Rolling Stone of Telecom Loves to Take on the Big Guys
Updated: Feb 21, 2021
[Disclosure: Walters is a family friend]
VTG: Going The Last Mile To Broaden Broadband's Reach
After 45 years of working in telecommunications, broadband and the internet, Brian Walters keeps telling himself to “stop and smell the roses.” But the 69-year-old Cambridge resident just can’t seem to help himself. Too many good opportunities beckon.
His latest venture may be “the single largest opportunity I’ve had in my career,” he says. With two partners, Walters has started a company called Vortex Telecom Group that will build out a fiber optic network over the next 18 months to several First Nations communities north of Thunder Bay. The network will deliver internet TV and other online services to communications-starved residents.
As if that’s not enough, Vortex is hoping to use new green battery technology in the First Nations project and other ventures. It has secured the distribution rights for super-capacitors made in the United Arab Emirates that can store much more electricity than conventional lead acid batteries.The super-capacitor industry “is a nascent market that is going to explode over the coming years, and VTG is ideally positioned to take advantage of this,” he says.
It all sounds rather ambitious for a guy who was supposed to retire last year, but Walters believes much of the expertise he has developed over the past four decades is coming together with Vortex.
The First Nations element, for one thing, is something he has been focusing on for the past decade. He calls it “last mile infrastructure,” delivering wireless, broadband and the internet to rural and remote areas, many of them occupied by Indigenous residents.
Energetic and talkative, Walters has never been known to sit still for long. Over his four-decade-plus career, this rolling stone of telecom has worked for 11 different companies, five of which were founded or co-founded by him. Some he left voluntarily, others because the company was sold and he found himself out of work. He changes employers about as often as a journeyman NHL player, but as with any good journeyman his skills are always in demand.
On top of that there’s just no quit in this guy. During our interview, Walters holds up a sign that he keeps on his desk. It’s a quote from Winston Churchill: “Never, never, never give up.”
“There are a lot of poor musicians out there.” - Les Walters
Not surprisingly, for a guy who’s worked in telecom and communications all his life, he followed in his father’s footsteps. His dad, Les Walters, was a manager of residential and business systems deployment for Bell Canada, and a key member of the engineering team that spearheaded the installation of private branch exchanges (PBX) for businesses across Canada and military bases in the U.S.
Walters was born in Toronto and grew up in Richmond Hill, a town just north of Toronto. While he earned high marks in math, science and physics, his first love was music. He started playing the violin and became concertmaster of his high school orchestra, earning an audition for the Toronto youth symphony orchestra. But his dad sounded a warning. “There are a lot of poor musicians out there,” he told his son, referring to their bank accounts, not their skills.
Instead, in the fall of 1970 Walters enrolled in the first systems design engineering program at the University of Waterloo. The wide-ranging nature of the program appealed to him. Students learned the basics of engineering but also topics outside the traditional realm of that discipline. But more practical matters also drew him to UW. With eight children to raise his parents could not afford to send him to university. SDE included a co-op component that alternated semesters of study and paid employment related to his course work. The co-op program, supplemented by student loans, would enable him to pay his own way.
For his first two co-op terms, Walters worked for Ontario Hydro in North Bay and at a nuclear power training station in Deep River, ON, northwest of Ottawa. Temperatures sometimes plunged to minus 40 in Deep River, shocking a group of visiting engineers from the UK. “They had no idea what cold was till they got there,” he laughs.
Unsure that SDE was the right fit for him, he took a year off to work as an installer at Bell in Thornhill thanks to an introduction from his dad who worked in the same location. Struggling to tell the difference between the thin multi-hued cables, Walters discovered to his chagrin that he was partially colour-blind. He decided he better get back to UW and finish his engineering degree.
The computer science program at UW in the early 1970s was dominated by the Red Room, the red-tiled ground floor of the new computer engineering building. It housed the giant IBM 360/75, one of the largest computers in Canada. Although considered leading-edge technology for its time, using the behemoth was a laborious process. Walters would manually key his program into a punch card machine, then line up at the 360 to feed in the cards and get a printout. It would identify any problems with his program. On one occasion he dropped all his punch cards on the floor. He felt sick. “I had to go back and print them all out again because to try to get them in order was pretty challenging,” recalling his frustration with a laugh.
After graduating in 1975 with a specialty in computer communications, Walters went back to Bell Canada in the Toronto area, this time designing data circuits instead of working as an installer.
