As I enter his outer sanctum in Shaw headquarters, nine floors above Calgary’s Eau Claire District, a warm and genial Scotsman rises to perform his own introduction. “Hello, I’m JR Shaw,” he says, a smile deepening the creases around his brown eyes. “JR with no dots.”
Born James Robert, the patriarch of the sprawling Shaw Communications empire changed his legal name to JR Shaw a decade ago to avoid confusion with son Jim, who’d taken the reins as CEO. For JR, who gets a quiet chuckle out of wearing a name that alludes to J.R. Ewing of the ’80s TV hit Dallas, it’s a point of pride that “nobody else has it without dots.”
Like nobody else.
That’s JR, the entrepreneur for whom NAIT’s business school was named earlier this year. Here’s a man who turned a personal hankering for more channels into Canada’s second largest cable company, pulling regulators and naysayers in his wake.
A man who, unable to achieve key business agreements with Edmonton City Hall in 1995, reluctantly decided to relocate his business headquarters to Calgary. A man who brought fair play and humanity to the hard-scrabble world of empire-building -- proving, as the Financial Post once put it, not only master strategist and shrewd dealmaker “but a darn nice guy to boot.”
Dressed casually in a plaid open-collar shirt, today JR appears more kindly uncle than member of Canada’s “rich 100.” Yet hints of that reality abound in the boardroom that forms the backdrop for our chat.
Here’s a stack of elegantly boxed copies of Above and Beyond: The JR Shaw Family History in Life and Business, a 500-page work-in-progress rich with full-colour photos. On an easel across the room stands a schematic for the Blue Devil Golf Course in south Calgary, another in a growing clutch of “little side ventures, not necessary but nice.”
A school built on values
The JR Shaw School of Business has set its sights on becoming Canada’s pre-eminent academic business institute, a centre whose research and teaching together emulate the cable pioneer’s business style.
Indeed, it was JR’s commitment to community service that first pulled him into NAIT circles. He helped lead the fundraising campaign for NAIT’s South Learning Centre, donated precious items such as a 1949 Oldsmobile to auctions and chaired the Board of Governors from 1990 to 1997.
“NAIT is an important institute,” shaw says, noting that his own team includes many graduates. “It trains workers who are ready to hit the road and contribute.” The very idea of lending his name to NAIT’s business school took some getting used to, he adds.
“I just hope I can live up to what it’s going to turn out to be.”
At 73, eight years after handing day-to-day leadership to son Jim and a team that includes his three other children, JR still comes to work every day when home in Calgary.
“I need to make sure they haven’t rented my office out to anybody else,” he jokes, making light of his role as executive chair of Shaw Communications Inc. Yet it’s likely he’ll be among the last to leave Shaw Court tonight.
“The harder you work, the luckier you get,” JR told convocating NAIT students in May while adding an honorary diploma to a hefty cache of awards that already includes three honorary doctor of laws degrees and induction into the Order of Canada.
Today, he echoes the theme: “Hard work overcomes a lot of weaknesses.”
JR readily admits to learning that maxim the hard way after taking a minimalist approach to his business administration degree at Michigan State University.
“I worked just hard enough to get through, and I’ve paid for it all my life,” he says. “But I did get a PhD in the business of life.”
JR’s on-the-job training began as a youth in rural Ontario. “My dad was an entrepreneur of huge magnitude,” JR says. “I consider him the first generation in this business.”
Alongside successful exploits in trucking, pipeline construction, drive-in theatres and pipe-coating, Francis Shaw invested in London, Ontario’s fledgling cable industry in 1953 – and urged his sons to do the same.
Both JR and his brother, Les, began their careers in their father’s Ontario pipe-coating business, which was ahead of the pack in both materials and application. With a branch plant in Regina and plans gelling for another in Edmonton, JR persuaded his wife, Carol, to move to Edmonton in the early ’60s to eliminate his frequent westward commutes.
Suddenly deprived of cross-border TV signals and recalling his father’s prediction that cable would grow, JR began laying the groundwork for cable in Edmonton even as he built the pipe-coating plant. (That plant is now part of ShawCor, a global energy services company led by Les’s branch of the family.)
Introducing cable to Edmonton took persistence. It wasn’t until 1970, four years after incorporating as Capital Cable Television Co. Ltd., that the Shaws won a licence here. What’s more, their licence covered less than half of Edmonton and allowed import of just one commercial and one noncommercial station. Given those parameters, cable operators in Vancouver and Ontario predicted failure, JR recalls.
“We didn’t yet have the experience of the baseball field in Iowa, but we said, ‘If we build it, more will come.’”
JR’s first foray into B.C. reflected the same penchant for opening doors through friendly relationships that marked his father’s path. Stuck in Penticton with an ailing motorhome, JR and Jim visited Lloyd Gartrell, the cable pioneer in that part of Eden.
Mergers, buyouts and swaps have escalated in the decades since, building an empire that now includes cable, direct-to-home satellite, high-speed Internet, telecommunication services, digital telephone, radio/television stations and specialty channels – not to mention side ventures and community service.
JR speaks with pride of the honesty, teamwork and customer focus that keep this huge, capital intensive enterprise humming. With 2.2 million households on Shaw cable and some 800,000 satellite customers, the company can capitalize on whatever quirks the technology may bring, he adds.
“Between fibre optics and coaxial cable, we’ve got a superhighway right into people’s homes.”
Like JR, all four of his children started low on the pole, earning their senior positions in the Shaw family of businesses. Having played the absentee father more often than not, JR says he’s grateful for the time they spend together now.
“I guess I’m catching up on what I missed while they were growing up.”
Navigating the tricky terrain of transition, JR tries hard to support his children in their strengths rather than dominating the roost.
“I don’t want to manage from the grave,” he says. Yet he adds, “When you’ve built a company from scratch and you were there when the first customer was hooked on and the first cable was laid, it’s not easy to turn it over to anybody.”
Always the gentleman, JR agrees to show me around his expansive inner sanctum, which sports a sampling of the Canadian art the family has purchased over the years. “I feel very blessed,” he says. “It’s been a heck of a run.”