Concordians at the top

Seven alumni at their top of their companies — and their game.
September 19, 2016
By James Gibbons, BA 11, MA 13

Concordia alumni populate executive boardrooms across the country in fields that span search-engine optimization with Montreal-based SweetIQ and the sharing economy with the space-booking smartphone app Breather. Whether rising in the ranks within major companies or starting enterprising ventures of their own, these Concordia grads are leaders, trendsetters and — in some cases — trailblazers in their respective professions. We introduce you to seven alumni at their top of their companies — and their game. 

From statistics guru to corporate leader

Andrea Martin Andrea Martin, BComm 83, president of ADT Canada, offers the following advice for future leaders: “You can have the greatest strategy, the greatest vision or the greatest brand, but if you don’t have a strong team then that strategy, that vision, that brand, is not worth anything.”

Andrea Martin, BComm 83, credits part of her rise to the presidency of security company ADT Canada to her passion for numbers. “I graduated from Concordia in quantitative methods with a minor in marketing, and that’s exactly what I did,” says Martin, whose first job out of university was analyzing statistics for Reader’s Digest Canada. She’d become president and CEO of the same company in 2004. “I would go see my boss and say, ‘I’m finished doing this,’ and he was always impressed by how quickly I did it,” says Martin of her swift corporate ascent.

Martin left Reader’s Digest in 2010, though not before adding Latin America and Asia Pacific to her portfolio. She says that working for the nearly century-old business taught her a few things about diversification. “People think that Reader’s Digest is just a magazine, but most of the profits come from selling different products such as insurance, vitamins, music, books, videos and even wine in some countries,” she says.

The surging popularity of consuming content online doesn’t faze Martin, who managed 225 people between the Montreal head office of the company and its advertising division in Toronto. “I love change and transformation, so when the publishing world changed, forcing us to change from direct mail and publishing to a digital content and multiplatform marketing approach, that was rewarding,” she says. With more than 40 regional offerings of Reader’s Digest — from Russia to Brazil — the Canadian edition was number one in terms of performance, says Martin, who increased profits by 30 per cent over four years. With her at the helm, Reader’s Digest launched Our Canada  and Best Health.

Between leaving Reader’s Digest and joining Toronto-based ADT Canada in 2015, Martin worked at Biocean Canada — a health services company — and as managing director of Data Services with Royal Mail Group in the United Kingdom.

Arriving back to her homeland and settling into her new role as president of ADT Canada, Martin built and delivered a strategic plan to support the ongoing commitment of keeping customers safe and secure. Leading the largest Canadian security and connected home company with more than 1,700 team members, Martin is leveraging her deep expertise in change management and transforma-tion to build a unified team and company.

Her vision is simple, she says: to com-bine two security companies — ADT and Protectron, which merged in 2014 — and come together as one ADT Canada team to deliver the best customer experience. Her focus also includes accelerating growth through customer and employee engagement, and keeping customers satisfied and team members inspired.

Martin’s career is rich in milestones — she has built a rewarding path for someone who had a rocky start in terms of her education. “I didn’t like school when I was younger — Concordia was my saving grace,” she says. “I was lucky to have met teachers who inspired me and motivated me to move forward.”

Once a bank teller, now a CEO

Richard Lunny Richard Lunny, CEO of Manulife bank of Canada, believes it’s important to find time to volunteer. “Part of it is that I enjoy getting out of my business comfort zone,” he says. “In supporting a cause, I tend to lean toward smaller organizations as they stand to benefit more from the expertise and support.”

As the CEO of Manulife Bank of Canada, Rick Lunny, BComm 77, is mindful of the web-centric way people do their banking.

His current leadership role — which he took on in 2014 — involves overseeing all aspects of the bank, which has 800 employees across Canada. The parent company he belongs to, Manulife Financial, has staff in excess of 30,000.

“We’re a bit different. For example, we don’t have brick-and-mortar branches,” says Lunny, who works out of the company’s Toronto office. “Preferences have changed over the years. There’s been a shift to online and mobile banking. Not being burdened by the high cost of a branch network allows us to offer superior value to our clients.”

