Entrepreneur of the Year 2017: Financial Services

The annual Ernst & Young list of B.C.'s brightest business visionaries finds a fresh crop of leaders building empires in everything from renewable energy to venture capital to social enterprise

Hamed Shahbazi
CEO, Tio Networks Corp. (Winner)

Hamed Shahbazi spent 20 years building the Vancouver-based fintech startup he founded, Tio Networks, but officially went from entrepreneur to corporate employee this past summer. Silicon Valley giant PayPal Holdings Inc. bought his bill-payment-processing company for $302 million in July. Shahbazi has stepped down as Tio’s chief executive to take on two new titles: vice-president of PayPal’s bill-payment service and the general manager for PayPal Canada’s bill-payment service. Although his nameplate may change, he’ll keep running Tio as a separate unit within PayPal.

Don’t expect Shahbazi to switch off his entrepreneurial drive. He sees the deal as an opportunity to leverage PayPal’s resources and reach to turn his U.S.-centric business into a global one. “For me, the biggest part of this was impact,” Shahbazi says of the changes he anticipates. “Whether it’s the PayPal name, brand, balance sheet, network size—it just gives us a huge platform to go out there and make a bigger impact.”

Being an entrepreneur is the only work Shahbazi has really known. Days after he graduated from UBC in 1997 with a degree in civil engineering, he started the business that would become Tio. At first, his company installed Internet kiosks in shopping centres so customers could stop to browse or check their email while running errands.

Internet access was growing to become widely available, so Shahbazi pivoted around 2002 to make bill-payment kiosks instead. The machines often serve people who don’t use traditional banks, letting them pay their utilities, phone and cable bills in locations like drugstores and gas stations. Tio added mobile and web platforms to keep advancing with technology. The company has partnered with some of the biggest telecom and utility providers in the U.S., such as AT&T Inc. and Pacific Gas and Electric Co., as well as retailers like Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc. Tio processed more than US$7 billion worth of consumer bill payments in fiscal 2016 and serves 16 million consumer bill-pay accounts.

What did your summer jobs teach you about business?
Hustle. You see just how much you have to work to make a buck. Everything takes effort

Dave Feller
Founder and CEO, Mogo Finance Technology Inc. (Runner-up)

Dave Feller owes a debt to his years spent in debt. He earned a BA in economics and French from the University of Western Ontario in 1991, racking up $10,000 in credit-card bills along the way. The painful decade that Feller spent digging himself out inspired him to disrupt Canada’s lending industry and give loan consumers a better experience.

Feller became a pub owner after graduating, then a day trader for five years before searching for another venture to start. “I realized I didn’t want to sit in front of the computer for the rest of my life, by myself,” he explains. He craved human interaction and wanted to create a lasting impact with his next business.

Feller launched Mogo Finance Technology in 2003 as a short-term lender operating out of retail stores. It’s now a multi-platform provider of personal loans, mortgages, prepaid credit cards and free credit-score monitoring. Mogo has more than 400,000 members and 265 employees.

What other career might you have had?
If there was another career I could be in, it would be in movies. Directing or producing movies

Michael Wendland
President and Founder, Refresh Financial Inc. (Runner-up)

Michael Wendland learned firsthand the value of a good credit score when he was denied a mortgage in 2010. His credit report revealed he had a small outstanding debt–the annual fee for a credit card he stopped using and thought was deactivated. “I was surprised,” Wendland says. “It was extra humbling for me because at the time I was a mortgage broker.” The ironic turn propelled him to start a business to help others get their credit on track.

Wendland borrowed an idea from U.S. credit unions that had yet to make a mark in Canada: providing credit-builder loans to people with bad credit. His company, Kelowna-based Refresh Financial, extends credit when nobody else will. Clients don’t receive the money they’re ostensibly borrowing up front, though. Instead, their loan payments go into a savings fund they unlock when the loan term ends–usually after three years. It’s essentially a layaway plan for a loan. Refresh, which employs more than 80 people, has helped some 40,000 clients since it launched in 2013.

What’s one thing that people would be surprised to learn about you?
My side gig, that I would love to become, is a DJ. I don’t look the part of a typical DJ, but I would love to be one at some point in my life