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the ladder

Michael Duck is the founder and CEO of A.C. Dispensing Equipment Inc. (SureShot Solutions)Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

Michael Duck, 59, is the founder and CEO of A.C. Dispensing Equipment Inc. (SureShot Solutions), based in Lower Sackville, N.S., the industry leader in dispensing in North America's restaurant sector.

I was born in Asbury Park, New Jersey. I wanted to be a garbage man. He was a cool cat because he would have the cool stuff you wanted hanging off the side of the truck – that bicycle frame or lawnmower with the engine you wanted so you could make a mini-bike. I worked at Howard Johnson's for 50 cents an hour as a dishwasher. If I had no dishes, I'd peel potatoes, sweep the floor. My boss said, 'You got time to lean, you got time to clean; you work too fast, you won't last; you work too slow, you gotta go.' I've always carried that advice with me.

We moved when I was 15 years old. My dad wanted to start a business and felt there were opportunities in Nova Scotia, where he started an oil-burner-repair business. I said 'Not me! I want to work from 9 to 5!' I knew more than him – I quit school in Grade 10 and worked as a stevedore on Halifax's waterfront making good money. It was a lot of work unloading ships by hand. One day, there was a forklift and pallets and I was out of a job. My dad had started a new janitorial company that had Baxter Dairies as a client. It opened a new plant in 1976 and he introduced me. I went from making $12 an hour to $3.50, starting as a general helper but I was getting married so needed that steady gig. I moved dairy cases, whatever needed doing. Whenever I had spare time, I'd fix stuff because I'm mechanically inclined, that's my freaky quality.

Everybody has their own freaky quality. Entrepreneurs have to have every club in a golf bag. We're trying all these clubs; shipping, receiving, marketing, salesperson, banker – we gotta do it all. But anybody who golfs has a go-to club. As your business grows, you've got to get back to your go-to club – your freaky quality you're good at – and delegate to other people.

When my job moving cases was done I'd fix something – that's what I liked doing. My boss saw that, so put me in maintenance – that was cool as I got more money. I saw my new boss wasn't going to be around long, so I started learning what I had to do to get his job. I did night school, correspondence courses and eventually became plant engineer.

I'd get to work around 7 a.m., stopping to get coffee for staff. [The coffee-shop employees] would add cream by hand, too much sometimes – I'd say 'easy on the cream.' My boss told me to stop complaining and do something. That was a personal challenge. If we don't take on challenges, we'll never find out how good we are. A lot of people mosey along, saying 'I should have done that.' Go challenge yourself and see what happens!

I invented dispensing machines in my basement in 1984, selling the first in 1985 to a Tim Hortons. Not being a sales guy, I gave it to them for six months, no charge, saying 'if you like it, pay for it.' After three months, they paid and ordered another. I loved my job at the dairy, working until 1990 while part-time doing $400,000 in sales of dairy- and sweetener-dispensing machines.

By 1997, up to 11 people were doing a million dollars in sales out of my basement on 30 tons of machinery, including a 1946 punch press my wife suffered hearing. We still use it. I bought a machine that cost $250,000, worth more than the house. We outgrew our first plant in four years. By 2002, we bought an injection-moulding company, then an electrical company. We now have a 65,000-square-foot plant and offices with 115 employees. We do $20-million to $25-million annually in sales.

I walk around every day talking to people. The music genre changes every two hours, there's a quiet room, exercise room, balcony, cafeteria with popcorn, … a movie theatre with race cars employees can book for their kids' birthday parties. I have my own workshop to develop machines.

For fun, I play golf, shoot sporting clays and teach performance driving on Porsches and BMWs.

As told to Cynthia Martin. This interview has been edited and condensed.