Mike Lalonde
Founder and President, Blue Pine Enterprises
(Winner)

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In the past 18 years, Mike Lalonde has been unemployed for exactly one night, when he was 25. It was January 2000, and Lalonde had what he calls “a little falling-out” with his previous employer, a landscaping company. He decided to go it alone the next morning, so he put a truck on his credit card, bought some tools, printed business cards and hit the road.

“Every day, if I didn’t have a job to do, I’d drive around to every construction site I saw and met people and handed out cards,” remembers Lalonde, who was born in Montreal and moved to B.C. as a teenager. “After a few years we started to get known in certain sectors, and word-of-mouth was definitely a big thing, and it kind of snowballed from there.” Today, Surrey-based commercial landscaper Blue Pine Enterprises has about 150 employees. “There were growing pains the whole way,” Lalonde says. “We doubled every year for five years, from about five employees to 10 to 20 to 40 to 80. From 2003 to 2008, it was on the edge of chaos every minute of every day; that’s the only way I can explain it.”

Lalonde, who studied business administration at University of the Fraser Valley for two years before dropping out, says he knew little about running a company, but he figured it out on the job. “When you’re doing it and it’s costing you money, you learn real quick,” he notes. “Within a couple of years, it was obvious that this could be a very viable business and I could grow it to a certain point. I didn’t know back then it was going to be this big, but it is, and there’s no end to it.”

Asked if he has any advice for entrepreneurs, Lalonde keeps it simple, as he always has: “Work your ass off, be honest to everybody, and find good people and treat them like gold.”

What did your summer jobs teach you about business?
Hard work gets you ahead!

Is an entrepreneur born or made?
Both. I think mostly born, though. You either have the burning desire or you don’t.

What is your definition of success?
Happiness. Affording the time to spend with your family and friends. Affording to do whatever you want, whenever.

What other career might you have had?
No idea. Anything, I guess.

What’s one thing that people would be surprised to learn about you?
I’m a bit of a redneck. I like the basics—fishing, camping, beer, steak, wine, et cetera.

Finish this sentence for us: “Entrepreneurs need a lot more…”
Time.

What businessperson do you most admire?
Richard Branson.

What do you do to unwind/relax?
What’s that?

How would you describe your leadership style?
Open, cooperative, lead by example. We have vision, set goals for people, give them all the tools they need to succeed, and monitor their success.

Name an item you typically forget to pack on business trips and regret not bringing.
I travel a lot, so I never really forget anything.


Claudia Sjoberg
Founder and President, Pedalheads Group
(Runner-up)

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If most people happened upon an empty swimming pool at a retirement home in Vancouver’s Kerrisdale neighbourhood, they wouldn’t think much of it. In 1986, though, 25-year-old Claudia Sjoberg saw an ocean of opportunity. After completing a degree in physical education at UBC, Duncan-born Sjoberg didn’t know what she wanted to do, but she craved something that would let her teach children and give them enriching experiences.

The pool became the site of the first of more than 100 private swimming and biking camps for children across the continent. Some doubted that Sjoberg’s model would work, given that community centres provided similar services, some of them free. But word-of-mouth won the day for Pedalheads Group. “Parents standing around having that playground chatter, and people start talking about it,” Sjoberg says. “That’s where we’ve been able to be successful.”

What did your summer jobs teach you about business?
I was a paper girl from age 11, pulling my little red wagon around the neighbourhoods of Duncan while making 3 cents a paper. A couple of years later I got a Vancouver Sun route and I won a Timex watch for the number of new subscriptions I signed up. I knocked on a lot of doors to get my watch, but I was ridiculously proud of it and I kept it for years. These jobs required a “self-starter” mentality. Plus, there was no supervision, so I had to learn how to manage my time. If I procrastinated getting started, or stopped to play with puppies along the way—that actually happened—I wouldn’t get done until it was very late, and I would have to ride home in the dark. I also regularly won the “most tickets sold” and “most pledges earned” prizes for school walkathons and community raffles. I loved the independence and the opportunity and challenge of doing more than everyone else.

Is an entrepreneur born or made?
Both. People can be taught many entrepreneurial skills and learn how to take their amazing idea, product or service to market successfully. However, I think people are born with the “Spidey sense” of entrepreneurship. In my family, there were union members, government employees and teachers, so not an entrepreneur in sight. It took quite a while for me to realize that the big-picture, big-vision thinking I took for granted was actually different from how other people thought. I do think, however, that even born entrepreneurs need business education and mentorship to succeed. Relatively late into my business journey, I joined a entrepreneurs’ forum and took my MBA. I think my business could have really benefited if I had started on these roads earlier.

What is your definition of success?
I think the most successful people are those who live a well-rounded life and contribute to the economy but also to the social fabric of their communities. I think philanthropy is wonderful, but I am most impressed by people who get in there and really get involved, either as a mentor or as another type of hands-on leader. I think we all have a responsibility to keep giving and sharing throughout our lives. To me, successful people are those who listen, are humble and give more than they take. I heard David Suzuki say that his 80s was his time to do his most important work. He challenged others who think retirement means hedonistic indulgences to do the same. too.

