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the ladder

Jim EstillGlenn Lowson/The Globe and Mail

Jim Estill is owner and chief executive officer of Danby, an appliance company based in Guelph, Ont. He helped more than 50 Syrian refugee families settle in Canada, sponsoring them with $1.5-million of his own money and assembling a team of 800 volunteers.

As a kid growing up in Woodstock, Ont., I had a snow-shoveling business. I had a few contracts [with neighbours] to shovel their driveways. I'd set my alarm for 4:30 a.m. on nights we thought it would snow so I could get all my driveways done and then knock on doors and get the ones who didn't have a contract. I started a painting business when I was about 14 and it was after I had some success [with that] that I decided my only passion was to run my own business.

I started selling computers because I wanted to design circuit boards. I was studying systems design engineering at the University of Waterloo. At that time, computers were very expensive and I figured out that I got a better deal if I bought two and then sold one. I basically went for the dealer discount so I could buy wholesale, but in order to do that I had to sell some product. As I got bigger and bigger, I had to scale it, so I hired some people, I rented an office. Part of what helped [me] scale was the advent of computer stores – I became one of the sources selling to computer stores when they started coming out.

I sold my company to Synnex Corporation [an information-technology supply-chain services company] in 2004 and part of the deal was that I would be CEO of Synnex Canada. Six months later, I thought this was the worst decision I ever made. When I was running my business, I'd say, 'We should buy this building,' and we would buy the building. But I'd go to Synnex and say, 'Let's buy that building,' and they'd say, 'No.' I went to one of my mentors and he said, 'The problem is, you're not selling to Synnex.'

I'd been selling all my life – you go in, you make the pitch, if you don't make the sale, you say, 'How can I make the sale?' It always energizes me to figure out how to do it.

So I changed my psychology – I deliberately set out to figure out how could I sell head office. I studied it and built a plan and we went from $800-million to $2-billion in five years, which is awesome.

I retired from Synnex, moved to New York and ran an early-stage venture fund for five years. My dad got sick, so I moved quickly back to Guelph where he lived, started a little search-engine-optimization company within walking distance from my home. I thought it would be my retirement business.

I sat on the board of Danby, and when the CEO resigned, I thought, I can run Danby. I've had experience running a $400-million company. Then the family that owned [Danby] said they want to sell the business and so I bought it. Retirement is overrated.

I decided to sponsor Syrian refugees because I consider myself to be a humanitarian. One of the things I've always said over the years in my business is, 'Do the right thing.' I've been repeating do the right thing for 25 years, so to see something like [the situation in Syria] and not do anything, I had to do the right thing. It became part of me.

I planned to bring in 250 people, thought I'll do my little bit. Now I've changed my goal – I want to inspire more people to do what I'm doing.

I believe in failure. Fail often, fail fast, fail cheap. I've probably had more failures than anyone else, but the key is to keep them small enough. I'd be doing four things at once, one of the them would kick in and do well, and people would think, Jim's a genius. What they forgot is three of them fell on the floor and didn't work.

My advice for young entrepreneurs is, think big, execute small. The media has glorified business into thinking it's an invention game. It's not an invention game. You drive through Toronto and Mississauga and you will see 98 per cent of the businesses doing things that their neighbour is doing, but they're doing tiny little things a bit better than their neighbour. It's not Dragon's Den. You can make money in virtually any business as long as you execute a little bit better than the other company.

As told to Shelley White. This story was edited and condensed.

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