Millennial billionaire Tobias Lütke, 39, makes quite a character under his trademark newsboy cap.
With a name like a Die Hard villain and a reputation for predicting the future, he runs the most valuable company in Canada, which he famously built out of a snowboard website.
His success in hosting the retail operations of businesses from multinational corporations down to kitchen table operations has marked him as a visionary long before Shopify had the market capitalization of nearly $120-billion to back it up. But much of it will be new to the average Canadian.
Just as Shopify has preferred to take the backseat to its clients in publicity, Lütke himself has also been an unusually restrained and humble Canadian business leader.
This week, Shopify briefly exceeded the market value of Royal Bank of Canada as the most valuable publicly traded company in Canada, a milestone that other companies have occasionally managed to reach, but rarely grasp for very long, such as Nortel and Research in Motion.
Canadians may be impressed, but they lack a model for this new corporate titan. He is different than the others.
Lütke, whose personal net worth is estimated at around $8 billion, is neither a dynastic aristocrat like David Thomson, who inherited an empire, for example, nor a new economy hotshot like Mike Lazaridis or Jim Balsillie, who took digital communications to a soaring new market.
Markets are doing the opposite of soaring at the moment. People do not even go out any more. So the future, whatever it might be, seems favourable to online retailing, and Shopify is flying high on that expectation, while so many other kinds of big businesses suffer.
Shopify’s success was always in a simple product that scaled up easily, even though it has gained a reputation for being a mind-boggling diverse conglomerate offering everything from bricks-and-mortar storefronts and pay terminals to a media production studio and website design.
Lütke has also been an unusually restrained and humble Canadian business leader
Lütke has often spoken of his skepticism of complex fixes, which can abound when companies staff themselves with advanced tech types, as Shopify did for example by setting up a recruiting booth outside IBM’s Ottawa office on the day of IBM layoffs.
Lütke himself, who moved to Canada from his native Germany in 2002, aged 22, and once toyed with the idea of deliberately changing his accent, is not a stereotypical tech worker. He did not go to university, but instead took an apprenticeship in computer programming with Siemens, a multinational industrial manufacturer.
He was also into snowboarding, and through his wife, Fiona McKean, formerly a Canadian diplomat, he made connections that led to the creation of Snowdevil, a website selling high-end snowboards from custom workshops.
But the software available to him was poor, and Lutke’s contributions to the development of a new software were the foundations of what became Shopify, supporting and enabling what it once described as e-commerce, now just commerce. And lots of it.
“The best way to think about Shopify,” Lütke told the Ottawa Citizen in 2017, “is that we’ve put the train on the right track and now we’re going to pick up speed.”
As Shopify crossed into the rarefied ranks of Canada’s most valuable companies, and reached the top spot, Lütke has focused on environmental philanthropy, including a $5-million annual sustainability fund.
He has described his company as ideally placed to help, both in where it came from and how it works.
“Shopify has always used engineering skills to create market forces,” Lütke wrote recently on his personal website. “We used those skills to make it easier and cheaper to become entrepreneurs, and because of this, more entrepreneurs started more online stores. By improving the supply of simple tools for entrepreneurship, we reduced friction and increased demand drastically. If we want to solve the climate crisis, we collectively need to do the same for carbon sequestration.”