Michael LeGoff—A life of finding opportunity in disruption
Michael LeGoff: Master of Business Administration, 1998
Based in: Plymouth, England
You could sum up Michael LeGoff’s career with a variation on an old gag: a physicist, an engineer, a navy man, and a CEO walk into a bar—and they’re all Michael LeGoff.
LeGoff’s career has taken him to some interesting places: stints in Samoa, Japan, and Peru while in the navy; several years in Ottawa during its golden age as Silicon Valley North; and 20 years in Plymouth, England, where he bought and relaunched an offshoot of a major British electronics firm, making it a player in the global LED light business.
He has racked up some impressive degrees along the way: an undergraduate degree in physics from the University of Victoria, a master’s degree in engineering from Carleton, and an MBA from Athabasca University (AU) that he says had a strong hand in shaping the 2nd half of an eventful career.
LeGoff started out squarely in science. After high school in Winnipeg he joined the navy, which put him through university. He served for 9 years as a naval engineer before doing a stint with construction giant in the early 1990s and obtaining a master’s in mechanical engineering. By the time he left that position, he was ready to act on his entrepreneurial ambitions, and enrolled at AU.
“It was perfectly in sync, the learning at AU and growing my first company, to the extent that I graduated in the spring of 1998 and listed the company in August.”– Michael LeGoff, MBA '98
“Working in industry and with small companies I realized I was missing a big piece of my toolbox,” he says. “I was a quite strong engineer, but there’s a lot you don’t know about how a business operates, and at first you don’t even know what you don’t know.”
The MBA gave him a swift education and proved immediately useful. While doing the degree, he was starting his company, Dynex Inc., a semiconductor manufacturer.
“Every module, everything I was learning,” he says, “was directly applicable to what I was doing with my company.”
He set the firm’s strategy while doing the program.
“It was perfectly in sync, the learning at AU and growing my first company, to the extent that I graduated in the spring of 1998 and listed the company in August,” he says.
Dynex launched in the thick of the dotcom boom.
“Telecom was going through the roof, we had mobile telephony taking off, public markets were flying, people were renting jets to get around,” LeGoff says. “It was an exciting time.”
A couple of years later, he acquired a facility in the U.K., which took Dynex from a modest operation with 20 or 30 employees and $5 million a year in sales to employing 400 and topping $50 million a year in sales.
“Our share price went through the roof,” he says.
And then the early 2000s happened. The dotcom bubble burst, markets collapsed, and that was even before 9/11.
“Again, the backing of the MBA gave me a solid base to rely on.”– Michael LeGoff
“Again, the backing of the MBA gave me a solid base to rely on,” he says.
Dynex retrenched, closing its Canadian office and offices in France and Germany, and moving to the U.K. In 2006, it sold to a Chinese company; LeGoff used his share of the proceeds to acquire the U.K. firm Plessy Semiconductors, for around $1.6 million. He kept the technologies and sold the manufacturing tools, using those funds to buy a site in Plymouth. He raised more than $200 million in private equity to expand Plessy’s technological innovations in the realm of LEDs, or light-emitting diodes.
LeGoff’s description of the company’s technology betrays his many years in science.
“The University of Cambridge had developed a way to grow gallium nitride in large-diameter silicon substrates,” he says, before the MBA in him jumps in to translate. “Most LEDs are made on little bits of jewel, either manmade sapphire or manmade diamond. We, with Cambridge, had developed a way to make it on silicon, i.e. a semiconductor product. So, our LEDs could be, and still are, a tenth of the cost of even products out of China.”
Plessy focused on specialist applications. Its technology is used in lighting systems in warehouses and factories, and in circadian lighting, “where we control the wavelength of the light, so it doesn’t interfere with circadian rhythms, for those companies that employ a lot of shift workers.”
Another application was what LeGoff calls “horticultural lighting … for the indoor farming market,” including medical-marijuana operations. Plessy was also exploring branching into competitive consumer-focused areas such as wearable VR technologies. But while LeGoff was interested in continuing to build the company, investors wanted to prepare the company for sale. Confronted with the difference in vision, he sold his stake in the company last summer.
LeGoff is now considering his next move. One possibility is a return to Canada; he has young children, and family back home. In the meantime, never one to sit still, he has acquired part ownership of another lighting company and is investing in small start-ups with applications such as antibacterial lighting. He chairs Plymouth Science Park, a MaRS-style public-private partnership between the city council and the University of Plymouth, that has provided a home for innovative companies. He is also consulting, working with a couple of start-ups launched out of the University of Cambridge.
He says it’s an interesting time to be starting something in the U.K.
“During massive fluctuations, that’s when things happen, where the opportunity is. Brexit is one of these moments,” he says.
He credits his time at AU, and conversations with the MBA program’s founder, Stephen Murgatroyd, in part for awakening him to the potential that exists in times of flux. He acquired the Plessy site in Swindon just after the 2008 financial crisis, when most investors were keeping their heads down. He bought the Plymouth site soon after, in the period between a steep decline and a sharp recovery in the semiconductor industry.
“The problem, of course, in these times is that there’s also risk,” he says. “My view is, you’ve got to do something. Do something.”
Learn more about AU’s MBA program.