Gary Collins, President, Coastal Contacts Inc.

After a stint as the province's finance minister, Gary Collins is implementing a new vision as the head of Coastal Contacts.

Gary Collins, president, Coastal Contacts | BCBusiness

After a stint as the province’s finance minister, Gary Collins is implementing a new vision as the head of Coastal Contacts.

After four years as B.C.’s minister of finance, Gary Collins is no stranger to overseeing a big budget. It’s a skill that will come in handy as he applies his vision to Coastal Contacts, the online eyewear company that brought in $184 million in revenue in 2011. Collins draws upon a wealth of experience – including time spent in politics and as a flight instructor and CEO of an airline – as he looks to technology to turn this Vancouver company into a major player south of the border.

What attracted you to Coastal?
I know Roger [Hardy], the founder, and I’ve watched the business that he’s built here and the team that he’s built. I think they’re at a major inflection point: moving pretty significantly into growing the very large U.S. market. I think this is a real opportunity for me to add some value to the team here and see what we can accomplish.

What is your first priority for Coastal?
The company and leadership team is focused on moving into the U.S. market. We have a footprint there, but we believe there is significant potential to grow that in a very large way. We’re getting great traction with the product and the service quality that we have, and we just want to continue to run that as far as we can and see what we can accomplish. For the first time, 51 per cent of our glasses were sold into the U.S. as opposed to Canada, so we’re reaching a tipping point there.

Is Coastal’s success evidence that people are becoming increasingly comfortable shopping online?
More and more shopping is going online or to mobile devices; there’s no question about that. That’s partly people becoming more comfortable, but also the demographic is aging. Those people in that demographic are generally very computer savvy. If they don’t have an actual computer, they’ve now got a tablet or they’ve got a smartphone, which can do all of those things as well. It really is a storefront in everyone’s pocket. Ten years ago you wouldn’t have thought that people would buy shoes online, and now Zapos is a massive U.S. company. Contact lenses were next, and we’re finding great success with the quality and the value that we can deliver, as well as the convenience. We can manufacture and ship product and get most of it out either overnight or in two days. That beats the bricks-andmortar companies quite handily.

What advantages are there to operating entirely online?
We have a very low overhead. We’re also vertically integrated: we design all of our private labels for glasses and contact lenses. We have a manufacturing facility here in Vancouver that produces all of that: manufactures the glasses, assembles them and ships them. There are no real middlemen in the transaction, so we’re able to pass those savings on in a significant way to the consumer.

Has revenue from mobile sales grown significantly?
More and more we’re seeing that. Certainly right across the e-commerce sector people engaging in transactions on their smartphones has gone through the roof, and continues to grow. Not everybody has a tablet and not everybody has a computer, but pretty much everyone in a certain age demographic has some form of a phone. We look at our website all the time, as to how it integrates well with mobile devices. The IT people here are constantly upgrading and improving that product. You’ve got to go where the customers are, and that’s where they are.

You were an MLA from 1991 to 2004. What was it like leaving politics for the private sector?
It felt good. I left seven years ago and I’ve watched some of my colleagues leave. I think it’s good, and healthy, to have turnover like that. I think at some point you need to take a break or go and do something else and get some new blood in there with fresh ideas and fresh eyes on things. When I left, it was bittersweet. Certainly I miss the intensity of it, and I miss the ability to effect real positive change on such a broad spectrum. But there are lots of benefits in the private sector, number one being you get to see your kids grow up.

Do you see yourself entering the public sector again?
Politics is sort of like a black hole for me, so I try and avoid getting pulled back in. I sort of swim around it and help where I can when the phone rings, but I work pretty hard not to get pulled back into it. I loved doing it when I did it, and I love doing what I’m doing now.

You’re from Saskatchewan, but came to B.C. for university. What lured you to the West Coast?
The weather and my motorcycle. I finished high school, and I got on my motorcycle and I moved to the West Coast. But I go back [to Saskatchewan] every summer. I’m one of seven kids, and my father built a summer cottage for us, which back in the day had an outhouse and no running water. Now it’s a little fancier. Between us we have three cottages out there now, and we go back every summer. If you ask my kids whether they’d rather go to Disneyland or the lake, they’d pick the lake.