Meet some of the inspiring finalists in this year’s Entrepreneur of the Year Awards
The annual Entrepreneur of the Year Awards continues the tradition of honouring the success of Douglas College self-employment program alumni. Here, we celebrate some of this year’s finalists.
DAVE BRUCE, BRUCE’S
MARINE REPAIRS INC.
Dave Bruce of Bruce’s Marine Repairs, a mobile marine repair company, strives to keep the “pleasure” in pleasure boating for the Lower Mainland’s yachting community.
“Diesel and gas engine repairs … whatever the customers’ needs are,” says the Douglas College Entrepreneur of the Year Awards service finalist of his work. “What I can’t fix or install myself, I have a great network of other tradespeople in the marine industry to back me up.”
Besides caretaking the old Expo 86 McDonald’s barge (“McBarge”) and preparing boats for shipment to Australia, Bruce provides service for a range of clients, some as far away as Yellowknife. His commitment to customer service is such that he even “babysits” boats for people who moor their vessels in Vancouver but live outside the city, province or country.
Educating his clients by “making sure they have a good understanding of the work or repairs that have been done … to avoid costly repair bills in the future” is another important aspect of his service. This, he says “can give them a better boating experience with their family and friends.”
Among his latest business achievements: doing service and repair work for Seattle-based RDI Marine, which “cannot cross the border [to B.C.] to do repairs for their customers [here].”
For Bruce, the key to success starts with “sticking to what you know and subcontracting out the other work. Most of my business is service work and in a down economy it has paid off to still be willing to get your hands dirty.”
Being an entrepreneur helps. “Staying a one-person business has allowed me to be a friend and a confidant to a lot of my customers,” he explains. “They hire me knowing that I am the one doing the work. … I have hired help over the years, but normally to work with me on bigger jobs and not to be on their own.”
He says it’s about giving back, too. In addition to participating in Variety’s Boat for Hope program, which takes kids with special needs out for a fun day on the water, Bruce decorates his own vessel with holiday lights for “Christmas cruises” out of Port Moody and helps educate students enrolled in power and sail squadron courses.
CANADIAN MATTRESS RECYCLING INC.
Terryl Plotnikoff launched Canadian Mattress Recycling in January, recycling mattresses, box springs and, more recently, furniture for customers in Metro Vancouver, salvaging the recyclable materials and diverting them from the landfill.
While the Douglas College self-employment program graduate and Entrepreneur of the Year Awards finalist takes great pride in the positive impact her work has on the environment, the recycling business wasn’t her first choice for self-employment.
“Originally [it] was going to be a health and wellness clinic,” she admits. “After I was unable to secure a suitable lease … I had to rethink my entire business and decided to start … one that I was actually more passionate about.”
Just seven months after leasing a suitable space and opening her doors, Plotnikoff found herself managing 12 employees, fielding calls from across Canada and looking to expand. Today, as she prepares to move to a larger location, she counts popular mattress retailers and high-end hotels among her customers, as well as the City of Surrey.
“We also recycle for individuals who bring mattresses to our depot or hire our pickup service,” she adds. “Our second primary market covers the end users of the materials we salvage.”
Thus far the company’s recycled nearly 400,000 pounds of steel, 50,000 pounds of foam, 120,000 pounds of quilting, 70,000 pounds of felt and cotton and 100,000 pounds of wood that would otherwise have been buried in landfills.
Moving this amount of material takes a massive amount of manpower. In managing her staff, Plotnikoff says efficiency is key.
“HR issues need to be dealt with regularly and, since we’re open seven days a week and have two shifts, we need to continually be aware of our staffing needs and productivity,” she says. “At our most we have had 16 staff on payroll. Currently we have 10, all full time. By focusing on being more efficient we have reduced our labour costs while at the same time made the work easier for our employees.”
Plotnikoff’s recipe for success is simple. “We differentiate ourselves by maintaining an affordable fee structure and … we listen to what our clients need, find out what their challenges are and then exceed their expectations.”
Customers also appreciate seeing for themselves that the company indeed recycles nearly 100% of every mattress it receives. That, she says, “instils trust … about what we do and who we are as a company.”
Entrepreneurship, however, isn’t without its challenges. “I regularly put in three hours of work in the evening after my children are asleep, even after a full day’s work at the warehouse,” Plotnikoff says, adding that she’s hired an operations manager to help ease her workload. But despite the hard work, she says she wouldn’t change a thing.
ACCOUNTECH BUSINESS SERVICES LTD.
Salman Bazogh, owner of Accountech Business Services in Coquitlam, has enjoyed good growth in his accounting business over the past six years. Today, he employs 2.5 full-time staff members and is eyeing a second location. But entrepreneurship hasn’t always been easy.
“I started from scratch in 2005,” says the Douglas College self-employment program graduate and Entrepreneur of the Year Awards service finalist. “I remember when we had [to do a] press release as a part of the [self-employment] program, the instructor told me that my business wouldn’t make any news, as there were enough … like mine. I experienced the reality of it and felt the pressure of competition after graduation.”
