BCBusiness marks a milestone: the 25th anniversary ?of our partnership with Ernst & Young (EY). From cleantech to mining to tourism and hospitality, the latest EY Entrepreneur Of The Year program for the Pacific Region upholds a long tradition of excellence.
Bells have been tolling for car sales of late; even General Motors Co.’s former vice-chair, Bob Lutz, has warned that the rise of autonomous vehicles spells the end of the automotive industry as we know it. But Christian Chia, president and CEO of OpenRoad Auto Group, isn’t putting on the brakes; the company he formed in 2000 is going pedal to the metal in pursuit of opportunities that he insists are emerging from the changing landscape.
Case in point: luxury vehicles, which the Amsterdam-born, Jakarta-raised Chia is convinced are the future of his business. “Autonomous vehicles are going to completely turn the industry upside down, and it’s going to be a boon to luxury cars,” he asserts, a trace of a Dutch accent inflecting his speech. “An autonomous car will become an extension of your home—something that you really want to socialize in, shop in, work in. And that’s why we made a concerted effort to focus on the luxury sector.”
In 2014, Richmond-based OpenRoad purchased the dealership rights to the BMW Store, the Rolls-Royce Motor Cars store and Mini Yaletown, all in Vancouver. A year later came the Langley Auto Collection, Canada’s first luxury auto mall, where moneyed shoppers can roam Audi, BMW, Infinity, Jaguar, Land Rover, Mini and Porsche showrooms. Chia is now planning an expansion into the U.S., where he aims to open a supercar destination centre in Bellevue, Washington, showcasing Bentley, Lamborghini, McLaren and Rolls-Royce.
He’s also exploring other avenues for OpenRoad, which over the past two decades has grown into the province’s largest auto retailer, with 23 dealerships and three collision centres. This fiscal year, the company is expecting about $1.3 billion in revenue from new and pre-owned car sales, as well as service and repair orders—up from last year’s $1.15 billion. “Gen Y, Gen Z, they don’t necessarily view car ownership as a goal,” Chia acknowledges. Still, he says, car- and ride-sharing companies need to be maintained and managed. “Could OpenRoad be one of the fleet management companies for these firms that are going to emerge?” he asks.
Instead of investing in “bricks and mortar,” Chia envisions a future “in mobility services, in fleet management, in technology, in autonomous, in car- and ride-sharing.” Forget the doomsayers: “It’s actually going to be a golden era for mobility and the auto industry,” he says.
What did your summer jobs teach you about business?I had a number of summer jobs, but the toughest by far was selling cars for a Toyota dealership. It taught me a couple of things. First, it’s one hell of a tough job, especially given the stigma attached. But more importantly, it taught me that if you are selling something—and in business, really, we are always selling something—you have to sell yourself first. Developing rapport and a relationship is essential if you want to succeed at selling the underlying product or service.
Is an entrepreneur born or made? Born, for sure. The taste and appetite for risk is difficult to learn: to lay it all on the line, every single day.
What is your definition of success? It’s definitely beyond business or wealth—it is time and the willingness and ability to give back.
What other career might you have had? Formula 1 race car driver! Too bad I lack the speed to be one
What’s one thing that people would be surprised to learn about you?People know me as a car lover. But I am a dog lover first!
Finish this sentence for us: “Entrepreneurs need a lot more
”Confidence to become bigger, better and more successful before they transition out of their business. Too many entrepreneurs exit their businesses too early. They shortchange themselves and their organizations. We see that a lot in B.C.
What businessperson do you most admire? Locally, probably Jimmy Pattison, for his ability to recognize opportunities where few others see them, and for his incredible work ethic and generosity. Globally, probably [Chinese business magnate and Alibaba Group Holding co-founder] Jack Ma, for his perseverance and vision.
What do you do to relax/unwind? Race cars—on the track, of course!—with my brothers.
How would you describe your leadership style? I delegate. I empower my managers. I guide and drive the vision.
