Technology

6 Questions: One-on-One with Nancy Knowlton, CEO/co-founder of SMART Technologies Inc.

This low-key Canadian success story — is there any other kind? — has got brains. We asked Knowlton six questions.

Arguably, this Calgary-based manufacturer of interactive white boards and other group collaboration tools was Web 2.0 before there was a Web 2.0. But the company didn't throw schmooze-fest parties and hold guru-laden conferences; instead, over 10 years it methodically grew sales that in January 2007 surpassed a cumulative $1 billion. How ? Canadian. Knowlton has been at the forefront of this success and was recently honoured as Best Canadian Entrepreneur at the international 2006 Stevie Awards for Women in Business. The company itself took home an award for Most Innovative Company of the Year. Privately-held, SMART Technologies recently unveiled plans for a new, $60 million, 200,000 square-foot world headquarters in northwest Calgary.

• What is the greatest challenge currently facing SMART Technologies and what are you doing about it?

The biggest challenge is managing the yearly explosive growth, and we're several hundred million dollars in size, so we're not a tiny organization. And we will grow over the next couple of years at rates in the 30% to 50% level. It makes me want to kind of laugh because that's a fairly accelerated rate. We're doing a number of things: We're spending a lot of time recruiting at the executive level. We need to expand our management team because that is your greatest leverage point in a company. So we'll have at the executive level people who are experienced and on the same page so that we can really take advantage of the growth opportunities that are ahead of us.

• Who else ? person or company ? do you feel is doing innovative work and in what way?

I am deeply influenced by some of the writers who are out there and I'm interested in taking their concepts and applying them to what it is that we're experiencing within our organization. For example, (Thomas) Friedman's book The World Is Flat ? trying to understand the messages in that book and the application to our business. And (Jim) Collins' Good to Great book: very influential [to] making sure we have the right people on the bus. The other book that now is of great interest to us is (David Thomson's) Blueprint to a Billion. It has some key points in it and we're taking those kinds of learnings and looking at ourselves and making sure that we're properly organized.

• How would you describe your leadership approach/style (and give an example of what you do)?

First of all, it's just making sure that everybody is synced up and on the same page. It's unleashing people to do what they're intrinsically motivated to do and that's generally doing a good job. If you hire educated and intrinsically motivated people ? and you communicate clearly the expectations and the needs of the organization, generally you're more than 80% along that path. As a leader, my job is to really enabling the environment within which they work and articulating some of the bigger ideas and then being able to assist as needed. But otherwise, get out of the way.

• Microsoft has released its Vista OS to relatively lukewarm market response. Do you see the market switch to Vista proceeding more slowly than the switch from Win98 to WinXP?

Well, certainly a number of our customers are talking about perhaps just a little bit slower switch to Vista. Any time that you switch to some of these operating systems there are not just the costs of switching, but a lot of the hidden costs in terms of training and upgrading the applications that run on those operating systems. So, yes, that is an early indication that we've had from some customers. But I don't know how to interpret it at this point ? if it's going to play out to be a slow switch-over or a resistance point.

• Is “Web 2.0” more hype than substance?

We're typically at the leading edge and we are certainly aware of the developments in that area. And we want to develop to those standards and meet our customers' expectations. It's hard to cut through all of this. I will say there's more gathering momentum behind the Web 2.0 concept and I wouldn't say that it's hype at this point.

• You've said that you often conduct business over dinner at home. What dinner and drink goes best with a good business deal or accomplishment?

For us a good drink is always wine and it's typically red. And that's just in line with where people are these days. And if it's not red it's champagne. Typically, a good dinner from our perspective, and certainly from our customers', is a lot of Italian. So Risotto ? and it's something that I can whip up quite easily ? or the inevitable Alberta beef. I think people are absolutely delighted to come to our home and they're always amazed that my husband and I can feed probably 24 to 30 people seemingly at the drop of a hat. But when you've been doing it as long as we have and we're set up to entertain on that scale, it's actually no trouble.