While a Concordia student, Lunny worked as a teller at the Toronto-Dominion (TD) Bank on the corner of Guy and Sainte Catherine streets. It would prove to be a foot in the door for Lunny, who climbed the company ranks over a two-decade period.

“After I graduated I went on to be a junior lender in Toronto and kept going,” says Lunny. He was senior vice-president of lending and mortgages at TD Bank by the time he left the company in 2004. He joined General Electric (GE), intrigued by their offer to design a startup mortgage lending business. With Lunny as president and CEO of GE Money Mortgages, the business did extremely well. However, growth was restricted by the American parent company’s own challenges during the 2008 financial crisis.

“It was at that time I was lured away by Gerry McCaughey,” Lunny says. McCaughey, BComm 81, was the president and CEO of Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce (CIBC) from 2004 to 2014. Lunny made the move to CIBC, where he was responsible for lending, deposits and insurance in the retail bank. “I’d known Gerry for a long time from our Concordia days together.”

Lunny reveals that it isn’t unusual to rub shoulders with fellow Concordia alumni in Toronto. Kenneth Sinclair, BComm 77, a recently retired managing director at TD Bank, is someone Lunny first met as a student. The two worked together and remain friends. Lunny even hosts an annual golf weekend at his Kingston, Ont.-area cottage — this year, 16 Concordia classmates took part.

Lunny and his wife, Lorrie, helped support a study room at the John Molson School of Business — a space that helps engineer future student encounters and collaborations. “We made the donation to Concordia about five years ago and it turns out the room was in a high- profile spot!” he says. “Once I received a LinkedIn message from a current student who thanked my wife and me for funding the room,” says Lunny. “It was a networking move that I thought showed the resourcefulness of Concordia students.”

Even with his fully loaded schedule, Lunny still finds time to volunteer. He’s currently the chair of the Arthritis Research Foundation. “Part of it is that I enjoy getting out of my business comfort zone,” says Lunny. “In supporting a cause, I tend to lean toward smaller organizations as they stand to benefit more from the expertise and support.”

Changing the learning experience one whiteboard at a time

Nancy Knowlton and David Martin David Martin and his wife Nancy Knowlton co-founded Calgary-based SMART technologies and Nureva Inc.

David Martin, BSc 71, was involved in smart technology before it was a thing. His time at Concordia included more than being in class. “It wasn’t just 21 courses. It was the whole experience, the Concordia environment,” says Martin. “The university was a launching pad.”

Martin founded SMART Technologies — the company behind the now ubiquitous SMART Board interactive whiteboard — with his wife Nancy Knowlton in 1987. The duo left SMART to start a new business in 2012. Before there was the term “the internet of everything” — which describes everyday objects connected to the web — Martin came up with his tech-centric whiteboard that fits the definition. The SMART Board can run computer applications and connect with the internet, simplifying collaboration.

Getting to where he is now wasn’t always an easy ride. “At the beginning, we were rejected by 42 venture capitalists,” says Martin of pitching the SMART Board. “We were laughed out of rooms.” Yet that eventually changed, and to date Calgary-based SMART Technologies has generated $5 billion in revenues and has more than 500 employees.

In 2013, Martin was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire for his impact on education. “I was told I had about 30 seconds with Prince William, but the conversation went much longer as he told me excitedly about using SMART Boards in his classrooms,” says Martin in reference to the British Royal Family member.

Martin’s new company, Calgary-based Nureva Inc., which he created with his wife Nancy Knowlton, is also focused on technology. “We’re working on an online collaborative experience that’s cloud-based. Wherever you are in the world, you can work with others on solving problems,” he explains.

Nureva’s first product, the Span system, provides a cloud-based work-space for distributed teams to interact simultaneously in real time. The system combines cloud-based software and associated apps with a projector that turns three metres of wall space into an interactive touch surface onto which the workspace is displayed. “Today’s cloud technology creates the opportunity for people to work together on a problem in a shared virtual space, from anywhere and on any device,” Martin says.

