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The Right Call

UTSC alum Alek Krstajic recently engineered the sale of Wind Mobile to Shaw Communications. But don't expect him to retire anytime soon

Donna Paris
Alek Krstajic

 

CONSIDER THIS:

You negotiate the successful sale of a company for more than a billion dollars. Then what? Jet off to a new adventure every week? Move to a desert island? Retire to Florida?

Not if you’re Alek Krstajic (BA, 1989), the CEO of Wind Mobile Corp. It’s business as usual, so you get up and go to work. “I spent my entire career wanting to make enough money to retire and play—I did it early, then realized it wasn’t going to make me happy,” he says.

Krstajic’s not kidding. With a career that spans decades, he picked up invaluable experience working at Rogers Communications for 10 years, leaving as a senior vice-president, and went on to become president of Bell Mobility, overseeing more than $4.5 billion in revenue. Then he founded Public Mobile in 2009 and sold it to Telus Corporation in 2013 before accepting his current position at Wind Mobile in March last year. This past December, Shaw Communications Inc. acquired Wind Mobile for $1.6 billion. “We’re very excited it’s a family-run organization that shows a real spirit of competition,” says Krstajic. “There’s such a great balance with the Shaw family, it reminds me of the early days at Rogers.”

Krstajic has no problem working with telecommunications giants but even as an underdog, he’s a leader in the field, furthering his vision with creative and innovative solutions. “At Public Mobile, our goal was to put a cellphone in everyone’s hands by charging a flat rate for service instead of per-minute fees,” he says.

“Everyone has the right to communicate wirelessly, it’s not just a privilege reserved for someone who can afford it.” This philosophical belief dovetails nicely with a low-cost model for the market share that Public Mobile was targeting. Likewise, it was Public Mobile that offered its customers Siren in 2009, a music download service, the first of its kind in Canada. Most recently, Wind Mobile struck a deal with the TTC, becoming the first wireless company to offer its customers the ability to talk and text on platforms and concourses.

Krstajic’s a busy guy. He serves on a number of boards for both public and private companies—and he’s a big supporter of UTSC, where he earned a degree in economics, and he works hard to connect with other supporters. He’s also a world- class sailor who has competed in the Canada’s Cup. When asked where this kind of drive comes from, Krstajic says simply, “I grew up the son of immigrants, in a blue-collar working-class family—and I had some tough jobs when I was young.” It didn’t take him long to realize the importance of an education.

“U of T was transformational for me,” says Krstajic, who grew up in the east end of Toronto and went to Riverdale Collegiate. “When I went to UTSC, I met people from different backgrounds and cultures,” he says. “University gave me the solid background I needed to go off into the business world and to work with people like Ted Rogers.” Furthermore, at UTSC, Krstajic was exposed to more affluent lifestyles through friends and from playing sports. “I realized that was something that I really wanted and desired,” he says.

Sports were among his great loves at UTSC, rowing and skiing on the Varsity teams, picking up skills from a combination of individual athletic efforts and working with others on a team. “At U of T, I learned the importance of teamwork—and when you play sports, you want to win, you don’t want to be average,” he says. He also went into the military after high school. “That’s where I learned leadership skills—the most important one being, there’s always a way to make it work.”

The secret to his success? Years of experience. “Recently I gave a keynote address about why the vast majority of entrepreneurs fail,” he says. “They fail for different reasons but one is that when people are very young and they start a business, they haven’t acquired management skills yet.” As an entrepreneur, Krstajic says that one of the biggest hurdles he had to overcome was not having the safety net and infrastructure of a large organization. “When you have your own company, you have to be prepared to roll up your sleeves and do everything yourself,” he says.

One thing is for sure, Krstajic gets things done. “I’ve been pretty blunt most of my life, driven by an efficiency chip that I have,” he says. “When I was younger, I was accused of being even more blunt, so I’ve modified my leadership style over the years—I think I have a good balance now.” And he’s very transparent, he adds.

Krstajic was raised to believe in the concept of honour, so when he gives his word, he keeps it. “Ultimately, the people that work for you need to trust you,” he says. “The fastest way to gain that trust is to explain where you are going, why you are going there and how you are going to do it. If you get that right, then people will work hard to make things happen.”

It also doesn’t hurt when you meet some people along the way who are willing to help you and to mentor you. Krstajic credits three men with doing just that. He spent a decade working with Ted Rogers, who gave him opportunities within the company to learn about business, giving him tools he needed and even finding a program for him to attend specializing in mergers and acquisitions. “Ted was a huge influence in my life, and when he died, it was very profound for me. I feel as if I did not appreciate him as much as I should have.”

At Rogers, Krstajic also worked with John Tory, now Toronto’s mayor. “Hands down, John Tory is the smartest man I know, and he still remains my mentor today,” he says. “I was the young guy just wanting to get the job done at all costs. But John is all about collaboration, and he made me appreciate the power of consensus building. He made me reflect on decisions and taught me the importance of philanthropy and giving back.”

Giving back is important to Krstajic—and his wife, too, who worked for Plan Canada where she started the Because I Am a Girl campaign. “We support some non-profits, including Plan Canada projects in developing countries, health care in our area, and some of the funds that help the families of wounded or fallen soldiers,” he says. “And U of T, of course. It’s my aca- demic foundation, so I want to support the university, and I want to continue to support it.” Most recently, perhaps in a nod to the original idea of wanting to put a cellphone in the hands of every Canadian, Wind Mobile is assisting Syrian refugee families in Canada by offering free cellphones and two years of Wind service at no charge.

Speaking of philanthropy, the third person Krstajic got to know was Peter Munk, the 88-year-old founder of Barrick Gold Corporation, and co-founder of The Peter and Melanie Munk Charitable Foundation. So far, the fund has distributed more than $160 million, going mainly toward health care and education, including $35 million to the Munk School of Global Affairs. Munk was an investor in Public Mobile. “We would have lunches, just the two of us, and it wasn’t even that he has been such a mentor as an inspiration to me—he is a top business leader and an intelligent visionary,” says Krstajic.

As for retirement, Krstajic isn’t going there anytime soon. “After one of those lunches, I came home and told my wife, ‘I’m never going to retire to Florida and go for walks along the beach every day,’” he says. “I’ll visit, but this is what I want to do. I’m in my 50s now and I know that will make me happy.”

So Krstajic follows Peter Munk’s simple advice: “You rest, you rust.” For now, he says there’s still a lot to be done at Shaw. “We used to say, ‘Only God knows when Ted Rogers is going to retire,’ ” he adds. “Hopefully they will say the same about me.”