Francis Shen is proof of the old business adage, change or die.
In 1983, soon after earning his master’s degree in engineering science, Shen and a partner bought a small, Ottawa-based consulting company specializing in aircraft certification.
The company worked with the aerospace and defence industries, but in the mid-1990s Shen entered the rapidly growing telecommunications market. The company abandoned its old lines of business, and became known instead for such products as distinctive ring tones for fax machines and caller identification.
By 1999, Shen’s firm, Aastra Technologies Ltd., had become the largest seller of caller ID add-on units in North America. But Shen knew that he couldn’t stand still. In January 2000, he bought a telecom equipment business unit of Nortel.
In 2003, Shen shifted focus again when Aastra bought a Swiss-based firm that provided office phone systems. That market now preoccupies most of Aastra’s 2,100 employees and generates $800 million a year in business. The company makes most of its money in Europe, where it’s one of the biggest players in the enterprise voice communications market.
Shen, 51, credits luck, good ideas, timing and avoiding complacency for his success. He’s learned that in business, the good times don’t always last. “We continue to question whether our business is sustainable and ask ourselves whether to grow by innovation or acquisition,” he says.