Entrepreneur of the Year 2017: Manufacturing

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

Gary Shokar
President, AvenEx Coating Technologies Inc. (Winner)

Three years ago, Gary Shokar found himself out of a job. Escorted out after the hostile takeover of his family-owned firm, Shokar built a competitor with incredible speed, scaling up his construction supply company, AvenEx Coating Technologies, from a dozen to more than 1,000 employees. “When I was let go, just because I had ties to prior ownership—that gave me all the incentive I needed,” he says.

Raised in Pitt Meadows, Shokar got an early start in sales, landing a job selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door around Salmon Arm at age 18. After studying sciences at UBC, he went into business with his father, who co-owned InterWrap Inc., a maker of roofing supplies now based in Vancouver. In his role as head of market development, he grew his division to $40 million in annual revenue. In 2013, Shokar senior’s business partner sold his 50 per cent stake to a private equity firm. The new owners wanted new management, and Shokar was let go.

He set to work building AvenEx. Recruiting a team of industry experts and soliciting clients, Shokar quickly found success. These days, AvenEx is one of Canada’s leading manufacturers of multi-layered polyethylene construction materials, which are commonly used to waterproof or retain water. AvenEx’s product lines range from roofing seals that go under shingles to house wraps to irrigation bedding. Shokar is particularly proud of his company’s development of irrigation products that can hold millions of gallons of water even through particularly tough monsoon seasons in South Asia, a growing market for AvenEx.

With a team of 10 in Canada, including staff at the company’s headquarters and R&D lab in Vancouver, Shokar oversees production facilities in South Carolina and Asia and sells to customers ranging from farmers in India to Fortune 500 companies.

What’s one thing that people would be surprised to learn about you?
The fact that I’ve been working since I was 11. I started out refereeing soccer games

Ankit Sharma
CEO, Kitply Industries (Runner-up)

After earning a BBA from Kwantlen Polytechnic University, Ankit Sharma worked in sales at a Surrey lumber and plywood wholesaler. But he dreamed of making more for his family, recent immigrants from India. Having defined a niche for his own venture selling products to manufacturers of cabinets, furniture and millwork, Sharma founded Kitply Industries in 2009 at age 23. Most distributors focused on big-ticket items such as lumber and plywood, which he would carry, but he specialized in smaller products like edge-banding and shop supplies–nuisance items for the larger players.

“We started with the concept of being a department store, but not to that level because we didn’t have the cash,” Sharma says. “So we were like a 7-Eleven.” He and his wife, Amrit Mansahia, put in long hours while raising two children, and the model worked. Kitply now employs 11 people, counts more than $6 million in annual revenue and distributes some 20,000 products across the country. The company will soon move into its own 10,000-square-foot facility in Surrey.

Stephen Lawson
President, Tag Hardware Systems Ltd. (Runner-up)

Born and raised in England, Stephen Lawson came to Canada to complete a masters in applied science at UVic. He worked at Surrey-based Vanguard Plastics Ltd., where he became general manager. In 2001, Lawson left his job and founded Tag Hardware Systems, with the idea of designing and manufacturing accessories and hardware for companies in the closet-organizing industry, then in its early years. The first customer for his line, which features elements such as a drawer system, pullout racks, hooks and laundry hampers, was California Closets, a subsidiary of Toronto-headquartered FirstService Corp.; those that followed included powerhouse German distributor Häfele GmbH & Co. KG.

“These companies generally have no desire to go out there and develop product,” Lawson says. “So I thought, ‘Let them brand it out into the market,’ because that’s the quickest way to get your products into the hands of millions of people. It keeps us focused on research and development and patenting and the fun stuff.” Based in Surrey, with a staff of 30, Tag now reaches customers on four continents and posts eight-figure revenue.

How would you describe your leadership style?
I tend to leave everyone alone. I like to hire self-starters. I’m a technician more than a people person. I try to lead through example