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“You look familiar,” he said, offering his hand. “Yes, I remember . . . you did a business plan for Roy. That was a while back, right?”
The man was a brilliant scientist, engineer and corporate leader . . . and this day revealed another side of him that his ‘handlers’ for years had worked hard to conceal. I took his hand, startled that he remembered. It had been 10 years at least, and then we’d met only two or three times. Roy was on his staff then, and the boss of my boss.
Many credit Walter Light as one of the inventors of digital telecommunications. And he was the founder of a world renowned IT superstar, known then as Northern Telecom Ltd. (Mercifully, it wasn’t until long after his death that successors led Nortel to grief.)
Mr. Light had toiled for decades in a research facility attached to the Bell colossus. Eventually, he led the exodus of the research arm called Bell Laboratories, and turned it into the world’s first manufacturer of fully digital telecommunications equipment.
Mr. Light could be demanding but despite his awesome intellect he also had time and patience for us ordinary folks. Everyone called him Mr. Light, out of a respect that bordered on reverence, because we wanted to – not because we were expected to.
The encounter he mentioned was while president and CEO. I had the good fortune to be part of a presentation to his executive team. Seeing him up close in the boardroom created a disconnect – the formal surroundings seemed to make him uncomfortable. A few months later I learned more.
The company was expanding rapidly at the time. Whenever a new manufacturing plant came on stream, Mr. Light made a special effort to participate in the official opening. Local politicians, business leaders and major customers would be invited, and were showered with gifts and entertainment. It was good marketing, good public relations and good employee relations. Mr. Light was all for it.
One official opening was half way across the country from head office. Mr. Light was in Europe. It was a low-tech plant — an anomaly since the company was so focused on advanced digital telecommunications. Organizers assumed Mr. Light would not be interested. They were wrong. Mr. Light cut short his business development trip in Europe and flew back home. A corporate jet was standing by to take him to the official opening.
At the ceremony, Mr. Light’s speech was informal and articulate as always. The ceremonies were followed by a plant tour. Guests left soon after.
A group of us were helping clean up when the head of corporate security approached.
“Have you seen Mr. Light?” Norm asked, clearly worried.
None of us had. We knew he’d led the tour an hour earlier, and assumed by now he’d be at 30,000 feet in the corporate plane en route home.
“His pilot says he hasn’t shown up!” Norm added. His expression bordered on alarm. “He’s going to miss the takeoff slot in the flight plan the pilot filed when they landed. We’ve got to go find him.”
Norm’s other job was heading the executive personal security detail. He was an ex-cop who took his job very seriously. He organized a search, with each team of two assigned an area of the plant. We agreed to meet back at a set time.
A colleague and I headed for the back of the plant. At first, there was no sign of our missing leader. No one else had seen him either, we learned over our two-way radios. We were getting anxious. Executive kidnappings were becoming common, although still mostly in Europe, Asia and the Middle East then.
We came to the end of a long aisle. We turned left and came upon a group of production workers sitting on stacks of pallets drinking coffee from Styrofoam cups. We didn’t notice at first. He almost blended in. But there was Mr. Light, suit jacket off, tie loosened, the sleeves of his white shirt rolled up, legs propped up on a pallet, ankles crossed. His secret was out . . . to us at least. This is where he felt most at home.
The head of one of the fastest-growing and most exciting companies in the world just then was having a great time with the employees . . . mostly listening to them, he admitted later. Mr. Light loved spending time with regular employees. He told a biographer that he enjoyed these encounters more than any other corporate activity. It was abundantly obvious he preferred them to dealing with self-important corporate executives with bloated egos, although to the best of my knowledge no one ever heard him say so.
A few days after the plant opening, each of us received a visit from senior executives; they subtly instructed us to keep that little secret of Mr. Light’s casual ways to ourselves. They feared the corporate world would perceive this behavior as a sign of weakness.
With Northern Telecom the darling of the country, Mr. Light was invited to join the boards of directors of some of the most prestigious companies in the western world. They wanted to attach his and the company’s credibility to their corporations. He understood the game, and accepted a few appointments. One he agreed to join was a bank, one of the country’s largest.
Mr. Light did have vulnerable sides, and was not shy at times about letting these show. He had a particular intolerance for stupidity among those who should know better, namely, senior executives.
Not long after Mr. Light retired, a story emerged about one meeting of the bank’s board of directors. Evidently, the meeting was long and complicated. Directors were growing tried, when a bank senior executive started in on a presentation that was long, boring, full of clichés and sprinkled with self-aggrandizements.
A fellow director knew Mr. Light well and told this story:
Knowing Mr. Light’s intolerance for this sort of thing, he had glanced over at Mr. Light during the presentation to see how he was coping. What he observed was an expressionless Mr. Light, leaning back in his luxurious chair, long legs crossed at the ankle under the boardroom table. From somewhere, he’d liberated an elastic band. One end was looped around his right ear. The other was attached to his right incisor tooth. The slack was wrapped around one finger of his left hand. His right index finger strummed away on an audible but tuneless melody.
It wasn’t long before the attention of other directors was drawn away from the presentation. Shortly thereafter, the presenter stopped and left the boardroom, his presentation unfinished.
The rumor was that quiet knowing smiles were exchanged around the boardroom table.
‘Legends of Light’ is Copyright ©2013 by James Osborne All Rights Reserved