One of Calgary’s best-known businessmen aims to ‘do it right’ once again at 71

It’s a chilly weekday morning in a quiet corner of a Calgary industrial park, the kind of place you’d find oilfield service firms, warehouses and machine shops. 

But sling open the doors of one nondescript building and you’ll discover a studio with rows of neatly ordered desks and bright yellow desk lamps. Where a corner office might be, there’s a cozy couch. There’s even a few books on the Danish art of happiness.

It might seem a bit bewildering — until you meet the man behind it all: Mogens Smed.

This is ground zero for the Calgary entrepreneur’s latest venture or, in his cheery parlance, his fourth “mulligan.”

“Where we get to spend the most fun in life is making the baby,” says Smed enthusiastically.

It’s only been a few months since Smed — one of the city’s best-known businessmen was ousted from DIRTT Environmental Solutions, the award-winning company he co-founded in 2004.

But if you thought the 71-year-old has been spending his time with his feet up, you don’t know Smed.

Rather, he’s been hustling to launch a new private company, called Falkbuilt, finding factory space and securing a bright red fire truck, of course.

“Our factory has a fire engine in it sitting right in the middle,” Smed says.

“And it’s really pointless. I can drive around in the factory and run the siren and bells if I want. But culture starts with a work ethic. This is not a country club. Everybody works their butt off, right? But we have fun doing it.”

It’s a philosophy that’s served him well.

Mogens Smed and his wife, Nicki, at the factory of his latest venture, Falkbuilt. Why the red fire engine? “It’s really pointless,” he says. (Supplied)

The son of a Danish furniture craftsman, Smed has built companies with a reputation for innovation.

He helped build both SMED International and DIRTT from local startups into international, multi-million-dollar enterprises. SMED, a modular interior and furniture company, sold for $300 million in 2000.

“The guy is a walking, talking MBA school,” says Darrin Hopkins, co-head of the private client capital markets division of Richardson GMP and a long-time observer of Smed’s work.

“It’s easy to peg him as the consummate entrepreneur, but he’s a lot more than that. He’s a lot deeper than that.”

Hopkins, a former DIRTT investor, says Smed is the kind of businessman who can build a better mousetrap but market it, too. Smed also knows how to build a team, he says.

Rosalyn Peschl uses her experience working on Smed’s team at DIRTT to teach students about entrepreneurial thinking at the University of Calgary’s Haskayne School of Business.

Smed allows people to make mistakes and learn from them, Peschl says. He​ is also a great storyteller, a skill that helps him motivate staff with a clear vision.  

“There is a culture … in his company that is palpable,” Peschl says.

“He’s sitting in the desk right next to you. No one has offices. No one has doors.… He has this incredible ability to get a really diverse group of people marching in the same direction.”

In launching 15 years ago, DIRTT (Doing It Right This Time) created a buzz as a designer and builder of sustainable, modular interiors, which looks cooler than it maybe sounds. Fast Company once listed the firm as a “Rock Star of the New Economy.”

The guy is a walking, talking MBA school. – Darrin  Hopkins, Richardson GMP

Early last year, Smed was bumped from CEO to executive chairman amid several changes spurred in part by its board’s desire to “improve performance, succession planning, strategy, and corporate governance.” In September, DIRTT announced Smed was leaving, saying he hadn’t “adequately performed the agreed assigned duties.”

Smed says he bears no animosity towards DIRTT and no qualms stating he was “fired.”

He says with typical frankness that he didn’t agree with the new approach to running the business and he wasn’t going to concede, pointing to the company’s history of growth.

It didn’t take him long to decide what he’d do next. After getting the fateful call, Smed’s wife turned to him and asked,  ‘What are you going to do now, Mogens?”

“I’m starting over,” was the answer.

A DIRTT Environmental Solutions commercial interior. (DIRTT Environmental Solutions)

Today, Smed appears excited to be doing exactly that. He says he also knows what mistakes they’ve made in the past. Life can be a difficult teacher, though.

In 1982, Smed and his brother lost everything when their wood manufacturing business went bankrupt. Their father later died from the stress of it all, he says.

For a while, Smed says he just felt sorry for himself. Then the impact the failure had on the families that depended on the business hit him. That feeling of responsibility has been with him since.

A few months later, he started SMED International.

Fast-forward nearly four decades, here he is again at the starting line. Not surprisingly, Smed isn’t straying far from the business where he made a name for himself.

The key to success is going from one failure to the next with absolutely no loss of enthusiasm. – Mogens Smed’s  favourite saying

Smed and his team of about 20 people are now working on the concept of what the new company will ultimately take to market. Falkbuilt aims to build interiors for a variety of sectors — from health to education to commercial — using an alternative form of construction materials fabricated off-site.

They may play in the same space as DIRTT, but Falkbuilt won’t do what DIRTT has already done, he says.

“There’s no denying how compelling their solutions are and what they’ve done,” Smed says.

“We’re going to come after the exact same market but completely in a different way.… We’re not going to beat them at their game, nor would we want to. A lot of those people are my friends.”

Smed envisions a company of about 150 people by around this time next year and that means a lot of work in the coming months.

But whatever challenges lie ahead for him and his team, Smed will come armed with his favourite saying, one often attributed to Winston Churchill.

“The key to success is going from one failure to the next with absolutely no loss of enthusiasm,” he says. “And it’s the truth.”

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