Lunch with D CEO: Rich McBee

The Mitel CEO on closing and directing deals.

He wasn’t like other 7-year-old children. His peers likely filled their time with coloring books, cartoons, and comic strips. Instead, as the second youngest of five children, Rich McBee was swiping The Wall Street Journal from his father’s dentistry office and using his second-grade skills to find patterns in the stock market.

“I was fascinated,” McBee says, adding that he dreamed of someday becoming the CEO of a public company. “I didn’t know what [the job] meant, but I was getting more interested by the year.”

Fast-forward four and a half decades, and McBee, 53, is living his dream as CEO of Mitel, a Canadian telecommunications company that operates most of its C-suite out of Frisco. But the reality is, the job is nothing like his 7-year-old self imagined. “You work your whole life to be a CEO,” McBee says over spicy tuna tartar and a chopped cobb salad at Dallas’ Neighborhood Services, where he has a regularly reserved booth. “But then you become the CEO, and you have seven bosses. The board of directors is your boss … The job of a public company CEO—it is a pressure cooker.”

McBee took his spot at Mitel in 2011, after serving as president at Danaher Corp., a global science and technology conglomerate. At Mitel, founded in 1972, he leads about 4,500 employees, 350 of whom are based in Frisco.

He’s scooped up software companies like TigerTMS, Aastra Technologies, and Dallas-based Mavenir.

The executive, who completes a half marathon every quarter, has been running ever since he came aboard. He’s scooped up companies like U.K.-based hospitality software company TigerTMS, Canadian public company Aastra Technologies, and, most recently, Dallas-based Mavenir. He led the company’s $1.96 billion pursuit of San Jose-based telecom company Polycom in April. The deal died 90 days later but allowed Mitel to collect a $60 million termination fee. Five months after that, the company made its next big move—selling its mobility division to Massachusetts-based Xura for $385 million so that it could redirect its focus back to its core: unified communications. That deal was expected to close within the first quarter of 2017.

It’s all part of McBee’s larger strategy. “We’re going to consolidate this industry,” he says, adding that he’s always looking at a pipeline of about 50 possible targets. “So if anyone is talking to me … you’re interviewing.”

But the “interview” will likely be delivered in the form of an easy-going conversation. McBee is a native of Pendleton, Ore., a city of 16,000 but he’s no country bumpkin. He comes to the table prepared, he says, having gone to extreme efforts—which could include a culture survey of a company’s thousands of employees and executives—to vet any future deal. He also sets a hard line on price. It’s a disciplined approach he might well have learned at the U.S. Air Force Academy, where he graduated in 1986. “When you’re in the deal, everyone gets all lathered up,” he says. “And you can get deal drunk … I want to wake up Monday feeling good. I don’t want to wake up Monday thinking, what did I just do?”

He’s familiar with hangover regret that comes after investing in a bad deal. Though he hasn’t felt it at Mitel, he vividly remembers the worst business decision of his life. At the age of 20, he discovered a pattern in a stock he was following. “So I took everything I had at the time—it was like $4,000. That was a lot of money,” he remembers, adding that he did no research on the company or its market before buying stock. “I lost everything in 15 days. To this day, I have that [stock] certificate. It is a reminder to me to do your homework, know what you’re buying.”

With competitors like Avaya, Cisco Systems, and Microsoft, McBee won’t have a lack of homework to do while he leverages his small-town charm over his next meal at Neighborhood Services.


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