EOY at 30: UFW founder John Volken was sitting on a fortune. Then he sold it all

John Volken was the very first Entrepreneur of the Year – Pacific Region champion. Since then, he has sold the chain that brought him fame and fortune and put all the money into charitable endeavours

In 1995, John Volken took the stage in front of close to 1,000 people at the second annual EY Entrepreneur of the Year awards as the winner of the retail category. He was told to prepare for a three-minute speech. As he was walking up to the stage, someone called out, “Sing the jingle.”

Volken was the founder of United Furniture Warehouse, and anyone who watched TV or listened to the radio in Western Canada in the ’90s and early 2000s still can’t say the company’s name without adding the “bump bump” that was a feature of UFW’s ubiquitous advertising spots. He obliged and did the jingle. The crowd laughed. And Volken delivered his three-minute speech.

But then, a surprise, and a new tradition. “There were six of us winners up there, and they announced that one of us was going to win the overall Pacific Region Entrepreneur of the Year award, which was the first time we’d heard about it,” recalls the 83-year-old Volken. “And they say, ‘John Volken, United Furniture Warehouse!’ In my head I’m thinking, I just gave my talk, now what am I going to do? I stood there for a long three seconds and said, ‘I wish my jingle had a second verse.’”

The Pacific Region overall winner designation has since become a fixture of the EY Entrepreneur of the Year program, with titans of industry like Norman Keevil, Ian Telfer and Ryan Beedie, among many others, taking home the honour. Last year’s Pacific Region winners—Herbaland co-founders Aisha Yang and Musharaf Syed—were also crowned the Canadian overall winners. But it all started with the jingle.

“Afterwards, someone said, ‘John, your second talk was better than the first,’” says Volken. “I just talked about entrepreneurs, how awesome they are, how they make things move. I still remember—when I got home that night I couldn’t sleep, I was so excited. It was the beginning of realizing that it was time to give back.”

Volken, an immigrant from Germany, got into the furniture business in the early ’80s. “I didn’t have any experience in the furniture business and a good friend of mine who worked in the business told me not to do it,” says Volken. “I told him I was going to do things differently.”

John Volken and his wife, Chawna

How differently? “Number one, I wasn’t going to do any sales. How can you buy something, have it displayed and delivered and make money off it at 80 percent off? [My friend] said, ‘John, without sales you won’t survive.’ Then I said, ‘Oh, and I’m not going to have salespeople take commissions and I won’t open on Sundays.’ He said, ‘John, commissions are a part of the business and Sunday is our busiest day. Save your money, don’t get into this.’ As an entrepreneur, if you’re inspired, you follow your dream. Sometimes it doesn’t work out, but this time it did.”

In 2004, Volken sold UFW and its 80 or so stores to the Brick. He put the money toward establishing the John Volken Foundation, which he in turn used to start the John Volken Academy, a long-term residential drug and alcohol treatment facility, as well as Lift the Children, a charity designed to support vulnerable children in Africa.

He acknowledges that the academy, which has locations in Surrey; Kent, Washington; and Phoenix, isn’t an easy path back from addiction. “It’s a two year minimum program—most drug addicts don’t think that far ahead; it’s about today and tomorrow,” says Volken. “It’s difficult to recruit students, but once they’ve bought into it, it’s marvellous. The changes from before and after—it’s amazing.”

While there are differing opinions on the facility’s approach, Volken points to graduates of the program who sing its praises. “It’s very rewarding but hard work,” he says. “I’m 83 years old now and it’s a 24/7 job. But I love it; the successes are awesome. There’s no money in it—in fact, you’re paying for it—but it’s very rewarding.”