With plenty of hard work (at least 70 hours a week), patience and persistence – not to mention support from his wife and family – Bazogh’s business eventually took off. Watching his costs, maintaining a high level of quality in his work and paying personal attention to each of his 60-plus clients continue to be important factors in his success.
“We see our clients as part of our business and their success as our success,” he explains. “We feel responsible for their success. Besides doing bookkeeping and accounting, we function as their returning point for business advice.”
Because these types of “long-term” client relationships are often reciprocal, Bazogh places much of his effort on providing “quality service on a timely basis at an affordable rate. Our clients appreciate the quality of our service. They refer us to new clients and they pay their bills on time.”
In fact, despite employing more standard methods of advertising over the years, word of mouth remains the number 1 source of new business for Bazogh, who also stresses the importance of forming what he calls “strategic alliances” with other service providers.
And, despite handling over 500 personal tax returns a year and working toward completing his Canadian CMA designation by June 2012, this busy business owner finds time to give back to the community, sitting on the boards of the Tri-Cities Chamber of Commerce and Tricity Iranian Cultural Society.
CUSTOM CREATIONS CARPENTRY INC.
After being laid off from his job at a millwork company, Justin Gignac couldn’t find work. The recession had hit, and his future seemed uncertain.
“I wasn’t sure what to do,” says Gignac, who now owns Custom Creations Carpentry, designing, fabricating and installing custom commercial and residential millwork. Then, a letter from Service Canada, with the opportunity to become self-employed, arrived.
“I had always dreamed of owning my own business,” he recalls. “My wife and I found out we were going to have our first child. I knew that starting a business and a family at the same time would not be easy but I had to take this opportunity.”
He enrolled in Douglas College’s self-employment program and “worked every day toward building a successful business.” Despite having a good knowledge of woodwork, Gignac admits he didn’t know how to run a business on his own.
“The self-employment program was one of the best things that ever happened to me,” he says. “It gave me the skills I needed to learn and the opportunity I had always dreamed of.”
After completing the in-class portion of the program, Gignac applied for a Canadian Youth Business Foundation (CYBF) loan. Once approved, the money helped him purchase much-needed equipment – that’s when things really started to take off.
“Every month is better than the last and the business has been steadily growing,” he says. “I’ve been doing a lot of high-end projects and enjoying delivering quality products to deserving clients.”
Gignac – a youth finalist in the 2011 Entrepreneur of the Year Awards – has his own shop, truck and trailer, one employee and several part-time staff. While the CYBF loan helped launch his business (which is currently being incorporated), he attributes his ongoing success to passion, dedication and “a lot of hard work.”
Strategic alliances, networking and referrals are also part of running a successful enterprise. Gignac uses his portfolio, references and personalized customer service to ensure repeat business.
“Every job completed brings in more business from others who have seen the work,” he says. “A lot of business comes from word of mouth and … the most effective thing has been creating alliances with the right people and businesses.”
Gignac, who has attended several business networking meetings, says that “talking with other businesses about providing them with millwork solutions” has also helped spread the word about his company. Offering support to other self-employment students at monthly “success circle” meetings gives him and other entrepreneurs a chance to “set goals for our businesses and help each other achieve those goals.”
STONEBRIDGE OPERATIONS INC.
Charles Baverstock owns Stonebridge Operations, which provides electrical services to residential, strata, commercial and long-term care facilities. His specialties lie in lighting design, home automation with iPod, iPad and iPhone integration and home automatic standby generators.
With customer service top of mind, Baverstock – a Douglas College self-employment program graduate and Entrepreneur of the Year Awards service finalist – takes great pride in educating his clients as to what to expect during an installation or renovation. This, he says, is what differentiates his company from others.
“We help them with product selection and make sure that they are comfortable with the work that is to take place,” explains Baverstock. “They are encouraged to ask questions during the installation to ensure that they will be happy with the end result.”
So far, it’s worked. In the second year of business, Stonebridge Operations was able to double its sales over the first year.
SANJANA KHAIRA LAW CORP.
Sanjana Khaira Law provides an array of legal and notary services in an honest, effective and caring manner. Since opening her business, owner Sanjana Khaira’s goal has been to ease the various strains caused by legal problems and situations for her clients: home and business owners, as well as the local Indo-Fijian community.
“We are one of the only firms in the Lower Mainland that specifically caters to the needs of the local Indo-Fijian population,” says the Douglas College self-employment program graduate and Entrepreneur of the Year Awards finalist. “We practice in the areas of personal injury, general civil litigation, including collections, immigration and basic corporate and commercial law, including contract disputes. We also provide notary services and have three Lower Mainland locations, with our head office in Surrey.”
Khaira further differentiates herself by being accessible to and understanding her clients: “I do not ‘nickel and dime’ them by charging an exorbitant amount for each second I spend speaking to them. Everyone at some point in their lives needs a lawyer. I am the lawyer for the everyday person. My services, my company image, everything is geared toward appealing to the everyday person.”