What other career might you have had?
I would have been a good mediator; I would still love to be a university professor. I still feel like my most impactful work is yet to come. The career I would have liked but lacked the talent for: opera singer.

What’s one thing that people would be surprised to learn about you?
I’ve only had one full-time job in my life!

Finish this sentence for us: “Entrepreneurs need a lot more…”
Encouragement. Until recently, going into business for yourself meant floundering around a lot without knowing where to get help or even what you need help with.

What businessperson do you most admire?
I most admire the women who started businesses at a time where gender shut them out from doing even the basic things. I once read that Grace McCarthy had to get her husband or father to co-sign a lease for her for no other reason than because she was a woman. I still think systemically the business deck is stacked for white men. I’ve always admired Howard Schultz and his vision for Starbucks. He seems to me to be a humble leader who is not afraid to acknowledge his company’s mistakes.

What do you do to unwind/relax?
I love to travel, hang out in coffee shops with my kids and walk around listening to podcasts. I’d like to say I go to my cabin, but the truth is that I don’t get there very often. I also sit on boards, am a business mentor and belong to numerous groups.

How would you describe your leadership style?
Collaborative, inclusive and informal. I think my workplace is accepting and fun-loving. I believe in my employees, but I set the goals high so everyone is challenged and pushed a little out of their comfort zones.

Name an item you typically forget to pack on business trips and regret not bringing.
It’s not what I forget to bring; it’s what I forget or lose when I am there. I never go home with everything I started with!


Joel Abramson
CEO, Fully Managed
(Runner-up)

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When Joel Abramson sold his managed IT services firm, Packetsafe Networks, to industry leader Fully Managed in 2013, he made sure his customers received a soft landing. Joining Fully Managed as vice-president, business development, Abramson didn’t anticipate being named CEO less than three years later. “I started collecting a lot of wins with the two co-founders [Chris Day and Sharleen Oborowsky] and putting an effort into growing the business,” the Vancouverite says. “The retention period came and went, and we had made significant progress.”

Abramson, who spent his teenage summers working in the IT department of Vancouver Film School before earning a BA in political science from McGill University, has helped Fully Managed grow to 75 staff. For its part, the company targets businesses with 10 to 20 employees, providing them with cloud-based support across all devices and programs.

“We’ve managed to stay on top of the B.C. and Alberta markets and are looking to continue that across the country by bringing together like-sized and like-minded companies and becoming a national player,” Abramson says.

What did your summer jobs teach you about business?
My early summer job experience built the foundational technical skills which have been vital to my success in tech. I worked in the IT department at Vancouver Film School starting at 14, which had me operating in a high-growth, innovative environment for my formative years, and it normalized the chaos of rapid change for me early on.

Is an entrepreneur born or made?
My gut says made, because I want to believe everyone can carve their own path. My experience says born, though. I think in reality, we are all a product of our circumstances yet have our own gut and instinctual traits.

What is your definition of success?
Living a balanced and meaningful life while purposefully enhancing my immediate circles of influence; creating a ripple effect of good. Success to me isn’t necessarily great wealth, but would be the freedom it can help create.

What other career might you have had?
I was slated to go into the world of finance after university, but in my final semester I stumbled upon the opportunity to co-found a network security services company. Still, the capital markets intrigue me, and luckily enough my wife works in the investment world.

What’s one thing that people would be surprised to learn about you?
I’m not the person they think I am; I just have a familiar face. I often have people come up to me and start a conversation thinking I’m someone else, which has led to some very funny scenarios.

Finish this sentence for us: “Entrepreneurs need a lot more…”
Trusted advisers. I rely heavily on my “personal board of directors” to guide my decisions and leverage their experience. I continue to add to this board every year, which unlocks new and exciting opportunities and advice.

What businessperson do you most admire?
With the rise of social media and celebrity businesspeople, some of our great leaders seem to feel more like a product than a relatable person. In the light of that, some powerful inspiration came to me from an unnamed old friend who, after a storied career at two major tech companies, left his dream job to start his own project. He focused on doing good business from the outset: seizing a gap in the market, creating an incredible product and surrounding himself with an brilliant, ambitious, hand-picked team. When the company was eventually successful and acquired, he did the right thing by rewarding every contributor along the way, taking care of them through the transaction and in their future opportunities. The incredible journey from start to finish will unfortunately never be shared publicly, but it has provided more inspiration to me than any public story I’ve read.

What do you do to unwind/relax?
Escape to my cabin on Whidbey Island—the closest place to far away.

How would you describe your leadership style?
Empathetic yet decisive. My goal is to empower everyone to have a voice while giving confidence in the direction we are going.

Name an item you typically forget to pack on business trips and regret not bringing.
Workout clothes. I always end up deprioritizing packing them, then wish I could hit the gym when I’m on the road.


Matt Collingwood + Tamsin Plaxton
Co-founders, Tamwood Group of Companies
(Runner-up)

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It took just two chats for Matt Collingwood and Tamsin Plaxton to start a business together. The Ontario natives met 25 years ago while on holiday in Hood River, Oregon, right after they’d graduated from university and were preparing to start their careers in Vancouver–in finance and law, respectively. Both had experience operating summer camps. “It came up in literally our second conversation,” Plaxton recalls. “Matt asked me, ‘Tamsin, what would you do if you could do something else?’ And I said, ‘Honestly, I would run a summer camp.”

