Entrepreneur Of The Year 2021 winner: Rizwan Somji proved that Cymax Group’s business has legs, with help from the pandemic e-commerce boom

Under CEO Rizwan Somji, furniture e-tailer and shipping specialist Cymax Group has greatly expanded its business.

Somji has led the furniture e-tailer and shipping specialist through a major expansion

Just a few things have happened since Rizwan Somji was appointed CEO of Burnaby-based furniture dropshipper and e-commerce firm Cymax Group in January 2019. Somji, who got the top job after four years with the company in various roles, found Cymax at something of a crossroads.

The business had seen a US$25-million Series A fundraising round, partly led by Plenty of Fish founder Markus Frind’s investment firm, in 2015. But Cymax was in some trouble.

“Things were tough,” recalls Somji, who was raised in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and came to Vancouver with his family when revolution hit in the early 1990s. “We’d blown through a lot of our investment—we were focused on the top line and weren’t making enough bottom line there. Investors were nervous; they asked me to try and turn the company around and make a profit. We did, and haven’t looked back.”

He’s not kidding. Cymax saw 40-percent revenue growth from 2019 to 2020. Somji attributes that to a few things, including his employees’ mindset and an emphasis on organizational structure.

“We gave the sense to the team that we were underdogs, on our back legs. It was a simple focus—let’s go and make a dollar, let’s prove we have a real business model here,” he says. “We shut down certain business units that were great ideas but didn’t warrant the time and focus. And we looked to our partners and vendors that we worked with and assured them that we wanted to simplify and amplify e-commerce.”

The next year obviously brought the COVID-19 pandemic—a nightmare, unless you’re in e-commerce.

Cymax, which has two business units, one for e-commerce—where it sells mostly furniture on Amazon, eBay, Target and so on—and one dedicated to shipping and logistics, grew another 82 percent from 2020 to 2021 and is slated to see significant expansion again this year. The company now has about 210 employees, 100 of whom were hired in the first half of 2021.

“If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that people’s reticence about buying large-value items online has gone away or is capable of going away,” says Byron Thom, Cymax’s senior director of strategy. Thom, formerly an investor and board member with Cymax, asked to join the company in a full-time role this year.

“Furniture almost doubled online penetration during COVID, and new categories are also experiencing amazing growth,” he adds. “Cymax is still at the forefront of a change in consumer behaviour. As vendors and manufacturers think about how they want to go to market in a digital world, they’ve come to trust in Cymax to be that trusted partner.”

Though Somji had previously co-founded Vancouver-based customer management software company ResponseTek, Cymax is his first taste of leading an organization.

“They say it’s lonely at the top; you don’t realize that until you’re in the seat,” he says. “It’s definitely a different kind of pressure. I’m responsible for over 200 people’s lives and families and income. It’s pushed me out of my element and my core competency of technology, which is always something I lean on when I get challenged or pressured, but it’s been a really great growing experience.”

Somji credits his staff with helping him grow into the role, and Cymax has moved to hire numerous executive team members in the past year. Thom is impressed with what he’s seen from within as well as outside the company.

“He’s both a tech person and an entrepreneur at heart,” he says of Somji. “He’s very focused on data, and he pulls in the right people to make collaborative decisions. His behaviour and performance since I’ve been here validated all the things I saw from the other side of the table when I was on the board. He’s data-driven and honest, with a low ego, and is very down-to-earth.”

Thom also notes that Somji’s superpower is his “ability to connect with people and communicate in a way that gets people really excited about online furniture.”

Those folks are surely thrilled with Somji’s vision for Cymax’s future, which includes democratizing e-commerce and building out the company’s operations.

“We’ve given the smaller players access to tools, systems—rates even—that they wouldn’t otherwise get,” Somji says. “We’re allowing them to focus on building their products. We want to tackle every part of the supply chain and make sure we’ve got solutions and optionality for our customers.”

10 Questions With Rizwan Somji

What was your first summer job?

Dishwasher at an Italian restaurant.

Is an entrepreneur born or made? 

Made. The environment the individual lives and raised is responsible for developing the individual into an entrepreneur.

What is your definition of success?

Success is the peace of mind knowing you’ve tried your best.

What other career might you have had?

Believe it or not, I was interested in pharmacy!

Name one thing that people would be surprised to learn about you.

I lived in the Congo for a good part of my life.

Finish this sentence for us: “Entrepreneurs need a lot more…”

Mental toughness and resilience.

What businessperson do you most admire?

Howard Schultz.

What do you do to relax/unwind? 

Either hanging out unconditionally with my kids or doing a sport.

How would you describe your leadership style?

Servant leadership.

Name an item you typically forget to pack on business trips and regret not bringing: 

My watch is my superhero cape. I feel protected and strong when I have it on.