Trafficking in Secrecy : On The Road with Mark Hill & Steve Ballmer
Updated: Nov 8, 2020
The first clue that this would be an unusually important client was the non-disclosure agreement. Normally Mark Hill didn’t have to sign one before sliding behind the wheel of his limousine and heading out on assignment.
But the demand for secrecy marked this trip as something out of the ordinary. The bulk of his trips involved weddings, concerts, sporting events and shuttling corporate executives to airports in the area, including Pearson Airport in Toronto and Region of Waterloo International Airport in Breslau. For the most part, his human cargo gabbed and chatted away in the back seats, oblivious to any suspicions that Julian Assange was hankering for their verbiage. After signing off on the NDA and maneuvering the black Lincoln Town Car out of Brentwood Livery’s spacious garage in Kitchener, Hill could feel butterflies. “I was actually pretty excited.” Nothing gets the adrenaline flowing like the promise of a covert operation.
Charioteer of the Gods
Hill had driven high-level corporate clients before. Mike Lazaridis, co-founder and co-CEO of Research In Motion, makers of the world-famous BlackBerry smartphone, was an occasional passenger. Lazaridis’s sprawling mansion near the village of Bamberg just west of Waterloo, hidden behind tall grassy berms at the end of a winding road, stunned Hill when he first drove there. On one trip he was even invited inside, where he marveled at the grandeur of the glass windows overlooking a spring-fed pond. Occasionally Hill would pick up Lazaridis’s wife, Ophelia, at the Bamberg estate and take her to board meetings in Toronto.
Other notables whose names graced Hill’s passenger list included mental health activist and wife and mother of two Canadian prime ministers (respectively), Margaret Trudeau; environmental activist Erin Brockovich; Apple computers co-founder Steve Wozniak; and Tour de France racer Lance Armstrong (before his penchant for doping ended his career), all making appearances in Waterloo Region for speaking engagements or in Armstrong’s case, an annual ride organized by BlackBerry co-CEO Jim Balsillie to raise money for cancer research.
Though Hill was used to celebrity passengers, not many had demanded a non-disclosure agreement. He was a talkative person by nature, “a people person,” who could gab with anyone, but he knew when to keep his mouth shut. It was part of the Brentwood training course. Speak only when spoken to.
Employee 30 from Redmond, WA
As he called in the pass code to enter the private terminal at the south end of the Breslau airport, Hill could feel his excitement building. Rounding the corner of the hangar, he gazed upon an unusual sight. There at the foot of an enormous, unmarked private jet, standing at the end of a red carpet, loomed a balding, barrel-chested man with round cheeks and deep-set eyes, dressed in an expensive suit. He was accompanied by two plainclothes bodyguards. It was a warm day in the spring of 2011 and dressed in the standard Brentwood uniform of black suit, white shirt and black tie, Hill could feel himself start to sweat as he tried to figure out who this was. “Ballmer,” one of the bodyguards whispered to him. “Steve Ballmer. You know, the CEO of Microsoft.” (CEO indeed, Steve Ballmer, a.k.a. Employee number 30, led the software giant from 2000-2014. He had lived down the hall from Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates at Harvard University in the 1970s. During his tenure at the helm, Ballmer had diversified the company away from PCs into data centres and gaming and nearly tripled its annual revenues, but had been labelled one of the worst CEOs of a large American publicly-traded company for his failure to capitalize on the tablet and smartphone markets.)
After pausing a second to let that information sink in, Hill sprung into action, opening the door for the Microsoft boss who climbed into the back seat. One of the bodyguards hopped in the front beside Hill while the other remained with the plane. Hill was told to proceed to Janet Lynn’s restaurant, a chic dining spot in Uptown Waterloo where Ballmer was having lunch. On the ride in, the normally boisterous Ballmer, known for ostentatious performances at Microsoft conferences, was quiet, staring ahead stoically. At Microsoft-s 25th anniversary event in 2000, he had jumped around the stage yelling, "I love this company." The video of his performance had been the subject of much amusement on the internet. There would be no jumping around on this day. As they neared their destination, Hill was told to pull in a back lane and drop Ballmer at the back door. Secrecy was of paramount importance. Hill then drove around to the front of the building and parked across the street near the Rude Native restaurant. He and Ballmer’s bodyguard got out and waited on the patio. There they fell into casual conversation, the guard telling him that he and his colleague normally carried guns, but were forced to leave them on the plane to abide by Canadian laws. Ballmer was meeting with RIM co-CEO Jim Balsillie, he revealed.
