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Profab founder and chief executive officer Jason Parks. (JANNA SOUKUP/PROFAB)
Profab founder and chief executive officer Jason Parks. (JANNA SOUKUP/PROFAB)

OVERCOMING OBSTACLES

Young entrepreneurs caged by age Add to ...

At the age of 31 and with nine years in business under his belt, Profab Corp. founder and chief executive officer Jason Parks figured he’d have no problem signing a deal to rent new, high-end head-office space in Calgary.

But after he left an initial meeting, the landlord turned to Mr. Parks’s realtor and said: “I’ve seen a lot of young guys like him come and go, and they’re all talk.” He told the realtor the deal was off.

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When Mr. Parks heard about it from his realtor, he was not really surprised.

He was just 22 when he launched Profab – which began as a welding company and now has 150 employees and several divisions servicing the oil, gas, construction and agriculture industries – and Mr. Parks knows he has a young-looking face.

Indeed, he’s already hung pictures of himself, clearly labelled as CEO, at the reception desks of his two fabrication facilities in Red Deer and Grande Prairie, Alta., for the benefit of customers who drop by and question whether he’s really the boss.

It’s the kind of situation that a lot of young entrepreneurs face. While young entrepreneurship is on the rise, and many firms are headed by fresh-faced bosses, their age can sometimes create problems and cause them to meet resistance.

Just because of how old they are, or how old they look, some entrepreneurs may face assumptions about their competence from customers or suppliers, and others may have difficulties with employees working for a boss decades their junior.

They may also have to overcome financing obstacles, as financial institutions balk at their lean ages and credit histories. Some find people just don't take them seriously.

So what do they do about it? Mr. Parks’s solution was to show off his success.

He gathered a few pages of financial information about Profab that showed the company was growing and thriving, and sent them over to the landlord the next day.

The landlord changed his mind about the deal right away and “has been my best friend ever since,” says Mr. Parks, who plans to move into his new head-office space in November.

Steve Curtis was just 19 when he launched search-engine-optimization marketing firm Zag Global Inc. in Vancouver 11 years ago.

To make himself look older, in the early days, he tried to grow a beard.

But it never filled in, so Mr. Curtis chose to simply avoid being seen, particularly by clients from Fortune 500 companies.

For the first several years, he ran Zag over the phone and by e-mail. Invited to face-to-face meetings and conferences, he got out of them whenever he could.

“It was an adaptive strategy – I knew it wouldn’t work to do business in person,” Mr. Curtis recalls.

Vancouver-based entrepreneur Arnold Leung took an opposite approach after launching Web and mobile applications company Appnovation Technologies when he was just 21.

He overcompensated for his young face with studied, grown-up talk.

“I always made sure I was talking in a highly professional way, with no slang and properly structured sentences,” Mr. Leung says.

It worked at first, and got potential clients to take him seriously. When he grew more confident and less worried about his age, he loosened up.

“I realized different people like to talk differently. Some like to be more relaxed and talk about life and family, others want to talk about golfing, others want to get straight to business.” says Mr. Leung, who has now been in business for four years and has 32 employees.

While it can be rough to be decades younger than your clients, it may also be a problem to have an age gap with your own staff.

That happened to Mr. Parks, whose team of welders was mostly several years older than he was

In the early years of his business, some gave him attitude on the shop floor, he says, and he heard them mutter things like “young punk” under their breath.

He pulled a few of these guys aside and told them to shape up. They promptly quit.

“It backfired on me, so I learned to ignore it,” he recalls. “I stopped telling them. I showed them what I could do.”

He welded alongside them, focused on running his business well and turning a profit. When he had proved himself, he gained the respect of his staff and the problem went away.

It can also work the other way. When Mr. Curtis recruited a 50-year-old finance expert in the early days, the employee was respectful of his boss and offered a slew of wise suggestions.

But, with maturity not on his side, Mr. Curtis says he didn’t listen to his employee’s ideas, or those of anyone else, for that matter. The older staffer lasted less than two years and the company experienced other high turnover as well.

Financing can also be a hurdle. Just after he launched Profab, Mr. Parks needed a $40,000 loan to buy a truck but the bank turned him down.

“I didn’t have any credit rating and I didn’t have enough experience and years under my belt, they told me.”

His solution was simply not to give up. He approached seven banks. In the end, his own branch, where staff knew him, took a chance and offered him a personal loan.

Tenacity was also the weapon Mr. Curtis used to deal with financial issues.

He had had just set up his business accounts at one bank when his first client wrote a bad cheque. The bank immediately closed down all of Zag’s accounts. Mr. Curtis says he assumes that happened because he was a new client with a limited financial history.

So he got on the phone. His pleas were ignored until his persistence paid off. He eventually got in touch with the bank’s vice-president for Western Canada and got his accounts reactivated.

As Mr. Curtis’s business grew, he also grew increasingly creative. At 21, he registered for a six-week business course at Harvard University. On the application, he claimed to be 40.

After Mr. Curtis’s staffing problems, about six years ago, a colleague suggested that the young entrepreneur pay a visit to an executive coach. The coach, in turn, sent him to a therapist, who got him talking about his issues with feeling insecure.

“I had a lot of growing up to do,” he admits.

After a few months, he found himself becoming a better listener and delegator at work. Staff retention rates soared.

Today, his firm has about 40 employees and has diversified into five separate units offering a range of products and services, from business consulting to energy drinks.

Mr. Parks recognizes that he's had to overcome obstacles simply because of his age.

"In the early years, we'd bid on jobs and we'd lose them because of our lack of experience. It took a long time to build a clientele," he says.

"It would have been easier if I was older."

Special to The Globe and Mail

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