Robb Price has a fledgling company and he hopes Don Bell, one of the founders of the mega-successful WestJet, can help him get it off the ground
Lunch with … is a column for Alberta Venture. Every month, we ask a young executive to pick a person with whom he or she would like to talk business. The senior executive, if willing to act as mentor for an hour or so, gets to pick the place to eat. If you would like to participate, email Michael
by Michael Ganley
YOUNG EXEC: Robb Price, founder and president of DeliverGood
COMPANY HISTORY: Price founded DeliverGood in 2009. The company matches charities and non-profits that need goods with the people and companies that have goods to donate.
LUNCH: Curried beef, chicken and shrimp with veggies on steamed rice
SENIOR EXEC: Don Bell, co-founder of WestJet
HISTORY: Bell and three others– Clive Beddoe, Tim Morgan and Mark Hill – founded WestJet in 1995 with $8.5 million and three used planes. He retired in 2007, but remains involved in several other businesses
LUNCH: The Super Combo (beef, chicken, grilled shrimp, charbroiled pork and spring rolls on rice vermicelli)
Photo Shaun Robinson
DeliverGood is not Robb Price’s first kick at a corporation. He and his wife, Ceilidh, started a public-relations-and-communications firm and grew it to 12 employees before selling in 2006. After that, he worked for a time at The Doorway, a Calgary charity that helps young people get off the street. It was there that he got his idea for his second business. After a fire in a neighbouring unit caused smoke damage to The Doorway’s office, Price went looking online for someone to donate the seven computers and 14 chairs he needed to replace. When he couldn’t find anyone or anything to help him, he decided to set up the technology himself.
He built a website that a charity can use to tell people the things it needs, creating a real-time, dynamic wish list. Donors then type in what they have, and the site links the two. Price has just hired his first employee and has high hopes for the company, but he’s not really sure where it’s going to go. He doesn’t know how big it might get, or what his role in it ought to be. He asked for a lunch with Don Bell, one of the founders of WestJet, to get some advice.
Bell chose Petite Saigon, an unassuming Vietnamese restaurant in an Airdrie strip mall, for lunch. It’s not far from his acreage, and it’s clear that he’s a regular. “Hi, sweetheart,” the waitress says to him as he’s seated. “Would you like a diet coke?” He does, along with his usual – the Super Combo–
Price, for his part, asks her to surprise him. “One of my favourite things to do in a restaurant is just say ‘Bring me something that’s really good,’” he says.
“Yeah, I like doing that,” Bell says. “You can do that here.”
Price suggests that he has a problem similar to the one that WestJet faced in its early days, in that he’s trying to change the way people think about an industry. For WestJet it was the stagnant, apathetic airline industry, and for him it’s in-kind giving. People are used to throwing stuff in the garbage or dropping it off at Goodwill, nothing more.
Bell’s not so sure. “We didn’t set out at WestJet to create something different than the other guys, although it evolved into that,” he says. “We set out first of all to not fail. Because of that, we developed some strategies and tactics that we felt would probably allow us to not fail.”
“Our mantra was to create a low-cost carrier, and if we could keep costs low we could pass those savings on to the customers. We drove for low cost no matter what we did, and we rallied behind that.”
Price is aware that Bell was the vice-president of culture at WestJet, and asks him about creating a corporate culture. “Corporate culture is a recent phenomenon,” Bell says. “It wasn’t top of mind 15 years ago, but we did try to create a place where people felt like they were contributing. We used words like ‘love’ and ‘trust’ and ‘family’. We changed the word ‘passenger’ to ‘guest’. If I call you a guest, I can’t think of you as an inanimate object.”
But is DeliverGood too small to be concerned with corporate culture? “I don’t think it is,” Bell says. “You have two employees. It’s often said that culture is defined by who you keep and who you fire. So your first employee is 50 per cent of your culture.”
The meal arrives, and the result of Price’s request is a variety of curried meats on rice. As he tucks in, he mentions that he watched a video of Bell giving a presentation to the Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency last fall.
Bell raises his eyebrows. “It’s on YouTube?”
“Yes,” he says, laughing, “and I liked your advice that you should hire for attitude and train for skill, except for pilots.”