That struck a chord with Collingwood, so the two opened their first camp in Whistler in 1993. The North America–wide business has grown to three English language schools, three career colleges and seven international summer camps, which attract attendees from across the globe.

The founders have faced challenges along the way because so many things–from the SARS scare of years past to the current U.S. government’s immigration policy–impact their company. “There’s some things you just can’t prepare yourself for,” Plaxton acknowledges. “But it’s about having good safety policies and being very careful about how we travel with our kids and where we go.”

Matt Collingwood

What did your summer jobs teach you about business?
My summer jobs were always pretty challenging, so the biggest lesson I learned there was perseverance and a strong work ethic.

Is an entrepreneur born or made?
Both, definitely. An individual can have a natural inclination toward starting businesses, but to successfully run and sustain a business is largely learned. There are some basic rules in the business world, such as watching your accounts receivable report, which, if not respected, can quickly overshadow and neutralize an entrepreneur’s hard work.

What is your definition of success?
My definition of success has a few elements: creating something that has a positive and lasting impact on society; profitability; a positive and enriching experience for my team and for me.

What other career might you have had?
Probably investment banking.

What’s one thing that people would be surprised to learn about you?
I took a year off during my undergrad and lived in South America. That year probably, in many ways, shaped my current view of the world more than any other single experience.

Finish this sentence for us: “Entrepreneurs need a lot more…”
Time to pursue the ideas they have about growing and improving their businesses.

What businessperson do you most admire?
It’s difficult to narrow this question down to just one. I learned a lot from my senior manager at my job at RBC immediately following my graduation from business school; he had a stressful job but never showed any outward signs of stress and that reassured those who worked for him and kept a high-pressure environment manageable. Also, I admire business people who successfully start and scale businesses into really large enterprises.

What do you do to unwind/relax?
I feel it’s important to stay balanced, so exercise, good food and family time are paramount for me.

How would you describe your leadership style?
I’m a very active listener. It’s my opinion that a company really begins to flourish when management encourages discourse and harnesses the ideas and visions of the team.

Name an item you typically forget to pack on business trips and regret not bringing.
Nothing. I’m a list person and generally try to pack two days prior to my trip.

Tamsin Plaxton

What did your summer jobs teach you about business?
One of my summer jobs taught me about the business of running an international summer camp. It was my experience working at a summer camp in the Swiss Alps that gave me the inspiration to start Tamwood Camps with Matt. My summer working for Butterfield & Robinson, as a bicycle guide in France, taught me the importance of exceeding clients’ expectations. My summer doing data entry for Australian Telecom taught me how to do tedious and mundane work and to appreciate more varied opportunities when they came along. My summers working in a litigation law firm taught me the importance of hard work and of taking time to proof your work with precision and care.

Is an entrepreneur born or made?
A bit of both. Life’s experiences can teach us to be resilient, grateful and humble, all important qualities for an entrepreneur, but I think you also need to be curious and a little bit stubborn to be an entrepreneur. Those traits are not something that can be learned; you either have them or you do not. I also believe that you can succeed in business without having studied business, but you may find the learning curve less steep and painful if you get some education in business fundamentals early on.

What is your definition of success?
Success for me is knowing I have helped people achieve their potential and knowing I have done the very best I can, that I have given it my all and that I have earned the trust and respect of my customers and team.

What other career might you have had?
I started university in life sciences as I wanted to be a veterinarian, but I soon realized I did not have the stomach for blood and decided to switch into business and own animals instead.

Name one thing that people would be surprised to learn about you.
I have 42 first cousins—such a big family, in fact, that there are a couple of first cousins I have not yet met.

Finish this sentence for us: “Entrepreneurs need a lot more…”
Stick-to-it-ness than I originally thought. It takes a lot of grit and a unwavering commitment to your vision to get through the inevitable tough times and to keep going when so many others would tell you to give up.

What businessperson do you most admire?
My dad, because he had enormous courage and vision in operating his businesses. My father taught me the importance of having a big vision and of not letting the non-believers get you down.

What do you do to unwind/relax?
Spend time with my daughter. When I am with her, I lose track of time, and she constantly reminds me to be in the moment and to enjoy simple things.

How would you describe your leadership style?
My leadership style has evolved over the years to a transformational style. I work to create a vision of what I aspire the company to be, and then inspire my team by communicating this idea to them. My efforts are directed at helping our team focus on eliminating deficiencies in our present while painting a picture of a compelling future full of big possibilities. I have always been willing to lead by example. I am known to have an extra-large battery, which allows me to bring a lot of energy to my work, and I hope to inspire others with my commitment.

Name an item you typically forget to pack on business trips and regret not bringing.
I usually bring my workout clothes on business trips, and often I end up not having time to use them. But it never fails that when I forget to pack them, I discover a great opportunity to do something active, like run, hike or cycle, and regret not packing them.


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