Through his experience with both SMART Technologies and Nureva, Martin found that there aren’t any shortcuts when it comes to building a company. “Inspiration, perspiration and perseverance — I would say those three words describe our key to success,” he says.

A hurdle — especially in the tech industry — is getting people on board with your vision. “I think a personal challenge is how to communicate what I see so that everyone’s on the same page,” says Martin. “That becomes more pronounced with long-term goals, when we’re looking over the horizon.”


Tapping into the internet of things

Jahangir Mohammed Jahangir Mohammed is founder and CEO of “internet of things” company Jasper, which was acquired by Cisco in March 2016. His advice to aspiring entrepreneurs: “to maintain focus, pick a direction and make changes within the direction while staying loyal to it. If you change direction too quickly, you’ll end up just going from one place to another.”

While on a fishing trip in Lake Tahoe, Nev., an ominous “check engine” signal lit up on the dashboard of the car driven by Jahangir Mohammed, MASc 93.

“I called my dealership and they said the issue could be small or it could be big. They said because it was a long- distance trip, I should find a service centre to check it out,” says Mohammed. The nearest place was two hours away, in Reno, Nev.

“I went and a mechanic plugged the car into their diagnostic computer and read the error code. It said there was too much moisture in the gas, a simple problem likely caused from not securing the gas cap,” says Mohammed. “I thought, ‘Wow, this cost me two hours!’”

That incident gave Mohammed the idea for Jasper, which he founded in Santa Clara, Calif., in 2004. He is chief executive officer of the company, which offers a platform that exchanges data from common devices into the larger fabric of the internet — referred to as the “internet of things” (IoT). So far, Jasper has connected 30 million devices for 5,000 clients in more than 100 countries. Jasper was acquired by Cisco Systems, Inc., the largest network- ing corporation in the world, in March 2016 for $1.4 billion. Mohammed is now general manager of Cisco’s IoT Cloud business unit.

“If you think of the car again, imagine the error code goes on and — because it’s connected to the internet — they can read the error code remotely. If it’s something simple, they can reset it themselves. If it’s serious, they can call me,” says Mohammed. “The first implication of this is that things become much more useful. The second is that businesses don’t sell a one-time product; they basically acquire a relationship they can continue to have with the user.”

The utility of IoT connectivity goes way beyond cars. Among the many items Jasper’s platform has connected to the internet are pacemakers, so that doctors can monitor them anywhere, and power meters, so public works departments can read them remotely. Thousands of companies in dozens of other industries, such as agriculture, manufacturing and retail, have also adopted the technology to make their devices more useful.

Mohammed’s entrepreneurial streak runs in the family. His father was a grocer in Kumbakonam, a small village in Southern India where Mohammed grew up. “He was in charge of his own destiny. He did things his way,” says Mohammed.

After earning an engineering degree at the Coimbatore Institute of Technology, Mohammed was accepted to three Canadian universities and chose Concordia based on the financial support offered to him. “I simply would not have been able to afford it other-wise,” says Mohammed, who landed in Montreal in 1991.

His future wife, Suki, studied civil engineering and then computer engineering at Concordia. While he knew her before embarking on his educational journey, Mohammed says they bonded at the university. “That was a beautiful thing, that we both went to the same school,” he says. The couple married in Montreal.

After graduating, Mohammed worked for Bell-Northern Research in Montreal and then Bell Labs in Camden, N.J., before going to San Francisco, Calif., to found Kineto Wireless — a mobile tech services company he left in 2003. Mohammed says of the potential of Jasper’s IoT platform: “We’ve got a tiger by the tail.”

The voice of energy efficiency in Canada

Elizabeth McDonald Elizabeth McDonald, president and CEO of the Ottawa-based Canadian Energy Efficiency Alliance, offers advice to aspiring leaders: “When an issue arises, be that person others look to.”