Name an item you typically forget to pack on business trips and regret not bringing. Sorry, but I am a perfectionist at heart, so I have a detailed checklist that I refer to before any trip. My kids make fun of me and my “stupid checklist”
Jason McDougall convinced Hudson’s Bay Co. to sell him Fields, a chain of 57 small-town discount stores across Canada, with no idea how he would come up with the financing. Founded in 1948 by Vancouver billionaire Joe Segal, the retailer had been owned by HBC since 1978. But in 2011, the parent company announced that it was closing Fields.
“It was a crazy, hair-raising process,” McDougall says of assembling a $1-million non-refundable deposit by April 2012. The FHC Enterprises chief executive, who grew up in the village of Liberty, Saskatchewan, borrowed against all his assets and called in favours from friends. To close the deal a month later, he had to secure another $12 million in bank loans.
Then came the task of reviving a money-losing business. McDougall’s first move was to reinstate an employee benefits plan that HBC had cancelled, “even though we couldn’t afford it.” Sales dropped significantly in the first month, taking a few weeks to recover. Today McDougall is seeing returns from his community-focused approach, which gives store managers autonomy to respond to local needs. Over the past six years, revenue has grown by more than 50 percent. Delta-headquartered Fields is now profitable, with 62 locations across B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and the Northwest Territoriesand plans for more.
What did your summer jobs teach you about business?My first summer job was picking large rocks off gravel roads in our municipality. I learned I did not want to do manual labor, doing the same thing every day to earn money. I also learned that I wanted to earn more if I did more work. Essentially, I wanted to have some control over how much I earned. I read about Jimmy Pattison that summer and YPO [the Young Presidents’ Organization], and I was inspired by his story and his achievements.
Is an entrepreneur born or made? Born, but persistence is what keeps them an entrepreneur. There will be challenges along the way.
What is your definition of success?Having a fulfilling, happy life.
What other career might you have had?Hockey player.
What’s one thing that people would be surprised to learn about you?I am a certified hypnotherapist.
Finish this sentence for us: “Entrepreneurs need a lot more…”Financing.
What businessperson do you most admire?Joe Segal.
What do you do to relax/unwind? Play hockey, work out, spend time at our cabin.
How would you describe your leadership style?I give people a lot of freedom to do their job, but I will get involved when needed. I focus a lot on making sure the culture is right and people enjoy where they work.
Name an item you typically forget to pack on business trips and regret not bringing. I really don’t have anything. I have a system that seems to work well. Also, I am a low-maintenance, casual-dress guy.
When Josh Penner’s father, Darrell, decided he was ready to sell his Port Coquitlam meat and seafood shop in 1996, little did he expect his elder son to make an offer. But Penner, who studied marketing at BCIT and trained in meat cutting, had started managing the store and was armed with a vision.
With his wife, brother and brother-in-law, he added three new shops to Meridian Meats & Seafood, focusing on locations next to greengrocers in Maple Ridge and Langley. His next move, to expand into other fresh foods, was inspired by a frustrating supermarket visit. “I had to walk 50 metres to go find the milk, 30 metres to find a loaf of bread and then line up,” Penner recalls. “It was a 25-minute visit just to buy a couple of things.”
Penner launched Meridian Farm Markets, converting the Maple Ridge meat and seafood store and building two more in North Vancouver and Tsawwassen. Today, 200 employees work at those three locations and at three Meridian Meats & Seafood shops in White Rock, Langley and Port Coquitlam. In November, Penner will open a fourth Farm Market, in Mission.
