Who's the new guy talking to?
Updated: Aug 11, 2020
Did Tom Motz witness a telephonic courtship ritual that would lead to the birth of the BlackBerry?
After BlackBerry Town was published in September of 2019, I was sometimes approached after speeches or public appearances by people who were connected to RIM, the University of Waterloo and the Waterloo tech sector in some way. I wish I had met some of them beforehand so I could have included their stories in the book. Hating to waste a good anecdote, I thought I would share some of them with you now.
Tom Motz was puzzled. The new guy he and partner Steve Menich had hired at Trimaster
Manufacturing in Guelph was spending a lot of time sitting in his car in the parking lot, talking on his phone. Who is he chatting with, Motz wondered? A serious look furrowed the new person’s brow and he spoke intently into the phone when Motz could catch a glimpse inside the car. These didn’t appear to be recreational calls. Shouldn’t he be in his office studying the books and going over some of the internal procedures at Trimaster, makers of precision-machined parts for paper-handling companies such as NCR and Pitney-Bowes and optical assemblies for Christie Digital projectors? These were tasks he had been hired for as a consultant. Motz had reason to be concerned. His family had sold its long-time interest in the Waterloo Region Record daily newspaper in 1989, and Motz and several other family members had taken their share and invested it in Trimaster in 1991. It was a new venture for him and he was anxious that it be successful so he could step out of the long shadow of the Motz family legacy. Still he had to admit the new guy was pretty sharp and confident. Over several lunches, he had gotten to know him a little. And he had been hand-picked by Menich, who had known him at Sutherland-Schultz, a large mechanical contractor based in Kitchener. Menich had owned SS before selling it and investing in Trimaster.
The new guy was Jim Balsillie. The year was 1992 and Sutherland-Schultz had been sold again. The new owners made it clear there was no place for Balsillie in the executive ranks. He was at loose ends, without a job, and Menich had snatched him up. But he wasn’t to remain at Trimaster for long. On the other end of the line during many of those parking lot phone calls, Motz now suspects, was Mike Lazaridis, chief executive at Research In Motion, now called BlackBerry. He was looking for someone to run the financial and marketing side of the company. SS was a customer of RIM’s and Lazaridis had been impressed by Balsillie’s business savvy. A short time later he joined RIM as co-CEO. Balsillie’s time at Trimaster was short, just several months, but productive. “He made a few changes that remained in place at Trimaster,” said Motz. Trimaster continues to operate to this day though Motz and Menich
sold the company to EdgeStone Capital Partners in 2004. Now semi-retired, Motz owns several industrial properties in the area and has served on the boards of Wilfrid Laurier University and St. Mary’s General Hospital. Together with his wife, he has invested in several local tech companies as a member of the Golden Triangle Angel Network. He is impressed at how Waterloo Region survived the decline of BlackBerry. “I was asked by someone to describe what makes Waterloo Region unique. I said we lost leather goods, then tires, meat processing, most of a very large Electrohome and then RIM and we never had a hiccup. That’s pretty remarkable.”
(Editor's note: Sadly, Tom Motz died June 12, 2020 at the age of 57 after suffering an aortic dissection.)
One of the ways that the University of Waterloo was able to break away from the pack in subjects like math, computer science and engineering was by recruiting bright students from high schools. Among them was Lorne MacKinnon who attended Waterloo from 1962-66. MacKinnon grew up on a farm near the small town of Paisley, about 130 km. north of Waterloo. The nearest high school was 16 km. to the east in Chesley and he rode a school bus there every day. MacKinnon isn’t one to boast about his academic skills. “Modesty aside, I would say so,” he says, when asked if he was good at math. He was more than good, he was great. In province-wide exams held at that time in Grade 13, he scored above 90 per cent in all three areas of math. There was even an optional exam provided by the UW math department. MacKinnon aced that one too. His marks earned him the honour of becoming an Ontario Scholar. It came with a financial stipend covering his tuition costs for the first year of university. In fact, he never paid tuition for all his years at university. Scholarships always covered those costs. At some point—MacKinnon’s memory is foggy after the passage of so many years—Professor Ralph Stanton, head of math at Waterloo, came to Chesley high school. Waterloo was high on MacKinnon’s list of possibilities, but he was looking at other universities as well. Stanton convinced him that UW was the ticket. “We were in contact and it led me to go to Waterloo.”
UW in the 1960s was not a party school. The student body was “heavily male-dominated,” recalls MacKinnon, whom I met after a speech to the Elmira-Kiwanis club in February. “The social life wouldn’t stand up to Western or the University of Toronto.” But it was a great school for scholastics. The education he acquired “certainly contributed to my post-secondary
MacKinnon went on to become an actuary and worked at the Mutual Life of Canada (now Sun Life Financial) for 34 years until retiring in 2000. Looking back on his days at UW, he says Waterloo was the first university in North American to confer degrees specifically in math. “They were definitely a leader at putting math in the forefront.”
Among the people I profiled in the early chapters of BlackBerry Town was Gerald Hagey, the first president of UW and the person who probably did more than anyone to get the university off the ground. A former public relations manager at B.F. Goodrich, Hagey was recruited to serve as president of Waterloo College, then spearheaded the creation of separate faculties offering science, engineering and math courses and a ground-breaking co-operative education program in the late 1950s. When Waterloo College, worried that its Lutheran Church ethos was being undermined, voted not to become part of this bold new experiment, Hagey and crew forged ahead to launch the University of Waterloo. Waterloo College later became Wilfrid Laurier University.
Hagey did more than just lead at the highest levels. He was willing to do the little things as well. In the early days, the university was not well served by local buses. The closest bus stop to the campus was several kilometres away at the corner of King and Dearborn streets (now University Avenue). Buses travelling north from downtown Kitchener would drop students there, then turn around and head back to Kitchener. In those days, Hagey drove a large Cadillac, recalls Carl Thompson, who taught engineering at UW from 1969-96 and heard some of the early stories about Hagey. On bad-weather days, Hagey would head to King and Dearborn, pick up students and shuttle them to the campus. This was in the days before seatbelts. “He would pack as many as he could get in there. I don’t think he put them in the trunk,” quipped Thompson, also a member of the Elmira-Kiwanis Club.