UPS truck drivers don’t turn left at traffic lights. Elizabeth McDonald, BA (hist.) 71, knows why. “They decided they use less gas that way,” says McDonald. The package delivery company plots its routes using right turns only, as that reduces wait time at intersections.

McDonald is president and CEO of the Ottawa-based Canadian Energy Efficiency Alliance (CEEA), which lobbies government on behalf of almost 40 eco-minded private and public sector members, ranging from manufacturers, service companies and major national associations. “Energy efficiency is a first step toward combating climate change,” she says. “And the first step toward being more energy efficient is conservation — using less.”

Among CEEA members are non- profits such as Electro-Federation Canada, which itself represents 250 electronic product manufacturers. McDonald’s alliance includes the building sector — such as Toronto- based Sustainable Buildings Canada — and various utility companies.

Since joining the CEEA in 2012, McDonald’s day-to-day work involves interacting with federal and provincial governments to ensure public policies — which incorporate climate change targets and environmental standards — reflect the importance of reducing energy consumption. The CEEA is non-profit, and those it represents pay a membership fee based on organization size.

One of McDonald’s challenges is to push the number of people going green past the 10 per cent mark within the general public. “Those are early adopters, who will jump on any new tech,” says McDonald — referring to products such as electric cars and solar panels. “We’re not going to meet any climate change targets at that number.”

McDonald started her career as a librarian for the National Library of Canada and later worked for the professional services firm KPMG. “The CBC called and they were looking for someone to work in strategic planning,” she recalls. “I got the job over people with backgrounds in broadcasting. I had an outsider’s view.”

After working her way into the role of president and CEO of the Canadian Film and Television Production Association, McDonald made a career change. “I would say I came into the energy business because I felt like I needed a new challenge,” says McDonald. She entered that world in 2007, taking on the presidency of the Canadian Solar Industries Association.

An alumna of Loyola College — one of Concordia’s founding institutions — McDonald says her experience provided a solid bedrock. “I chose Loyola over a number of other universities because I liked the opportunity the liberal arts program provided,” she says. The curriculum has come in useful 45 years later. “Now that I’m a lobbyist, I look back and see there were a lot of political elements, a number of Canadian history courses.”

McDonald is optimistic for the future of green innovation and business — largely thanks to the election of Justin Trudeau as Canada’s prime minister. “The day after the federal election last October, I started to get calls from government offices,” she relates. “They were saying, ‘We’re just updating our information.’ It was a signal that things were beginning to change on the federal level.”  

Signing off on new technology

Tommy Petrogiannis Tommy Petrogiannis, president of eSignLive by VASCO, has simple advice for current students: it’s all about the passion. “Love what you do. Having that passion to focus on what you love is probably the most important thing because it will get you over any obstacle that gets thrown at you.”

Submitting a contract or other official form over the internet used to be impossible — you had to print it out and sign it in ink because there was no other way to affix your signature. Yet that became old-fashioned a few years ago thanks to technology that allows us to securely sign legal documents with the click of a mouse. 

One of the pioneers in that area is Tommy Petrogiannis, BEng (elec.) 88, president of eSignLive by VASCO (formerly Silanis Technology), the Montreal-based company behind eSignLive, one of the world’s top three electronic signature products.

eSignLive made headlines across business pages last year when it was acquired by giant VASCO Data Security International in a $113-million deal that helped to position eSignLive firmly in the international market. As Petrogiannis pointed out at the time, the acquisition was mutually beneficial, as it also facilitated VASCO’s access to the North American market.

The VASCO acquisition will likely be one of the discussion topics on Saturday, September 24, when Petrogiannis returns to Concordia to speak about his career and how he built eSignLive into one of the fastest-growing information technology companies. His talk will be presented as part of the Engineering and Computer Science Department’s Distinguished Alumni Speaker Series, one of the Homecoming 2016 weekend events.

Describing himself as a “die-hard Montrealer,” Petrogiannis grew up in the city’s Notre-Dame-de-Grâce-Snowdon area. He attended Vanier College CEGEP before coming to Concordia, where he was able to indulge his love of technology.