What did your summer jobs teach you about business?1. Serve your people. I remember one shift at Buy-Rite Market in Port Coquitlam, I was restocking the dairy and accidentally knocked over a stack of crates of milk. I watched, as if it were in slow motion, as the tower of cartons crashed to the floor and a tidal wave of milk flooded Aisle 3. The owner ran over to me and asked if I was OK. Then he started to laugh out loud and told me not to worry, and that he’d give me a hand. He was a busy man, but for the next half hour he worked beside me, mop in hand chatting with me, until it was all cleaned up. He then thanked me with a pat on the back for the effort. He never mentioned the mistake again. From that point on, I worked as hard as I possibly could for that man and his company. That experience taught me that leaders earn the respect and loyalty of their people when they take a personal interest in them, and support them and help them through their challenges.
2. Show them your appreciation, every chance you get. Same job, same store owner: I was bagging groceries at the checkout, and the customer realized she was short money and couldn’t pay for all of her groceries. It was cash or cheque only back in those days. The owner was passing by and overheard. Without a moment of hesitation, he told the customer with a smile, “No problem at all! You can pay us next time.” The surprised customer politely argued, but he insisted, and then helped get her bags to her car. The grocery store across the street was bigger and fancier, but Buy-Rite Market had a fiercely loyal customer base—they knew a lot of them by name. To this day, I think of that experience and remember the lesson I learned: seize any opportunity you get to make your customer feel appreciated.
Is an entrepreneur born or made?Both. All the entrepreneurial souls I have known have this fire in their belly when it comes to their business, and their drive always has less to do with money and everything to do with the satisfaction that comes from dreaming up and creating new solutions to meet people’s needs. They are born business thrill-seekers, willing to risk what others are not to bring new ideas to fruition. On the other hand, I think entrepreneurialism can be an infectious thing. One day someone can be an accountant thinking life is amazing at the firm they work at, and then they see how much fun someone else is having running their own business, and they catch the entrepreneurial bug. And once it bites you, I don’t think you can ever really go back to the typical 9-to-5.
What is your definition of success?This may sound a bit poetic, but I believe success is happiness, and true happiness comes from gratitude. Successful people feel gratitude every day for what they have, especially family, and the opportunities they are given. Success is the happiness they feel in life as a result of their gratitude.
What other career might you have had?At one point in time I wanted to be an advertising executive. After high school, I enrolled in a marketing program at BCIT. Partway into it, I decided it wasn’t my pathway, and I couldn’t wait for it to be over. Ironically, now marketing is my favourite part of running the business.
What’s one thing that people would be surprised to learn about you?I like drawing cartoons. When I was younger, I taught a cartooning class at the local rec centre.
Finish this sentence for us: “Entrepreneurs need a lot more
”Humility. An entrepreneur, of course, needs to have self-confidence. But I’ve learned that self-confidence can be a self-destructive illusion that keeps you and others from reaching higher potential. It’s important to remember you don’t have to have all the answers, and you need to give other people space and opportunity to shine.
What businessperson do you most admire?Walt Disney. I’ll forever admire his focus on creating a company and culture so zeroed in on giving people the best possible experience: his audiences, his guests, his customers and their people.
What do you do to relax/unwind?I have four daughters who all do Scottish Highland dancing. My wife and I spend a lot of time watching them practise and compete, which brings us both a lot of enjoyment. I’ve also discovered that bagpipe music is actually relaxing to listen to! I realize that most would not agree with that statement. Also, I really enjoy reading books about other entrepreneurs. I just finally read the Elon Musk biography, which was an interesting read.
How would you describe your leadership style?Charismatic and diplomatic. I want the people I work with to work hard, press forward and have fun doing it. I want them to have a value-added career experience. Ideally, I want them to stay and grow with us for the course of the company journey, but if they decide to step off our ride before it’s over, I want them to remember it forever as a satisfying and fun time in their life. As often as possible, I want people to make their own decisions. I really like to help people find their own groove and set their own goals, and I encourage them to push their limits.
Name an item you typically forget to pack on business trips and regret not bringing.I can’t say I go on a lot of business trips, but I am on the road a fair bit and always leave behind my laptop wireless mouse. I’ve bought a lot of them—like, three to four a year.
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