.
* Community: Garrett is on the board of
management of the Alberta Science and Research Authority and a member of the board of the Calgary Centre of Innovative Technology at the U of C.
* Passion: Squash.
THE COMPANY: Global Thermoelectric
* Brass: Pete Garrett, president/CEO; Paul Crilly, chief financial officer.
* Profile: Global is one of the world’s major players in the fuel-cell race and is developing solid oxide fuel-cell products with a target of commercializing the technology in 2005.
* Vision: To be the world’s predominant provider of innovative power generation solutions.
* Recent stock price: $2.40 (12-month range, $1.39-$9.05).
* Website: www.globalte.com
* Head office: 4908 52nd St. S.E., Calgary, T2B 3RZ.
* Phone: 403-204-6100.