Scot who became head of Canadian software giant

Born: November 27, 1946;

Died: July 23, 2017

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RENATO "Ron" Zambonini, who has died of lung cancer aged 70, was the son of Italian immigrant shopkeepers from Motherwell. With his wife Gail (Milligan) from Ayr, he emigrated to Canada when he was 28 and became one of that country's most successful, most popular, most visionary and most colourful businessmen. His family said "perhaps it was fitting" that Mr Zambonini, an avid golfer, passed away while watching the final round of the Open championship on television.

For almost a decade he was CEO of the Canadian company Cognos, which he took beyond its roots as business consultants to become a major business intelligence software company and a global leader in corporate performance management.

When he took over as CEO in 1995, the company had revenues of US $120 million. Although he retired as CEO in 2004, he was still chairman in 2008 when the company was acquired by mighty IBM for almost US $5 billion.

Mr Zambonini was largely credited with the explosive growth of the Ottawa company while many other technology firms were slashing spending and jobs after the deflation of the dot.com bubble.

Inside Cognos' offices, Mr Zambonini was a passionate leader, beloved by his employees. Outside the offices, at public engagements, or staff get-togethers, he was a larger-than-life character with a strong Scottish accent who liked to dress up as William "Braveheart" Wallace and, being a big, burly Scot, was usually more impressive (and frightening) than the Aussie Mel Gibson who made the Oscar-winning movie.

At such Cognos engagements, despite his bulk, he also managed a decent impersonation of Mick Jagger, Zorro, a Brando-style motorbike gang leader and a rodeo rider. He once jumped through a ring of fire, not your normal presentation as a large company CEO.

On another occasion, as the fun-loving public face of Cognos, he pledged to conduct a staff conference call while naked if one of the company's software products, ReportNet, failed to meet sales targets. The project surpassed expectations, so Mr Zambonini took part in the call wearing a tartan nightshirt. Away from the company, however, Mr Zambonini was an intensely private family man. Several years ago, he and his wife Gail moved to Toronto to be closer to his son Paul and grandchildren.

Renato M Zambonini, always known as Ron, was born in Motherwell on November 27, 1946, the eldest of five children, and grew up on Crawford Street, where his brother Mario still lives.

He went to Our Lady's High School in Motherwell, one of the oldest Roman Catholic secondary schools in Scotland, where football legend Sir Matt Busby was a former pupil. After studying at the University of Glasgow, Mr Zambonini was hired as a computer operator at Honeywell in Motherwell in 1969, a time when computers were unknown to most of us.

In 1974, he spotted a job ad in the Glasgow Herald, seeking computer programmers at Comtech Group International in Toronto, Canada, where he arrived on Thanksgiving Day that year and where his son Paul was later born. He worked for Comtech until 1980, including two years (1977-79) in Ireland setting up a research and development facility for Comtech in Cork.

He spent the 1980s with two other companies, Warrington Inc. and Cullinet Software before he was appointed president and chief operating officer of Ottawa-based Cognos in 1989 and promoted to CEO in 1995.

“People were down. People had lost a little bit of faith,” he said in 2002. “My biggest challenge was motivation – getting people to get excited and believe in themselves again. It wasn’t any big technical idea. We just got the products up and running.”

The company had already invested significantly in a new version of business intelligence software, PowerPlay, designed to work with networks of personal computers rather than mainframes and to help businesses instantly access and analyse sales, financial and other corporate data. Under Mr Zambonini, sales of the product grew unexpectedly fast.

By the time he retired in 2004, Cognos was well on its way to establishing itself as one of the Canada's greatest software firms, with more than 22,000 customers in 135 countries, enough to support 3,000 employees. Hence IBM's interest and the 2008 acquisition for $5 billion. The name Cognos was retained by IBM for its line of business intelligence and performance management products.

By the time he retired in 2004, Mr Zambonini had helped build Cognos into a global software giant that reshaped the technology sector. On his retirement, although he was only 57, he said: "I'm getting so decrepit. In a senior role, you're going all the time and you don't spend as much time with your family as you should." He was able to spend much of his time on the golf course, or playing his beloved bridge although he remained closely involved with Cognos.

"He had a big public persona, but he was a private guy,” his successor as Cognos CEO Rob Ashe said. “He loved a movie at home at night with his wife, a quiet night out at the shows, as he called them. He was not a flamboyant character in his personal life. He was a role model, really. He was just a down-to-earth, solid guy, and people just loved him for it.”

Mr Zambonini is survived by his wife Gail, son Paul, grandchildren Jack and Sam, and siblings John, Mario, Eva and Gerald, all of the siblings living in Scotland.

PHIL DAVISON