“We used to always get asked, ‘How do you make your people look like they enjoy their jobs?’” Bell says. “I used to laugh. You can’t make them. You hire people for whom customer service is part of their DNA, and you can tell in a heartbeat who’s good at it. Go into a place of business and within 60 seconds you can tell what kind of experience you’re going to have.”
Bell also takes a moment to emphasize the importance of inspirational leadership. “The ability to inspire people to a cause or a belief is powerful,” he says. “Clive was a fantastic orator. He could stand in front of a group, wing a speech and get everyone passionate.”
Price says that when he was setting up DeliverGood’s website, he thought that once people found out about it, business would take off. “There are 85,000 charities and an equal number of non-profits in the country,” he says. “That’s 170,000 potential clients.” But right now, he says, he only has about 300 charities signed up, and they don’t pay anything for the service. Price initially charged charities a small amount, but says there was too much red tape to bother with that.
In order to make money, Price changed the focus. The website is still there, but now he seeks out contracts with big companies who need to unload goods they no longer need. “They don’t want it in landfills and they don’t want to sell it to employees because they’re not in the furniture sales business,” Price says. “I search out the charities that need this stuff, I hire the movers and we take it from the business to the charity. Then I build a case study of how this donation impacted the charity.” He makes his money from the donor, and the venture frees up the charity’s other funds for programming.
Bell likes the sound of that. “There’s a whole bunch of pent up desire to be charitable and philanthropic,” he says. “If somebody gave me the tools to be more philanthropic, I’d probably buy into it.”
The Petite Saigon has really filled up. Sitting amid the bamboo and the fish tanks, Price begins to ask questions from a list in his daytimer.
“What keeps you up at night now, and what kept you up at night when you were at WestJet?”
“There were some tough days, but right from day one we had the inspirational leadership,” he says. “It was a fledgling little fleabag airline that ran on a shoestring, but it always seemed bigger because we created something people could get behind.” And, since he had a young family that he longed to see, he says he learned to focus his energy on the tasks only he could do. “I use the analogy that, when you’re working, you can only handle so much stuff. You can only put so many things on the table. When that table’s full, the next thing you put on, something has to fall off. So you can only handle so many things.”
“Who were your mentors and what did you learn from them?”
“Early on, I listened to Zig Ziglar a lot,” Bell says. “He’d say things like, ‘What you put into your mind is what you’ll become, so watch what you put into your mind.’ But listening to motivational speakers is like taking a bath. It doesn’t last forever so you have to have another bath tomorrow. You have to keep filling your mind with things you want to become.”
“But I’ve always felt that you can learn from everybody. Everyone has their pluses and minuses and it’s a blessing to be able to hang out with people you can learn from.”
“What mistakes did you make in your career?’
“Too many to list,” Bell answers quickly. Then he ponders for a moment before continuing. “I wish the board had focused on the talent internally and helped to mentor and coach them into higher positions as part of succession planning,” he says. “External leaders don’t usually work out and we saw that first hand with Steve Smith and Sean Durfy. Perpetuating a culture as strong as ours is critical to the long-term success of the organization. Not that they didn’t embrace it – they did. But as they didn’t grow up in the organization it was much more difficult for someone to know all the things that made the culture what it was.”
“If I have any regrets, we should have done the succession planning from day one, so you grow and mentor the leaders in the organization as you maintain the culture.”
Price speaks excitedly about the opportunities he sees for his business to partner with moving companies that have offices across the country. “So if I have a client in Halifax who is vacating an office and has a bunch of stuff to donate, I can move it into a warehouse and get it moving,” he says.
“But all of that stuff is detail,” Bell says. “The key is your ability to find guys who can do what you do, so you can go and do the next thing.” Most roles within a company can be filled relatively easily, Bell explains. For WestJet it was just a matter of hiring another pilot or some grounds crew or of buying another airplane. But there are always crucial, core duties that cannot be handed off. At WestJet, that core was deciding on routes, pricing and times, and it was handled by a tiny group of people. “That was what drove the success of the airline,” Bell says. “I think you have a fantastic idea and you’re obviously passionate about it, but you have to get yourself out of the way.”
“I would love to be known as the guy who helped to solve this problem in the charitable sector,” Price says.
“Quit saying you’d love to be that guy. You are going to be that guy.”