This often means making house calls and working evenings and weekends so clients need not miss work or have to drive when “they may already be nervous of driving or facing financial difficulties following an accident,” she explains, adding that she does her best to offer flexible payment plans, appreciating that “we are all in some way suffering from an extended global recession.”
By remaining cognizant of her clients’ realities, Khaira identifies her law firm as “one for the people and not just for my pocket.” By not chasing the might buck, she says success has come to her, instead.
“Generally people do not come to a lawyer when their lives are going well. When someone enters my office, my first goal is to ease their tensions. I let my clients voice their concerns without fear of judgment, indifference or … the billable hour. I base my fees on the value of the work performed and not the seconds.”
Clients appreciate Khaira’s accessibility, which includes access to her direct phone line during and outside of regular business hours. They also value her honesty.
“Sometimes … I give them the tools and proper suggestions to solve their own problems or even tell them unequivocally there may just not be a solution to their predicament,” she says. “They leave the office grateful that I kept their best interests in mind, even if it meant telling them something they did not want to hear or sacrificing a retainer.”
Khaira gets her good name into the community by volunteering her services to charitable organizations like the Access Pro Bono Society of BC, Muslim Business Council of BC, BC Muslim Association and Canadian Federation of Fijian Associations. She’s also dedicated to running a sustainable business, particularly at her Surrey office where she’s implemented a recycling program that she hopes will spread throughout the entire business park by the end of 2011.
RDS SUPPORT INC.
Fabio Milano has been tinkering with technology since he was a kid. While his uncle studied at the University of British Columbia’s physics lab, Milano – with his own floppies in hand – would play on the computer. He spent hours taking apart toys and putting them back together again. When his family bought him his first computer, there was no looking back. Milano was hooked on IT.
As the son of an entrepreneur, Milano had business acumen running through his veins from the get-go. “Growing up in a family of entrepreneurs helped me understand that the growth potential for a startup is unlimited,” he says. “Microsoft and Dell started in college dorm rooms and became billion dollar companies. Anything is possible.”
After college, Milano took on a number of different roles but was yearning for something different. “The startup I was working for shut down; I had a hard choice to make: find another job or start my own company,” he says. “I chose the latter.”
Milano enrolled in Douglas College’s self-employment program (SEP) and crafted a vision for his own IT business. “Learning how to write a business plan, crunch financials and explain my business idea to a committee was invaluable.”
With certificate in hand, Milano set forth and launched RDS Support, dedicated to helping small to medium-sized businesses manage their IT better. But launching an IT startup in a sea of likeminded technology companies wasn’t easy.
In addition to finding a way to stand out from the crowd, Milano was also juggling a new marriage and two children under two. “Balancing work and family is tough,” he says. “I can’t spend 12 to 18 hours a day working. I need to be efficient. It’s a good lesson to learn from the get-go.
“Success for me has been in setting goals and achieving them, then setting new goals,” he adds. “The Douglas College SEP program taught me how to set goals and measure results. It supercharged my entrepreneurial brain.”
The future looks bright for RDS Support, which will celebrate two years in business in February. “We’re really trying to do something different in IT. We want to be innovative with our support services and take the fear and loathing out of IT,” he says. “If we can take the headache away, then we’ve succeeded.”
TERRATAP TECHNOLOGIES INC.
Three years ago Judy Hamilton picked up her first smartphone and instinctively saw the mobile wave that was coming. She walked away from a 20-year career and a full-time job as a director of IT to start her own mobile development company.
With an idea for a barcode app that would link the offline and online worlds and help consumers find more information while shopping, Hamilton enrolled in Douglas College’s self-employment program (SEP) and emerged with a business plan for her company, TerraTap Technologies.
To get a product to market, she joined Accelerate Okanagan’s ACETECH market validation program to learn “lean startup” methodology, which requires getting real customer feedback from the start.
During early development, it became clear to the entrepreneur that the biggest “pain” wasn’t for consumers who needed help getting information “on the go,” but, rather, marketers who needed a way to get their message to mobile consumers. Traditional barcodes, controlled by manufacturers, weren’t useful, but a new barcode called a QR code was, because its content is controlled by the marketer.
With a solid foundation from SEP and the lean startup principles from ACETECH, Hamilton was able to easily pivot her business model and have her developers create a flagship product called ToggleTo: a web-based QR code campaign management system that has everything mobile marketers need to create, manage, measure, test and tweak their QR codes.
“In the competitive and fast-moving technology industry, only the agile survive,” she says. “TerraTap is not only surviving, but thriving and, now, receiving acclaim.”
Recently, ToggleTo was showcased to the World Future Society at Tech Cocktail 2011. Hamilton has also been nominated for an Entrepreneur of the Year Award from the SEP program. TerraTap, ToggleTo and Hamilton are now poised to take on the next chapter, nimble, adaptable and ready for success.
From Next October-November 2011