Rick Bohonis: Raising the Roof

Rick Bohonis President, Urban Barn Ltd.

Rick Bohonis
President, Urban Barn Ltd.

Falling off a ladder and breaking a shoulder isn’t usually how a business success story starts, but for Rick Bohonis it was just such a workplace accident that led him to consider a new career path. In 1990 he and his high-school friend Craig Stewart decided over beers in the pub to start a business. The two dabbled in closet storage solutions, with a retail storage-container store called Homeworks, but they finally hit their stride in 1992 when they opened the first Urban Barn in Vancouver’s City Square Mall.

Seventeen years later, Urban Barn has 32 locations across Canada and another four planned for 2009 and five more for 2010. This aggressive expansion resulted in 275 per cent revenue growth in 2008 over 2007 – in an industry that has been hard hit by the economic downturn. Bohonis, 52, is well aware of the challenges. “We are seeing some significant players that are in trouble and more than some have gone into receivership,” he notes. He points to Linens ’N Things on a national level and Yaletown Sofas locally, but he hints that there are more home furnishings stores teetering on the precipice of bankruptcy.

Bohonis feels Urban Barn is in a good position to take advantage of these tough times because it has always been fiscally prudent, has cash in reserve and has built good relationships with its banks. The sagging economy has opened up storefront lease opportunities Bohonis wasn’t seeing a year ago and has eased the labour shortage the company felt in 2007 and 2008. Bohonis is also targeting a new demographic, a group he describes as “the people who have disposable income and are prepared to dispose of it, but they don’t want to look garish.”

That’s not to say the company’s earnings haven’t taken a hit. In fact, Bohonis had budgeted for a $750,000 loss in the first few months of 2009 and was ecstatic to see the company break even. Overall, it finished the fiscal year with revenues of $49.7 million, up 15 per cent over the previous year. It’s not as high as it should be, given that the company added five new stores in 2008, but, in this climate, Bohonis is pretty excited about it.

His desire to create a fun workplace is a marker of his success. Bohonis says the corporate culture happened organically, a byproduct of his casual and open management style. It’s the kind of place where the doors are left open and you can bring your dog to work. In fact, Bohonis’s six-month-old Weimaraner, Eddie, sits in his office and routinely interrupts his calls with playful yelps. Some might joke that the pup is his new partner, since Stewart retired in April 2009.

Retirement is not on Bohonis’s horizon. “I’m around as long as they want me to be here,” he says humbly. “You know, you talk about being positive in a crazy economic time; I just find it really exciting.” And he is a thrill seeker, spending his spare time wakeboarding around Gambier Island, snowboarding or mountain biking in the Interior or on Cypress, just minutes from the West Vancouver home he shares with his son Luke (19) and daughter Samarra (17).