Running the show

Michael Donovan, chief executive officer of DHX Media Ltd., smiles during an interview in Toronto in 2014. Photographer: Galit Rodan/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Michael Donovan rang out 2015 on a high note. In November, the founder and executive chair of Halifax-based DHX Media Limited, the largest independent creator and distributor of family and children’s programming in the world, inked a deal with Mattel, Inc. for a range of new content inspired by the toy company’s icons, including Bob the Builder and Polly Pocket, and signed a deal with goliath Dreamworks to co-produce 130 episodes of original animated content. That same month, out of 183 finalists, Donovan was named Canada’s EY Entrepreneur of the Year “for his industry foresight and relentless belief in the demand for good-quality entertainment content.”

Such accolades have become business as usual for Donovan, who graduated from the law school in 1977. It was a degree that would prove useful for his many entrepreneurial efforts, but a traditional law career was never in the script. “After law school, my brother persuaded me to join him in starting a film company in Halifax,” he says. “I felt that the world of law would be much better off.”

That company was Salter Street Films, and it went on to produce Siege (also known as Self Defense). The action-thriller was shot in two weeks on a tiny budget and was sold to almost every country in the world. For television, Salter Street produced CODCO, Made in Canada and This Hour Has 22 Minutes, the first full-length satirical news series that is still on the air after 23 years. In 2002, Donovan walked the Hollywood red carpet—and walked home with an Oscar for co-producing Bowling for Columbine, a political documentary directed by Michael Moore.

Salter Street, named for Donovan’s address the last few years he was in law school, went public in 1998, raising roughly $12 million. Three years later, the company was sold to Alliance Atlantis Communications Inc. for about $80 million. Donovan stayed on to run the subsidiary, but when Alliance dissolved Salter Street in 2003, the founder, former owner and lifelong entrepreneur resolved to start afresh. “I decided from a clean sheet of paper to create a new company,” he says. “I was 47—too young to retire, and Canada has intellectual capital for family and children’s programming. There is a brain trust.”

I was 47—too young to retire, and Canada has intellectual capital for family and children’s programming.

So Donovan launched the Halifax Film Company with his former VP of production. Together they produced shows for children, dramas for adults and the award-winning feature Shake Hands with the Devil, based on Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire’s memoir about the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

Two years and one merger later, DHX made its inaugural appearance on the TSX, raising about $20 million in its initial public offering. Today the company, which is headquartered in Halifax and has studios in Toronto and Vancouver, boasts a market capitalization of roughly $1 billion, employs more than 1,300 people worldwide and owns a library of children’s and family content that contains more than 11,000 half-hours. Revenues in fiscal 2015 were $264 million, up from $116.13 million in fiscal 2014.

The success isn’t happenstance; the risks that Donovan takes as an executive and an entrepreneur are carefully calculated. “In order to arrive at a place, you have to have the map to get you there,” he stresses. The map, however, doesn’t have to be complicated. Indeed, the road to success is founded on simplicity and a little good fortune. “You need a plan where more money comes in than goes out. It’s really not much more complicated than that. Then opportunities present themselves or they don’t.”

The key to DHX’s success, for example, can be largely summed up in one word: independence. The lack of corporate constraints means that DHX can move quickly to take the advantage of technology and business opportunities. “Studios are more limited to act quickly,” says Donovan. “Speed is of great importance.” He points to the opportunity afforded by the emergence and popularity of Netflix, the world’s leading distributor of streaming media. “Studios are unable to sell top shows to Netflix. As an independent company, we were able to download our entire content.”

Donovan credits his law degree with helping him successfully map his film and television production career. “There is a discipline and a way of looking at the world,” he says of law school. “I feel more confident in knowing when to reject advice.” The head of DHX also has some advice of his own for those who would like to follow in his footsteps and carve their own career path.

First, learn to let go. “Managers have to step back,” says Donovan. “One of the risks of too much hands-on is that you start to micromanage.  There’s a discipline to stepping back.” Common sense is also essential; for example, he advises future business leaders to go where the money is, even if it isn’t where they’re based. “There’s no money in Halifax—none. Trying to get money in Halifax is a waste of time.”

Donovan also recommends surrounding yourself with talented and creative people. “To an amazing degree, this decision isn’t made—it’s where 99% go wrong.” Finally, rest assured. “Confidence is very important,” he says. “Those who believe they will succeed often do. It’s a surprisingly important factor.”

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