24/7 Executives is a series of stories on high-performing professionals who are as serious at play as they are in the conference room. See the other stories here.
When Simon Robin was 28, he paid off his student debts, bought a house, walked into a Porsche dealership near Montreal and bought a red 911 on the spot.
Times were good. Mr. Robin was flush thanks to his work in the exploding telecommunications industry of the late 1990s. Employers had showered him with stock options and the German auto maker's signature vehicle was among the gifts he gave himself.
But just as quickly as the electrical engineer raced into the professional and financial fast lane, he had to put on the brakes.
Mr. Robin was laid off from successive jobs at three companies in the early 2000s after they shut down amid the bursting of the tech bubble. "The next thing you know, the rug is pulled out from under your feet," he says in telephone interview from Montreal. "You're out of a job." To make ends meet, he had to sell his beloved 911 in 2002.
Fortunately, the sports car fetched a good price. "To buy a brand new car like that was a better investment at the time than the stock market," he says with a laugh. "The car didn't depreciate as fast as the stock market did."
Without work, Mr. Robin leaned on his professional experience and connections, and created his own job. He launched Hardent Inc., a consultancy specializing in electronic product design, engineering and training. Among his first customers was the U.S. parent company of his final employer.
He incorporated himself, and with that one customer alone worked 40 hours a week doing microchip design. He says the customer remains one his largest, despite Hardent being more of an international consultancy now.
"As a business owner, it was fun, but it was very difficult," he says, recalling Hardent's early days. "I had no experience in running a business. All my education, all my youth was about science. Gradually, I made one less mistake every year and got more customers."
Indeed he has. He says his private firm, which now has 22 employees and $2.65-million in annual revenue, has experienced 15- to 20-per-cent growth every year for the past half decade.
With a return to the pink, Mr. Robin went back to a Porsche dealership to acquire a new 911 – an updated version of the same model, in the same colour, as he bought at 28. This was a symbolic purchase of sorts, as Mr. Robin was able to drive away with an updated version of the same car that marked financial success nearly a decade earlier.
For Mr. Robin, though, the cars aren't just a glamorous way to get around, a shiny status symbol for the driveway. His interest goes deeper. He is also interested in restoring older Porsches, racing them and instructing others in the art of fast driving.
"When I was young, I used to play with model cars and now I pretty much do the same thing, just on a bigger scale," he says.
Mr. Robin has an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering from the University of Montreal, along with a master of science in microelectronics and biomedical. He has also completed a number of certificates from the executive education programs at Harvard Business School in Boston. But all this education didn't lend itself to helping him know how to run his own business.
"Too much theory without practice gives you the false confidence that you know about business," he says. "But in reality, there is a big difference between theory and practice. When you get into it, you'll have issues – but then you'll get the proper training."
Because he started Hardent out of necessity, he got a crash course in small-business ownership. Now, Hardent counts multinational electronics companies such as LG, Microsoft, Sony and even the National Aeronautics and Space Administration as its clients.
"It was survival. And sometimes, not having any other options helps you make it through," he explains. "Most people don't make it in business because they have other options. They didn't have to make it. True survival to do things, and keep focused on what you need, allows for interesting adventures."
Some of the adventures he has had are also away from the office. They have happened on the racetrack.
After selling his 911 in 2002, he hung on to another Porsche he had acquired – an old 944 (a two-door sports car that was in production until 1991) that he fixed up and began racing.
Despite a tough start to his business from 2002 until 2004, Mr. Robin continued to race the 944. He started going to Porsche Club meetings in Montreal and eventually became a race instructor for the club. He converted his 944 to an official racing car, as opposed to a track-ready car, in 2004.
Since he didn't come from a rich family, Mr. Robin admits his first 944 "was a piece of [junk]."
His business turned profitable at about the same time as he started to run the 944 Challenge Canada racing series, a circuit of races for Porsche 944s that goes around Ontario and Quebec.
Antoine Chaloub, an architect in Montreal, is a friend of Mr. Robin's. He is also a customer: Mr. Robin helped build a restored Porsche 944 race car from the ground up.
"My trust in him is limitless," Mr. Chaloub says. "His way of planning the construction of a race car amazed me, and his obsession to detail – how everything has to fit perfectly – I had never seen. No wonder people like him are successful. It has nothing to do with luck."
When he compares the business and racing worlds, Mr. Robin says there are a lot of similarities.
"There are a lot of unknowns in racing, just like in business. There's always stuff going on, always things happening last minute. You need to be well prepared for anything that can happen," he says. "Success in racing comes from a combination of good investments, choices and attention to detail. You need the right people around you. It's all the same ingredients if you want to have success in business."
Mr. Robin pauses when asked if there is any thrill in business that is the same as he gets when he is behind the wheel of a race car, ripping around a track at speeds north of 200 kilometres an hour.
As with many business owners, there's the thrill of the deal.
"Things happen more slowly in business obviously. But when you're working on a big business deal – several thousand dollars with a 95-per-cent margin on something you've been working on for many years – that's a thrill," he says. "It's long-term strategy rather than short-term risk, like racing."
At 28, Mr. Robin was driving without a map. Now, the 43-year-old father of three is successfully navigating both the business and racing worlds.
His love of racing has also rubbed off on his eldest son. At 15, he has already been racing go-karts for seven years – but he hasn't been behind the wheel of a Porsche yet, Mr. Robin says.
There will be a few options to choose from when he does, though. Mr. Robin now owns four Porsches – two for racing and two for regular driving.
So which one does Mr. Robin take to work every day?
"I take the train," he says, again with a hearty laugh.