Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Smart Man

A few years ago, when I was at PROFIT Magazine, I convinced a major Canadian business school to offer a free executive-development course to the founder of the No. 1 firm on the PROFIT 100 – Canada’s fastest-growing company.

The entrepreneur who won was pretty dubious about his "prize." He wasn’t sure he’d even find time to go. But on his return from the weekend course he admitted it was the best education he'd ever received. It opened his eyes to greater ambitions and more systematic ways of doing things. It made him realize he wasn’t the first person to run a fast-growth company and didn't have to have all the answers himself!

So when I read in January that a Nova Scotia development agency had awarded Cape Breton entrepreneur Doug Milburn a week-long entrepreneurship course at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, I got on the phone and asked if I could interview him about his learnings after he finished the course.

And so we meet a few weeks later during one of Milburn’s visits to Toronto.

Much to my chagrin, he claimed to have learned almost nothing from the big brains at MIT. Most of the lessons taught by his entrepreneurial-minded professors – focusing your marketing, raising venture financing, creating high-performance teams – he had already learned in founding and growing Advanced Glazings Ltd., a producer of high-tech translucent insulation materials.

He didn't say so, but after 10 years fighting for innovation and energy efficiency in the North American architecture and construction sectors, I’ll bet Milburn thinks he could be teaching the course!

Of course, there were a few lessons learned. "They taught us to make sure we create a group that's coherently aligned and marching in one direction," he said.

Doug also learned that companies such as AGL should focus on no more than three types of customers, not the 15 or so segments it currently chases. "The rule of selling is to have a tight market conversation with your market segment. Other people are listening and will want to talk to you, too. But you'll get more sales that way than by trying to talk to all these markets at once."

You can read the rest of the story in my column this week for the Financial Post, under the sorry headline, “MIT couldn't teach an old dog.” (Milburn is a ripe old 42.)

Bonus: The Post editors cut my last two paragraphs for lack of space. I thought they were instructive and fun, so I re-present them here as they were meant to be read:
Still, AGL employees were probably relieved to find nothing would change right away. “I try to avoid flavour-of-the-month transformations,” says Milburn. “I’ve
done that too many times.”

In the end, Milburn admits MIT did teach him something important: “If I’d had any sense. I’d have paid the money and taken the course 10 years ago.”

See? Smart.

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