"Shall We Make History Before or After the Calimari?"
Hill’s mind started to churn. Could he be witnessing history being made? Was this meeting a sign that Microsoft, the undisputed king of desktop software and one of the largest tech companies on the planet, was making a bid for RIM? As he mulled these thoughts over, Hill couldn’t help but marvel at the strange twist of fate that landed him at Brentwood. For many years he had worked in the beverage industry, selling and promoting bottled water and even starting his own company. The firm went bankrupt, but he survived and rose to the position of vice-president of sales and marketing at Wahta Springs, of Bala, ON. In 2007 he left that job in a dispute over unpaid commission sales. What to do? As it turned out, a friend was working at Brentwood and urged him to apply. It seemed like a strange idea at first. Driving a limo was a lot different than selling water. He was 57, surely too old for a complete makeover. But the more he thought about it, the better it sounded. The two jobs weren’t really all that different. Both required you to work with the public. Both involved sales of some sort (either a product or oneself), and Hill was nothing if not a good salesman. And he was used to wearing a uniform, or at least company-issued threads - in his 20s and early 30s he had modeled clothes in Sears and Eaton’s catalogues. He decided to give chauffeuring a shot. “I had to do something.”
He couldn’t have picked a better time. Ignited by RIM, the Waterloo tech sector was on fire. The iPhone had just been released but hadn’t gained traction yet. RIM was still on top of the wireless world, and limo companies were hiring. Learning to drive a limo was tricky at first. The key was maneuvering a stretch vehicle in tight corners and changing speeds smoothly. Brentwood would place a glass of water on the dashboard and get Hill to drive around without spilling anything. After passing the company’s training course and upgrading his driver’s licence, Hill hit the road. There was plenty of work shuttling tech wizards, corporate executives and middle-managers back and forth to Pearson and Breslau airports. Concerts featuring bands such as U2, Bon Jovi, the Tragically Hip, and Aerosmith were common, as tech entrepreneurs celebrated with employees. “We were maxed out.” The little things paid big dividends. Each limo came stocked with bottles of water, healthy snacks and spotless interiors. “I never went out in a dirty car,” remembers Hill.
It wasn’t all glitz and glamour, however. If he was chauffeuring a wedding or social event, the hours could be long. On some nights, often a Saturday, he wouldn’t get home until 6 o’clock in the morning. “Sometimes the nights were pretty crazy, but most of the time I enjoyed it.”
Two hours after dropping Ballmer off, the bodyguard’s phone buzzed. The meeting was over. Hill drove around to the back of the restaurant and picked up the Microsoft chieftain. Back to the airport they went. Once again, Ballmer was quiet, his silence only broken by a phone call from his wife. The meeting went well, he told her. Hill dropped Ballmer and his bodyguard at the Microsoft plane. The entire visit took about three hours. As it turned out, Hill wasn’t witnessing history. Microsoft office software had been used in BlackBerry smartphones for a number of years, and around this time the two companies reached a deal to install Microsoft’s Bing search engine in BlackBerry devices. The talks likely involved issues around these developments.
Hill would eventually leave Brentwood in 2012 and return to the beverage industry. He now works as vice-president of sales and marketing at Signature Springs, a Pennsylvania bottled water company. But he still thinks back fondly to his time driving a limousine, when RIM was riding high and Waterloo seemed to be at the centre of the universe. The Ballmer assignment remains a highlight. After the Microsoft boss left, Hill started cleaning out the limo and found a souvenir. Ballmer had left behind a pen. “I still have it,” Hill says proudly.
(Full disclosure: Hill is my daughter-in-law’s father.)