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Tony Lacavera: The Emperor of More House

Emperor of More House

''Tony's residence don, back when he was living at St. Mike's," says Duane Rendle, St. Michael's College's Dean of Students, a 1990s SMC resident himself, "described him as 'a great guy, but essentially ungovernable.'"

Anthony Lacavera - Tony to his friends - smiles and shakes his head sheepishly. "I nicknamed myself 'The Emperor,'" he says with a laugh. "I declared myself emperor of More House. Isn't that what emperors do? Declare themselves?"

Sitting with Lacavera and Rendle on a 12th floor rooftop patio in the heart of Toronto's financial district, the headquarters of Lacavera's ambitious telecommunications company, Globalive, it's hard to argue with his results.

From the basement workout room at St. Michael's College where Lacavera spent countless hours during his undergrad years, to the penthouse office suite from which he plots his multimillion-dollar business deals as chairman of the board, his Napoleonic ambition has served him well. And his "ungovernability" - his refusal to do business as it's been done, to the endless consternation of his competitors - is the key to Globalive's success: the company has cracked open Canada's notoriously insular telecommunicatons and wireless business, and now threatens to take a bite out of the cozy profits of three of the corporations Canadians most love to hate - Bell, Telus and Rogers.

"We started this business in 1998, and we've been competing with the Big Three in businesses that are lower-capital, that require less investment," says Lacavera. That meant nibbling around the edges of the phone market in side businesses like bargain-bin longdistance services ("LooneyCall," for instance, offering 100 minutes of long distance for $1), providing wireless internet access in hotels and discount home phone service. All in, it was a tidy little business: profitable, growing steadily and with low barriers to entry. But that changed in May 2008, when Globalive announced it was jumping into the mobile phone business, buying up $442 million worth of the airwaves in a CRTC spectrum auction and starting construction on the first new wireless network to be built in North America in almost 25 years. In the Canadian telecom business, that's the equivalent of sauntering in and declaring yourself emperor.

"We'd always been kind of picking at the Big Three and been a thorn in their side," Lacavera says, "but now this is like a full-frontal assault. We obviously want to make sure we have a sustainable profitable business for the long term - but for the short term, it's really all about shaking the tree a bit." That meant that Wind Mobile, the cellular phone brand the company launched with a splashy ad campaign in December 2009, drastically undercut the established players with its debut: cheap phones, cheap plans, unlimited minutes and texting - the works.

Critics say it's reckless, that Globalive isn't big enough to compete in an extremely complex business, and even that their backing financier (an Egyptian telecom company) threatens the sovereignty of the Canadian airwaves. Lacavera brushes these concerns aside.

"We've been around for 12 years, we've always been competing and we've always built profitable businesses," says Lacavera. "This is definitely our biggest venture yet, but we're taking the same approach." That means that Wind Mobile started locally, launching first in Toronto and gradually rolling out to other areas as construction proceeds - Lacavera was off to Vancouver that evening for the following day's West Coast launch. "Everyone at the airport knows my name," he groans with the trademark disaffection of the veteran frequent flier.

Lacavera says he's happy so far with Wind Mobile's freshman year, and he deftly wields a collection of stories of grateful customers fleeing the Big Three wireless companies with horror stories of lousy customer service, surprise fees and monopoly pricing. "Everyone has a nightmare story from Bell or Telus or Rogers," he says. (His own such story dates from the mid-'90s: $50 in unexpected charges for a handful of calls from his parents' St. Catharines home.)

Globalive's bench of boardroom talent is impressive; many of the company's top executives whom Lacavera recruited to help grow the business lived in residence at St. Mike's. Anthony Cozzi, Globalive's Director of Data Technology, graduated from UofT's Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering, and so did Mark Palma, Manager of Enterprise Solutions for OneConnect, a Globalive subsidiary. Both of them lived in More House - under the reign of Emperor Lacavera.

They know each other through SMC, through the engineering department, but also through Lacavera's other preoccupation, fitness. When he wasn't sleeping, eating or studying during his St. Michael's days, he could most often be found in the men's residence weight room. In fact, that's how he was first introduced to Duane Rendle, who was doing his Master's degree in Industrial Relations at the time and was also a fitness buff. When they meet again, along with Palma, on the company's patio, the conversation picks right up where it left off. Their easy banter about the old days still echoes that friendly locker-room joshing as they compare current waistlines, what they each used to be able to bench press and Palma's transformation into a greyhoundesque triathlete.

"When Mark gets into something, he has to be the absolute best at it," says Lacavera, jabbing a thumb at Palma. He concedes with a laugh: "I was up in Orillia a few years ago out for a jog. I accidentally got mixed up with the local triathlon," he says. He just kept running with the group and ended up crossing the finish line near the front of the pack. Lacavera admits he doesn't quite compare with that level of commitment any more. "My absolute favourite thing to do is just go out for a jog," he adds. "But the kind of jogging I'm doing, you could kind of drink a beer while you're doing it." He got more into outdoor exercise, he says, because he's on the road a lot - he took 280 flights in 365 days last year - and he can do it anywhere.

For Lacavera the discipline, self-worth and camaraderie he found in the workout room is the reason he's looking at how he can help the College spruce up its aging fitness facilities. Both of UofT's big gyms are on the west side of campus, at Hart House and the Athletic Centre, and having something closer to St. Mike's would be a huge benefit to students, he says. There aren't any concrete plans yet, but he talks about it as a matter of when, not if.

Today, the expansion of Globalive continues apace, and Lacavera is dabbling in new fields, particularly environmental technologies. He's made recent investments in renewable wind power and in a new kind of glass coating that prevents heat loss and improves buildings' energy efficiency. "If the sun's shining through the window," he says, "it's bright, but you don't feel any heat coming through the window at all." That technology is actually being tested right now by energy experts at UofT's engineering department, and Lacavera, the born salesman, half-jokingly tells Rendle the technology could reduce energy costs at St. Mike's.

That combination - the engineer's rigor and the hustler's nose for a sale - is one of the things that Lacavera feels needs to be taught to engineering students as part of a well-rounded education.

"The economy now is so reliant on information technology and software, and engineers are becoming more prominent in corporate settings," he says. Engineering degrees currently turn out grads who can expertly etch a microchip or write flawless code, but most get little or no training in business or entrepreneurship; many have trouble adjusting to corporate work, he adds, or feel pigeonholed as propellerheads in the basement while the MBAs are out shaking hands and making deals. By contrast, Globalive is stocked with engineering grads from the Chairman on down, from the boardroom to the server farm. Lacavera has spoken with UofT's Dean of Applied Science and Engineering about his wish for some business training in the engineering curriculum. "We had professors - great professors - for whom the be-all and end-all of being an engineer was designing microchips at, say, Nortel," he says, "but not everyone has to do that. There are so many other options," Lacavera's own career - from Emperor of More House to Bay Street titan inwaiting - being living proof.