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Words from the Wise: Six FG50 CEOs share their knowledge

Learn from six people who have been here before

Jan 2, 2014
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There’s nobody better to learn from than somebody who has already been there, so Alberta Venture sat down with the chief executives of six FG50 list-makers to talk about bold decisions and big failures.

Brent Usick

CEO Paramount Parts
#44 on the FG50
Revenue range: $10-$25 million
Increase over previous year: 29.7%

Q: What’s the secret of your success?
Brent: “I’m going to say two things. You have to dream big. If your dreams don’t scare you, you’re not dreaming big enough. Two, you have to believe in yourself and in your team. It’s the team that you lead that is your key to success.”

Q: What’s the biggest, boldest decision you’ve ever made?
Brent: “It was going into the market in Saskatoon last March in a way never done before in his industry. We built the largest Napa Auto Parts store in North America, at 35,000 square feet. The average is eight or nine thousand square feet. We put not only our reputation on the line there but millions of dollars, too.”

How’s it worked out?
Brent: “The first little while was a challenge, but it’s paying off tenfold right now. Our sales are rocketing through the roof.”

Q: What’s been your biggest failure?
Brent: “When I started in business 11 years ago, I thought I knew more than I did. I didn’t take advantage of the support network that was around me, whether it was my accountants or lawyers or mentors that were there to help me.”

Russell Keddie

Managing Partner Liberty Security Systems
#38 on the FG50
Revenue range: $5-10 million
Increase over previous year: 39.8%

What has been your greatest failure, and what did you learn?
Russell: “We worked for several months to negotiate the purchase of a company in the summer of 2012. We thought it was a perfect fit, and we thought we did everything we should do to make the right deal and structure it properly, and we got all the financing in place. But in the end, the owner decided to sell it to somebody else. We definitely made a few mistakes, in assuming what the other owners wanted, and we should have asked more questions and taken more time. We learned from it, and we decided it wasn’t meant to be. You’ve got to dust yourself off and get on with it.”

What’s the boldest decision you’ve ever made?
Russell: “We bought a company in the health care industry. We’re an integrator of commercial security, we do residential security and home automation, and we’ve expanded the commercial side a bit, and we just took a big chance on buying a company in a completely different space. We now service 80 secondary hospitals across Alberta and some in B.C. It was a big gamble for us, to go into a space that we weren’t familiar with. Our staff was all excited, and we took over the company and molded them together and rebranded that company into Liberty Health and Safety. We see a huge opportunity in the health care space. Maybe we’re a little brash, but we think we can blow away that whole segment, service-wise.”

Son Nguyen

President, Panelflex
#33 on the FG50
Revenue range: $5-$10 million
Increase over previous year: 139%

Q: What’s the boldest decision you’ve ever made?
Son: “In 2009 when they closed the shop [I was working at], I either had to find a job or take over and run with it. I decided to go with the gut, take the risk. The economy wasn’t good at that time. I bought it out. When I started it was very risky. The first three or four months I was suffering a lot. After six months, it started to pick up.”

Q: What’s the secret of your success?
Son: “It’s all from 25 years ago, the reputation that I have in the panel business. The name is out there. When I started having my own company – this is my fourth year – customers know me and they know the quality that I do. Majority of time it’s word of mouth, referral, we do have sales people out there, too. We concentrate on what we do best – panels, manufacturing control panels. We don’t diversify. We only do the one thing that we’re good at.”

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Q: What’s been your greatest failure, and what have you learned from it?
Son: “I don’t recall that I have a failure yet. Business is changing, that’s why we don’t want to something we don’t know, that we’re not good at. People keep asking us to do other things other than control panels, like do I do shed building? I say ‘No, we don’t want to do that.’ I don’t want to start something I don’t know. Sure I can hire people but that’s going to take a while to start up. Here I can do the things I know for a long time. We’re a small business. I just don’t want to start something big, yet, until I have the right people in place.”

Nik Grgic

President, FourQuest Energy
#43 on the FG50
Revenue range: $25-50 million
Increase over previous year: 17.9%

Q: What’s the boldest decision you’ve ever made?
Nik: “So far, over the past five years, we’ve grown organically. Right now we are doing two major acquisitions, that combined, are close to half the value of our company right now. I think that’s fairly bold.”

Q: What’s been your greatest failure, and what have you learned from it? 0
Nik: “When we move into a new region, to open a branch or subsidiary of our business in a particular region, we know we need a team of two people. Unfortunately, very often, we don’t have two guys who know what they are supposed to do and we only have one. That’s the mistake we make. You learn and try not to repeat it. Unfortunately, I did repeat that mistake several times in the past. How do you come back from that? You just don’t rush it, and you move on.”

Craig Mackenzie

Principal consultant, Ontracks Consulting
#18 on the FG50
Revenue range: $5-$10 million
Increase over previous year: 27.8%

Q: What’s the boldest decision you’ve ever made?
Craig: “Probably geographical expansion, that’s the big one for us. We were [once] an Edmonton-based company. Today we have offices in Calgary, Toronto and St. Louis, and probably have grown our U.S. operation to probably the same size as our Canadian operation. So we spent a lot of time and effort expanding south of the border. We spent a lot of time on sales and marketing down there.”

Q: What’s been your biggest failure and what have you learned?
Craig: “Trying to expand beyond our current service offering. I think early on we tried a lot of service expansion but I think we realized that we’re very good at one thing, and trying to pick up things that we might not necessarily be as good at, but believe there’s market demand there, hasn’t exactly panned out as we had hoped. So we transitioned from service growth into more geographical growth and we found a lot more success there.”

Kelly Candy

CEO, 3C Information Solutions
#23 on the FG50
Revenue range: $5-10 million
Increase over previous year: 24.5%

Q: What’s been your greatest failure, and what have you learned from it?
Kelly: “There have been several occasions where we’ve gone off on a tangent and seen that there might be a product we could bring to market. We had a couple different software products that we had created, that we spent a considerable amount of time trying to turn a product into something that would make profits, only to find that eventually we just had to cut it loose.”

Q: What’s the boldest decision you’ve ever made?
Kelly: “Our main competitors are people like Telus and Bell, and so we’re a very small company taking on Goliaths. When we go into a board meeting to convince a company that they should come with us instead of one of those competitors, we definitely have to walk in there full of, in certain respects, arrogance and pride, to be able to explain to them why our company can successful compete and deliver better services than a Telus or a Bell can.”

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