But after two years the repetitive nature of the work started to get to him. Walters decided he wanted to work for a smaller firm, and was hired as a sales engineer for ITT Communications in Guelph. The company’s flagship product was a digital multiplexer that could stream 32 voice channels instead of the standard 24. Walters’ job was to travel around the U.S. and pitch the technology to groups of potential telco customers. Although ITT trained him in how to speak, listen, and get his message across quickly, it was still a daunting challenge for the shy 26-year-old just barely out of university. The stakes were high, contracts were on the line, and the leads could be a tough sell. While Walters may have been adept at charming UW profs, pitching pricey high-tech to seasoned telecom pros proved to be a trial by fire. “Boy was that ever a learning experience. I had to come out of my shell,” remembers Walters.
Walters survived and continued in that job for 18 months. Tiring of the travel, he left ITT to take his first plunge into entrepreneurship. The interconnect market, including PBX systems, had recently been deregulated. No longer would Bell Canada have a monopoly in installing private branch exchanges in corporate offices. In 1979, with four former colleagues from Bell, he launched Cantelco out of an office in Markham. One of the company’s biggest successes was winning a contract to supply a broker-trading PBX system to a large Toronto brokerage called Burns Fry. Walters was able to source a better and less expensive PBX product made in the U.S. Bell wasn’t happy at losing the contract with Burns Fry. “Oh, my God! What a commotion,” Walters remembers. “The chair of Bell tried to have it overturned.”
Through A Glass Brightly: Fiber Optics Lights The Way
Over the next decade, Walters continued to work in the PBX market for Cantelco and then a joint venture owned by the telecom divisions of CN and CP Rail. In the early 1990s, a new market beckoned: fiber optics. The tiny glass strands about the size of a human hair held huge potential for transmitting voice and data via light. Walters, who had done consulting work in the field, was hired as senior vice-president of Classic Communications (Classicomm), a cable operator in York Region. He was put in charge of building a fiber optic network in the area, including one of the first fiber installations with shared ownership of the strands.
Classic acted as a wholesaler, selling strands to cable operators such as Rogers and Bell and lit data services to businesses in York Region. Walters negotiated all the financial terms, including rights of use and maintenance fees. He had no real blueprint. Fiber optic technology was brand new. “Early on I had to really learn a lot of financial modeling skills.” Somehow he got it to work. The model is still being used to this day.
Around this time, the internet was emerging as the new frontier in communications. Walters was tasked with developing a business plan to convert Classic’s network from one-way to two-way so it could offer internet services.
Brian Nelson was doing much the same work for Rogers, installing fiber networks in downtown Toronto when he first crossed paths with Walters. Nelson contacted Classic to see if they wanted to join forces. “Absolutely, yes. Where do we sign?” was Walters’ response. Walters has the ability to see the flowers among the weeds, says Nelson. “He has really good filters on him.” The two hit it off immediately. Their backgrounds were both in telecom as opposed to many of their co-workers who came from the cable TV realm.
“Those were very heady days,” Nelson recalls of the early 1990s. Rogers and Classic were trying to build out as much fiber as possible to compete with Bell, the dominant player in networking. The high-speed data network installed by Rogers in the Toronto core thrilled the big banks, which could never get enough bandwidth from Bell. “Brian was doing the same thing in north Toronto. We were sort of cross-pollinating.” Walters is a person you can trust, says Nelson. “He’s as honest as the day is long. There’s a real good spirit about him.”
The networking industry was like the wild West in those days. The large cable companies and telcos were in an all-out battle for market share during the early internet days. You had to be pretty savvy when sitting across the table from players like Bell and Rogers, says Nelson. But Walters was cool under pressure with an ability to read people. “He kept his mouth shut when I was getting ready to climb across the table.” Walters also has a complementary combination of skills. In addition to being a great engineer, “he can drive an Excel spreadsheet as well as anyone.”
In 1995, the owners of Classic were looking to cash in their assets after 30 years in business. Walters put together a business plan to sell the company. The winning bid of several hundred million dollars came from Shaw Communications, a Calgary-based cable TV provider. Shaw then put Walters in charge of launching high-speed internet services across all Shaw territories including Alberta and B.C.
It sounded like a great opportunity, but it was not to be. A marketing strategy he developed was pushed aside in favour of an American campaign backed by the large cable operators. Convinced that Shaw’s identity was being lost in the process and frustrated because he had put a lot of work into the venture, Walters butted heads with his bosses, then parted ways with the company. “I learned the power of the big guys.”
