The English hero

Wendy Grossman meets the man behind Corel, the Canadian software success

Wendy Grossman
Sunday 28 April 1996 23:02

The Canadian company Corel has sneaked up on the world. Its CorelDraw package is famous, but many people think of it as a niche player. It is not - it is a giant, second only to Microsoft in PC software. First it bought the leading desktop publishing package Ventura Publisher. Then late last year it bought WordPerfect, one of the biggest names in wordprocessing, along with the spreadsheet product Quattro Pro. As a result, Corel expects to do approximately $700m in business this year.

If few people knew that, even fewer realise that the founder and chief executive of Corel, Michael Cowpland, is English. His father still lives in Bexhill, where he's a keen sportsman, playing golf, snooker and, most especially, tennis. He was the official coach for Sussex.

Cowpland Junior is just as keen a tennis player; he played junior tennis, represented London University, and now plays the English veterans' tournament held every year at Wimbledon. All this may explain why, as of September, 1995, Corel is the worldwide sponsor of the women's professional tennis tour.

Cowpland studied electronic engineering at Imperial College, London, and got his first job, with Bell Northern Research Labs, in Ottawa, the capital of the Canadian province of Ontario. He spent five years working on telecom design, and then became design manager for analog silicon chips at Microsystems International, also owned by Bell Northern. There he met Terry Matthews, then doing marketing for the company.

In 1973, the two started a new company in the obligatory garage. This was Mitel, which made telecommunications equipment and grew mighty on the back of a new type of switch. But while it was growing to a turnover of $500m, Cowpland found time to complete a masters degree and then a PhD at Ottawa's Carlton University. After 10 years, during every one of which profits doubled, the two sold a 51 per cent share to BT.

His erstwhile partner formed Newbridge, now a $1bn company specialising in ATM networking, while Cowpland started Corel. The two still work together on some projects (currently they are collaborating on videoconferencing).

In the early days, Corel sold complete turnkey desktop publishing systems - $10,000 to $15,000 setups that used standard PCs, laser printers, and worked with leading software packages such as Ventura Publisher and WordPerfect.

"It's ironic that when we started Corel, one of the first things we did was integrate WordPerfect into our desktop publishing system, and the second was to integrate Ventura, and we now own both programs," Cowpland says. "We had no idea - even this opportunity [to buy WordPerfect] came out of the blue." No one had expected Novell to put WordPerfect up for sale only 18 months after buying the company.

The big problem the company faces is an enviable one. "We're looking for places to grow," Mr Cowpland says, "so we're getting more into multimedia and CAD [computer-aided design]." The company now has two CAD products, and is pushing into desktop videoconferencing and the Internet.

"The WordPerfect acquisition trebles our size in one leap," he says. It sounds a risky strategy, but with WordPerfect what Corel has acquired is not an entire company structure but a 600-strong development operation in Orem, Utah. "The good thing is that gives us really critical mass, where we're the alternative to Microsoft now. Nobody else is big enough."

Considering what's been happening to leading Microsoft competitors over the past few years, this isn't necessarily an enviable position - most have either left the areas in which they competed with Microsoft, or have been bought (as Lotus was bought by IBM).

But Cowpland seems confident. "Microsoft is having to battle on four different fronts. We're doing just one," he says. Meanwhile, the company is working on using Sun's Java programming technology to add Internet features to its range of products. These should allow publishing on the World-Wide Web in true wysiwyg (what you see is what you get) rather than squeezing everything into the Web's HTML format.

"The nice thing is, we have two good engineering teams, one in Ottawa and the other in Salt Lake City," he says. "One of our strengths is that we're used to a 12-month product cycle, where Microsoft has an 18-month product cycle, so we can get ahead. Our next release will put us eight months ahead of Microsoft with WordPerfect's Internet features."

Cowpland believes Corel can overcome the poor reception WordPerfect for Windows has received so far. "We think people will be impressed with the new version," he says. WordPerfect's two previous owners were notably unsuccessful at selling the Perfect Office suite, including Quattro Pro. "I think we're much more effective retail marketers than Novell," he believes.

He believes the secret of his own success stems from spotting and adapting quickly to new trends - first with Mitel's switch, then with CorelDraw, and now, he hopes, with videoconferencing tools. Asked what he'd advise would-be computer enterpreneurs to look at now, he says, "Get into groupware, like Notes, or Novell Groupwise, and look at the software existing on mainframes and minis that needs to migrate to LANs. A lot of that work's not done yet."

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in