Entrepreneur of the Year 2005 - B2C Products and Services

The first thing you notice when you enter the Victoria offices of online book brokers Abebooks is that someone has spent a lot of time with the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. Everywhere you turn, you’re confronted by quotes from such varied sources as Emile Zola, Winston Churchill and Jimi Hendrix. The most striking of these is above the reception desk. Attributed to Grand Prix race-car driver Mario Andretti, it reads: “If everything seems under control, you’re not going fast enough.” The second thing you notice is that despite what CEO Hannes Blum (far right) and COO Boris Wertz would have you believe, everything does seem to be under control. In an open workspace, groups of technicians search for glitches, web designers test new shopping-cart functions and the marketing group brainstorms new ways of besting Amazon. The premise behind Abebooks is simple: booksellers can list and sell their inventory to customers from across the globe while the company charges subscription fees for listings and picks up a cool eight-per-cent commission on each sale. Booksellers can also sign up for credit card processing and reseller programs with Amazon and Half.com. But unlike Amazon, there’s no need for a warehouse, and the logistics of shipping and handling are the seller’s responsibility. “We never touch the book,” says Blum. “The order comes in, we forward the order to the bookseller and process the payment if needed. Then the bookseller shifts the book directly to the end customer.” Blum and Wertz, who together own seven per cent of the company, are coy when it comes to discussing profits but will reveal that in 2004, the value of books sold was more than US$130 million and that revenue is up by 30 per cent each year. Abebooks, which employs 82 staff at its Victoria headquarters and 19 staff in its European office, was named one of the top e-business sites by the UN at the 2003 World Summit Awards. Given its global presence and steadily expanding reach – the company maintains websites in English, German, French and Spanish and is eyeing the Asian market – what’s most surprising about the company is that it has existed in its current form for only three years. Before that, Blum and Wertz were busy running JustBooks, the German company they started while completing their PhDs in, paradoxically, logistics. Launched in 1999, JustBooks became the leading European Internet-based intermediary of used books within two years. In 2001, it was snapped up by the North American-based Abebooks, which was founded in 1996 in Victoria by Cathy Waters, a used bookstore owner, and her husband Keith Waters. Blum and Wertz were later asked by the board to take over, and they moved to Victoria in 2003 and 2001, respectively. (Burda, a German media company, owns most of Abebooks.) Abebooks’ success has much to do with the German precision with which Blum and Wertz approach their business. “Both companies, Abebooks as well as JustBooks, were always very conservatively managed,” says Wertz. “We never followed this Internet craze of expanding too rapidly.” Blum and Wertz avoid making hyperbolic statements you might expect from two young (37 and 32, respectively), ambitious businesspeople tackling a market estimated at $50 billion. A modest 10-per-cent market share over the next seven years is all they’ll admit to coveting. And they ­readily confess that the Internet will never ­replace in-store shopping. But for all their talk of proceeding with caution, there’s no doubt that beneath their cool, collected exteriors, these partners are dreaming big. Just look at the William Blake quote up on the wall: “No bird soars too high if he soars with his own wings.” Runners-up Brian Scudamore Some people look to the future and see renewable energy sources or new mobile technologies. Scudamore sees junk. Lots of it. And nothing makes the 35-year-old founder and CEO of 1-800-GOT-JUNK? happier. Scudamore has reason to smile. At 18, he started his junk removal business with $700 and an old pick-up truck. This year, that same business – now with 71 franchises across North America – is set to hit $70 million in sales. And Scudamore insists it will be $1 billion by 2012. Christian Chia Car salespeople have a bad rap, says Chia, the 36-year-old CEO of OpenRoad Auto Group. “Our ­industry still suffers from a ­stigma,” he admits. When Chia took over the family business in 1997, he instigated a number of changes. He centralized a collection of independently operating dealerships and introduced no-pressure sales. He also pimped out his stores with Internet kiosks, coffee bars and video games. This year, OpenRoad, which runs seven dealerships in the Lower Mainland, logged revenues of over $200 million – up 21.4 per cent from last year. Related stories: Entrepreneur of the year 2005 Entrepreneur of the year 2005 - Natural resources Entrepreneur of the year 2005 - Health sciences Entrepreneur of the year 2005 - Manufacturing Entrepreneur of the year 2005 - Information technology Entrepreneur of the year 2005 - Business-to-business products and services Entrepreneur of the year 2005 - Emerging entrepreneur