The only thing he could think of doing at this point was to start another company. Working for another big corporation was anathema to him. Besides, a new kind of product called customer relationship management (CRM) software had caught his eye. It was starting to make inroads in the corporate world. He convinced the former owner of Classic to invest millions in a company he called Drums that would sell a unique variety of the software featuring an artificial-intelligence component. It could sift through thousands of options to pick the right questions for customers. It was also internet-driven so it could be tweaked and updated. Through the late 1990s, large corporate clients such as IBM, Nortel and Toshiba jumped on board. With the dot-com mania in full flight, cash was flowing freely. In 2000, with the former owner of Classic looking to pull some of his money out, Drums was sold to a Boston-based competitor called Channelwave.
In the wake of the sale, Walters was now the owner of Channelwave shares worth several million American dollars. An upcoming listing on the stock exchange might boost them even higher. Nearing 50, he dreamed of retiring and investing in other tech startups. Then the dot-com bubble burst and his shares plunged in value. The stock listing was cancelled. Once he got over the shock, Walters started weighing his options. He was a serial entrepreneur at heart. He decided to launch another venture.
Remote Control: Empowering the Underserved
After doing some digging he stumbled upon a federal government program to bring wireless internet to rural and northern areas. Enlisting the help of a partner, he formed a company called W3 Connex and dove into the process of applying for funding under the program. Working marathon hours, they prepared applications for about 50 different projects, winning support for half a dozen. Over the next six years, W3 hired contractors to install wireless broadband in North Bay, Prince Edward County, South Dundas and Haliburton. They were in the midst of finishing up in Haliburton when another calamity hit—the subprime mortgage and credit crisis of 2008. A venture capital investor they had picked up along the way went belly up. Walters stood by helplessly as W3 was broken up.
Battered and bruised, he was down but not out. “You think I would have learned my lesson,” he says, laughing. Drawing from his expertise bringing internet service to remote areas, Walters signed on with a Richmond Hill firm called WireIE Holdings to build out fiber optic networks and last-mile wireless networks in underserviced areas across Canada and sell the services to large carriers such as Telus, Zayo and Bell. At last he achieved some stability. Working as vice-president of product development, he had a solid 10-year run with WireIE before it was sold in 2019.
Retirement finally seemed in the cards for Walters, who moved to Cambridge in 2012 where he lives with his wife. He even started playing the violin again. But after a year in retirement from WireIE, the idea for Vortex hit.
One of Walters’ main strengths is his ability to make use of technology that has been overlooked by the big carriers. He can find connection points in remote areas that Bell and Rogers don’t even know about, says Bayo Awoyemi, one of his partners in Vortex. “Brian always keeps tabs on where things are. It’s almost a lost art.”
Over the years, the large carriers have bought a lot of smaller carriers but don’t do a good job of integrating their expertise into the company. Walters has taken advantage of that lapse, says Awoyemi.
Walters spends a lot of time thinking about what is coming next, and gets a kick out of “taking on the big guys,” says Awoyemi, with a laugh.
Despite his expertise and acumen, Walters lives in a modest, middle-class home. For him, it’s never been about wealth, says Awoyemi. “Brian puts the craft first before the money.”
Nelson isn’t surprised that his colleague moved around as much as he did. “I’m fairly similar,” he says. Their careers began at the end of the era when people stayed with one company for their entire working lives. Not only that, as the communications industry exploded with growth it brought turmoil with it. Executives were brought in from banks or retail industries who knew nothing about fiber or wireless, says Nelson, a partner in WireIE and Vortex. “You could get a ton of stock options and then be out on the street.”
Like Walters, he has no interest in retirement. One of the reasons is that networking is going through a new cycle. Transmission gear such as fiber, ethernet and switching are getting “long in the tooth.” It just can’t handle the huge demand for bandwidth fuelled by social media and other data platforms, says Nelson.
Another is the super capacitor technology licensed by Vortex. At conferences in the U.S., Walters met a kindred entrepreneur from Iowa who built large wireless networks from scratch for American and international carriers. The Iowan called him one day to alert him to the new battery technology. Cell towers are packed with thousands of lead acid batteries. They are toxic, expensive and difficult to dispose of. Super capacitors are a much better solution for the environment and the industry, Nelson says.
With opportunities such as these, he and Walters “just can’t let go of the reins.”