From The Toronto Globe and Mail, 2001
If it is true that part of Roger Boisvert’s phenomenal success as an internet pioneer in Japan may be attributed to his being in the right place at the right time, that luck failed him miserably on September 30, 2001.
After taking a wrong turnoff on a Los Angeles highway at 4 a.m., Mr. Boisvert stopped to seek directions and was fatally shot during a robbery. He was 50 years old.
The Canadian-born entrepreneur is well known in Japan as the founder of Global OnLine Japan Co., Ltd. (GOL), the country’s first commercial internet service provider. He started it in 1994 in a cramped apartment, with borrowed money and all the cash he could squeeze out of his credit cards.
By 1998, according to Business Insight Japan Magazine, GOL was worth between US $40 and $70 million. Mr. Boisvert sold it to Exodus Communications, Inc. in 1999.
One of eight siblings in a francophone family in St. Catharines, Ont., Mr. Boisvert went to St. Catharines Collegiate and studied business administration at Humber College in Toronto. In 1983 he went with his Japanese-born wife to Japan, where they worked to rescue her mother’s business, a coffee-shop, from heavy debt.
After his mother-in-law had recovered her investment, he saw that the Canadian economy was in the doldrums and decided to stay in Tokyo. In 1984 the New York-based consulting film McKinsey and Co. hired him to bring computer technologies to its Japanese offices.
“I knew how to turn on a PC, which made me more knowledgeable than anybody around,” he said in an interview with Canadian Business magazine earlier this year. “What’s the phrase? ‘In the land of the blind, a one-eyed man is king.’ I was damned lucky to get that job.”
Cautious and tradition-bound, the Japanese were laggards when it came to the internet. Convinced of the web’s enormous yet untried potential in Japan, Mr. Boisvert left McKinsey in 1993 and persuaded the government to hire him as an independent contractor to build the country’s first government-authorized internet service from the ground up.
Although he never spoke more than a few words of Japanese, Mr. Boisvert’s status as a foreigner gave him a competitive edge, he explained, since government officials would have felt more comfortable pulling the plug on a foreign venture if results had proven unsatisfactory. He also had little technical knowledge of the net, and paid an American to educate him daily by e-mail.
But he was skilled at navigating the difficult bureaucratic mazes imposed by various government ministries responsible for telecommunications, trade and industry, construction and other areas, from which he eventually acquired the multiple approvals and licenses that the venture required.
Known as IIKK, the service was built largely from used computers and leftover parts and took sixth-floor office space vacated by a rundown karaoke bar in the Myogadani section of Tokyo. When it became operational at precisely 6:10 p.m. on Sept. 24, 1993, Japan’s internet industry was born.
Using many borrowed computers, printers, furniture and other components, Mr. Boisvert founded GOL the following summer. Although its strategy was to concentrate on providing a high quality service — fast connection, wide bandwidth, good user-to-modem ratio, efficient technical support — it was free for the first five months to lure customers from other start-ups that were competing on price.
Because of its cash-flow problems, the company was the first to offer a discounted annual rate, payable in advance. “That gave us the cash to buy equipment, leases lines and so on,” its president explained to the Japanese newspaper, Yomiuri Shimbun, in 1998. “So with cash in advance, we were able to grow.”
In an online tribute, Cathrine Lowther, a GOL employee for many years, described her former boss as a “yahoo capitalist, visionary, dreamer, incompetent manager, brilliant salesman … (and) white knight.”
“He had standards, and lived them,” she wrote. “He demanded quality in everything we did, and refused to compromise, even when everyone with any business sense was telling him that a cut in quality would increase sales and save his financial bacon.”
After selling GOL, Mr. Boisvert established CTR Ventures in Tokyo, a venture capital firm that had begun to specialize in wireless-focused internet and other breaking telecommunications technologies.
Despite his sudden fortune, he never radically altered his lifestyle or his outlook on life, friends say. Thomas Caldwell, an American journalist in Japan, was a friend of the GOL founder and in the midst of writing his biography.
“He never lost touch with the hacker crowd, with the engineers who make things work, with the lowly guys at the bottom of the corporate scale who were cutting the code and coming up with the ideas,” he said.
Mr. Boisvert often rode a bicycle to work and loved rock-climbing. Once, after breaking his leg, he visited a climbing site with his leg in a cast, ostensibly to watch others, but soon threw down his crutches and began to climb.
His twin brother, Jerry Boisvert, a preacher in Chateauguay, Que., said they sometimes faced discrimination as French-speaking children in an anglo environment. Such adversity served to harden Roger’s determination, he said; Roger saw himself as an underdog, someone coming from behind.
“He risked all a number of times in business, and it was all part of his background of needing to strive to be equal,” Jerry said. “He had a lot of drive and didn’t accept no as an answer. Impossible was also not an answer for him. It just meant you had to work harder.”
Mr. Boisvert leaves his wife, Yuriko, sons Christopher and Lorne in Japan; and mother Carmen and stepfather Lorne in St. Catharines; and six siblings. ♦