FACILITYCalgary publisher Mark Kolke, in conversation with Mogens Smed
February 25, 2020
Legend, enigma, builder, fisherman, environmentalist, storyteller, salesman, excited like a kid with his newest toy – leader, innovator, Calgary booster, and a friend. Loyalty and friendship won’t fit on a license plate, but they are woven through everything he does. I first met Mogens Smed in 1999 – and anyone who has ever met him will tell you what I will, he makes an impression like nobody else, and it is powerful. And unforgettable.
We conducted this interview in the silent and very cool Falkpod in the middle of a busy and very noisy factory floor at Falkbuilt, but that isn’t where the story starts …
Writing about Mogens Smed is hard to do – there is so much written about him already, and he has a very comprehensive blog - not so much a question of ‘where to start,’ as it is to decide what to leave out – someone so entrenched and revered in the buildings industry – furniture, walls, manufacturing, and office systems installation, not just in Calgary but globally; so many people know of him, and have heard about him that calling him legendary would be an easy label.
He’s started so many Calgary businesses, had ups and downs, failures and firings – and extraordinary success by any measure, and he’s never left Calgary, and he’s never moved from one adventure to the next with his tail between his legs. And he’s going strong again with a dynamic new adventure which may eclipse all the past successes.
Let’s start at the beginning:
Mogens’ mother was a weaver, his dad, a cabinet maker. Born in Aarhus, Denmark, Mogens was the firstborn of six children. In 1952, he was four years old when his parents came to Canada. With three youngsters in tow, their train arrived in Calgary en route to a job in Rimbey, Alberta. While waiting for their connection, his dad went across the street to the KP Neilsen shop – a Danish cabinet maker, secured a job, and started right away. The family settled in Montgomery. Dad bicycled to work every day.
His growing-up school days were inter-woven with helping dad at the shop from the age of five – manufacturing furniture for commercial, education, and restaurant installations.
The family relocated to Kingsland, Mogens graduated from Henry Wise Wood High School with passable grades – then went off to University of Calgary for a pre-law B.A. Always a multi-tasker (though he claims simply that he has ADD. He’s never been diagnosed, but who can argue?), Mogens juggled studies with a major in poker.
He credits success in life and in poker – key to his giving poker lessons – to the mantra of “respect, humility, and kindness,” and, “If you can’t spot the sucker, it’s you.” Things were going smoothly until a friend bet him he couldn’t get into the University of Alberta. The bet was $100. He got in, and up the road he went, got his degree, and won the bet. He wrote the LSAT but found the only school that accepted him was in Adelaide, Australia. His dad said, “You’d make a terrible lawyer.”
In 1975 along with his brother Ole, they founded Scandinavian Wood Industries (SWIL) and set up shop on Ogden Road. Married to Evie in 1978, three children, and they later divorced.
Business was great, SWIL morphed into Metrix making office furniture, business was hot because the energy business was not – rapid expansion nationally and internationally followed. His dad warned of vulnerability. In 1982 they went broke, so did dad’s company. “We lost everything.”
At 35, Mogens started raising money – with help of friends, family, Ken Cooper, and Steve Dudelzak – manufacturing furniture, SMED International came to life in 1983. He credits Chris Bain and Michael Evamy of Cohos Evamy (now DIALOG) with his first big order/the big job, to furnish Imperial Oil’s Edmonton offices in Scotia Place. They grew at a fast pace, manufacturing furniture – expansions to Vancouver, Toronto, New York, Phoenix, Puerto Rico … remarried to Nicky in 1988 (they’d met in the 1970s), they have twins.
1993. Downturn. The future looked bleak for everyone in the industry – Pro-West, a company making demountable partitions was available – they bought it, refined the product, and moveable walls became a growing part of their product line. CIBC financed their growth from 1993-95. The company grew from $50 million/year to $250 million/year by 1999. SMED went public on the Nasdaq and TSX. Walls, floors, construction – but vulnerable to a takeover – which began as an effort by Office Specialty at $19/share – and ended with Haworth buying the company for $24/share. “They didn’t really understand our business, but they bought it so nobody else could.”
And a no-compete requirement …
Mogens joined Evans Console as CEO, was hired to fix the company. There he met Geoff Gosling and Barrie Loberg, who went on to develop ICE software, and later joined with Mogens to form DIRTT in 2004.