“I guess you could say I was a tech geek who gravitated toward electrical engineering just because of that time of evolution in the industry,” he says.

“I was very fortunate to have grown up during the whole semi-conductor revolution, where we saw PCs doubling in performance every 12 to 18 months. Every time you thought computers couldn’t get any better, a year later they were way better. There was always something new around the corner.”

Petrogiannis co-founded Silanis with Joseph Silvester and Michael Laurie — the name is an amalgamation of their surnames — whom he met while working at Matrox Electronic Systems in Dorval, Que.

The problem of designing a secure electronic signature to facilitate internet transactions was a primary focus of the new company, which today serves several thousand clients worldwide, mainly in the government, banking and insurance industries.

Among these are the top 100 global banks, not to mention the United States Department of Defence, which, as Petrogiannis proudly points out, is probably the most security-conscious organization in the world.

For Petrogiannis, the decision to get his degree in electrical engineering at Concordia was easy. “One of the reasons I went to Concordia is because I loved the hands-on lab work that was part of the program,” he says.

“I’ve always liked the idea of doing something rather than just reading about it. I’ve always liked translating theory into reality, and that’s what attracted me to Concordia.”

That hands-on experience would prove beneficial to Petrogiannis in the real world, where innovation often trumps theory. “When you try stuff out in the lab, you’re not going to come anywhere near the theoretical results you should get to,” he points out.

“So you end up being more creative and try to troubleshoot things differently than you could have if you were just looking at it academically.”

Branching out in women’s retail

Anna Martini Anna Martini was president of retailer Groupe Dynamite for 12 years. Her advice for emerging businesspeople: “work hard and stay focused.”

If you blink you might miss the latest must-have in women's fashion — at least according to Anna Martini, BComm 85, GrDip 86.

Whether it’s a felt fedora or flashy head jewellery, Martini would know. She was the president of Montreal-based clothing company Groupe Dynamite Inc. for over 12 years. “When you’ve figured out how to deal with the latest ‘it’ thing, a new one is already on the way,” says Martini. “It’s the most challenging part of the business — being agile.”

The Montreal-born-and-raised alumna led the women’s fashion business from 2004 until January 2017. Groupe Dynamite operates nearly 370 stores — in Canada, the United Sates and, most recently, the Middle East — and consists of the brands Dynamite and Garage. The company has 5,600 employees.

Martini explains that the brand serves two demographics: “Garage is for the teenage girl. She’s connected 24/7 and is all about discovering new things,” says Martini. “The person that shops at Dynamite is in her 20s — she would more likely be a young professional.”

Having a clear definition of the clientele helps the company strategize its store design, the styles it offers and its marketing, including its e-commerce presence. “People will always go to malls. They’ll always want a brick-and-mortar experience. You just want them to be able to toggle between online and in-person shopping,” says Martini of the 21st-century retail landscape.

Before taking the helm of Groupe Dynamite, Martini was a partner at the Montreal office of Deloitte — one of the world’s largest professional services firms. She began working for the company in 1985. “Concordia was the baseline for my entire career. The university set me up for success — first as an accountant and now as a business leader,” she says.

While at Deloitte, Martini began recruiting Concordia students as a part of the company’s talent acquisition strategy, a role she carried over to Groupe Dynamite. “That’s a favourite part of the job. Just meeting all those young people and being able to mentor or coach them. I’ve been doing that for about 30 years,” she says.

Martini attended Concordia’s annual career fair and welcomed ambitious students to explore Groupe Dynamite’s headquarters. She stresses that quality people are the key to her success: “Surround yourself with smart people. Talent attracts more talent.”

Martini volunteers as a judge at Concordia’s John Molson Undergraduate Case Competition, which she became involved with in 2007. The event is the biggest of its kind, featuring 24 international teams that work on real business challenges. “It’s a great opportunity to meet up-and-coming talent from all over,” she says.

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