You’re on a highway. Fuel is low. You’re numb from sitting in one position, and it’s time for coffee. You need to find an exit.

When “a graceful off-ramp opportunity” presented itself last April, Dave Kroetsch, then CEO of Aeryon Labs, knew it was time to take his foot off the accelerator and ease to the right.

Kroetsch, who co-founded Aeryon in his garage more than a decade ago, decided to step down as CEO and instead take on the mantle of Chief Technology Officer. It was not an easy decision. But in his heart, he knew it was the right decision.

“You have to be brutally honest with yourself,” Kroetsch said Tuesday, speaking at a Communitech-hosted lunchtime event at the Tannery called Pizza with the Prez, an occasional series where tech leaders talk about their journey and that of their company.

Aeryon Labs is a Waterloo-based company that has morphed from a literal mom-and-pop shop – at one time, Kroetsch’s parents worked for the firm  – to a thriving entity of 175 full-time employees who make high-end unmanned aerial vehicles – drones – primarily for law enforcement agencies and military use.

Aeryon’s evolution, which included a CDN$60 million investment from Boston-based private equity firm Summit Partners in October of 2015, meant that Kroetsch had seen the CEO’s role shift.

A drone on a table with Dave Kroetsch in the background

Aeryon Labs, headquartered in north Waterloo, makes high-end drones, mostly for militaries and
law enforcement agencies. (Communitech photo: Sara Jalali)

“The job of CEO changed,” Kroetsch said between bites of pizza after delivering his talk Tuesday. “My job used to be managing down. Managing the company, managing the functions of the business.”

But with U.S. investors now on board, increasingly Kroetsch found himself “managing up.” Board meetings suddenly required a “level of rigour and education” that was a far cry from what he faced when the company incorporated in 2007.

And so Bill McHale was brought on as CEO, and Kroetsch returned to his first love, the technology.

Was there relief?

“Absolutely,” he said.

“As you grow, there are things you go through that are different. There’s legal stuff now that we’re dealing with. I’m like, gha!, that would be a pain to deal with. I’m glad somebody else is on that.

“We now have a U.S. defence subsidiary, a U.S. commercial subsidiary, we’re opening an office in Eastern Europe for manufacturing. That’s a lot of work.

“I get to go home and turn off my phone and not have to drive those bigger things and again focus on the pieces that I like.”

Brutal honesty and making hard personnel decisions were among the pieces of advice Kroetsch dispensed to his audience Tuesday – even, and perhaps particularly, when the personnel decision involves the CEO.

“All in all it’s put the business in a better place and put me in a better place,” he said.