DIRTT, which means ‘doing it right this time,’ flourished – digitized manufactured modular interiors. As the company grew, the board ousted Mogens as CEO on January 2, 2018, moved him to a Chairman role – and he left the company on September 10, 2018. Further discussion on that subject was off the record – litigation, of course, continues. Mogens stridently believes DIRTT’s case will fail.
Why the litigation?
Because he started over.
September 10, 2018, was the turning point – and the start of Falkbuilt. (Falk is the middle name of every one of Mogens’ siblings). He quips that Falkbuilt should be called, “doing it right this time – and TTIMIT, – this time I mean it!”
What’s the difference?
Falkbuilt makes components, not modular products, ships them to where they’ll be built on-site – started with six people, then 20, and on the day of our interview a couple of weeks ago, 140. The Calgary factory and headquarters is only one part of the story – the company is already global (28 locations so far) and with a showroom in Dubai and offices and shops in many places and growing with licensing being the vehicle speeding that growth.
They've established a 90,000 sq. ft. factory facility in Calgary - nearly fully built out and amazing products are being made.
“By making and shipping components, we save a fortune on freight – saves customers time and money, and we build on-site for the customer. I’ve made lots of furniture, but for me, it’s always been about construction.”
As we walked around the factory floor, shipments were being packed, and the office complex in the middle of it all is looking near-complete – many of the workers I was introduced to have worked with or for Mogens for decades, while the large crew of design and website folks I met as I came through the door looked mostly under 25 …
“We are in fully operational mode – not just starting-up; we will do $50/million Feb. 20-21.”
Who would dare do doubt him?
AND, one other thing. I’m sure everyone in Calgary in the buildings and commercial real estate industry has heard a version of the ‘Mogens 9/11 story’, but the problem with stories is they get distorted, and after you’ve heard a few versions, you wonder what the truth is, so I took the opportunity to confirm with Mogens what happened to him that fateful morning in New York: “I was staying at the Marriott at the World Trade Center. I left the hotel at 7AM for a meeting with a client at the Rockefeller Center. The attack came at 9AM. Terrorists will have to get up earlier if they want to kill me. It was a horrible event, obviously. The hotel was destroyed completely.”
Why are you successful? “I’m a leader – not a manager. Because I have the strongest friendships and family relationships. We’ve changed an entire industry, three times, and I’ve learned so much each time – and I’ve learned that distribution is everything!”
What has held you back? “Bad decisions.”
How do you see your business – making office construction components – going forward over the next quarter?
… speed. We don’t have a room full of expensive servers to maintain – we are 100% in the cloud. Nobody is doing what we are doing – by licensing, we are not overloaded with capital costs, we can deliver what the customers need – saving money on freight, materials, and labour. We’ll be profitable! It took me eight years to get profitable at DIRTT.
And over the next five years?
… technology will be a much bigger thing for everyone – for everyone in our industry, for every customer, and the steps we are taking now will keep us ahead of our competitors and leading-edge for our customers
What qualities distinguish your preferred colleagues, collaborators, and suppliers?
… it’s all about attitude. I’m the most loyal person you will find – and it’s rarely about price.
What distinguishes you that causes people to choose Mogens and Falkbuilt, and why do they do business with you, why have they hired you, over your competitors?
… in my experience, people only deal with people they trust. They have confidence in me, and they trust us – and we CAN do the job.
How would you describe your leadership/management style?
… to fully open the door so intelligent people can have access to me; I’m not very tolerant of lazy. If Mogens isn’t talking to you, you're in trouble.
… working is my life – and my wife Nikki is my mistress, we’re empty nesters – and we have a fantastic nest, our home - Hygge
What do you lose sleep over, what do you worry about?
… it’s never worry for me; I worry about losing momentum and intensity – it’s for everyone working with us. I love this journey. I have to keep moving along and stay alive. I have two speeds; full speed, and stop.
Who or what influenced you most – that has made a difference in your life, or that was a major turning point?
… my mom and dad certainly, Steve Dudelzak and Ed McNally were fantastic innovators and supporters of me – I wouldn’t be here without their help.
… I’m having fun doing this [I think he means building his company – not doing this interview], time with my children, family, entertaining, and every morning … working.
What do you read?
… no time for books these days – I read on devices, read everything I can on what is happening in our industry about architecture and design. I love reading books by great business innovators like Elon Musk, Steve Jobs …
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