Steven Gula, president, NII Northern International | BCBusiness
Return to: B.C. Entrepreneur of the Year 2012
Congratulations to Steven Gula, John Bacher and Paul Jean, the respective president and executive VPs for NII Northern International Inc., the 2012 Pacific Region Enterpreneurs of the Year in Manufacturing.
The story of Coquitlam-based NII Northern International Inc. is really that of a light going on. Company principals Steven Gula and John Bacher hadn’t yet settled on a career when Bacher’s father, Norman Bacher, owner of Hardcraft, an importer and manufacturer of home-improvement products, invited John to come work for him. Gula joined soon after, and by the early 1990s, the two had ownership positions in the company. Paul Jean, a former buyer for the Rona and Pascal’s hardware chains, had also joined as a sales representative.
Hardcraft sold in 1995, but Gula, Bacher and Jean began looking for a new venture. “All three of us had always had a very good eye for identifying holes in the marketplace,” Gula says.
One of the gaps at the time was in outdoor lighting. The selection of products available at the time was poor, and hadn’t matched the sophistication of indoor lighting. Garden lights were either on or off; a built-in dimmer switch or motion sensor was unknown. The technology at the time “either wasted a lot of energy or it shut off before it should shut off, and didn’t fulfill the functions that a low-voltage lighting system should,” Gula explains.
Northern International developed a transformer that would provide ambient light in the evening, and power down after hours. Any movement would turn on the system, enhancing yard safety as well as security. “It solved a lot of issues that weren’t being addressed in the marketplace,” Bacher points out.
Home Depot placed an order to stock 19 stores before a single unit existed, pushing Northern International to develop, test, manufacture and receive safety approvals for its product within three months. That was 1999; today, its products are in more than 5,000 locations worldwide. A successful line of flameless candles, also using LEDs, was added to its offerings in 2003. Manufacturing operations in China execute designs developed at offices in Toronto and Montreal.
Bacher credits the attitude his father instilled for the company’s success. “My father guided us into the fact that you can’t be ‘me too’; you’ve got to really look for the marketplace and feel it and understand it,” he says.
What did you want to be when you were a kid?
Steven Gula: Happy and successful.
John Bacher: A medical doctor.
Paul Jean: Self-employed.
What was your first big break in your current business?
Gula: We decided if we’re going to go big, let’s go the biggest and we started to try and sell this system to the largest home improvement retailer in the world at the time.
Looking back, what’s one thing you would do differently, professionally speaking?
Bacher: The one thing we might have done is start building the infrastructure in China a little bit quicker.
What book do you recommend for entrepreneurs starting out?
Gula and Bacher: Jim Collins, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap . . . and Others Don’t.