As one of the winners of Ernst & Young’s ENTREPRENEUR OF THE YEAR PACIFIC REGION program, Roger Hardy submitted himself to intense scrutiny by a top accounting firm and hard-nosed panel of judges, and came out on top. He was deemed a winner in the category of Business-to-Consumer Products and Services.
Roger Hardy is the Chair and CEO of Coastal Contacts. Dominating the reception area in Coastal Contacts’ Burnaby headquarters is a stunning but rather ominous-looking steel T. Rex. In case visitors miss the subliminal message behind the sculpture, a sign posted nearby warns: Leave all prehistoric ideas at the door. A quick tour through the company’s buzzing customer-service bullpen and warehouse the size of three football fields, housing $8 million worth of just-in-time inventory, confirms there is no place for lumbering corporate giants. The average age of the 180 employees in the North American hub of this global online contact lens retail store is 30. At 36, Hardy is affectionately dubbed “grandpa” by younger members of his management team. In seven years, Hardy has taken Coastal Contacts from a two-person operation to one of Canada’s fastest-growing companies. The company boasts more than $65 million in sales to 22 countries, and is well on the way to ¬becoming the $100-million business Hardy promised investors when he took the ¬company public in 2004. Achieving global industry domination is within reach, he suggests, because Coastal is a nimble operation that can quickly generate ¬detailed, real-time tracking data and act quickly to make strategic changes. It also has a $30-¬million war chest in an industry ripe for ¬ consolidation and is actively seeking new ¬global partnerships. Hardy likes to point out that the global market for contact lenses is currently US$5.6 billion, with a projected growth of between five and six per cent a year for the next 10 years. “Online sales are expected to double each year for the next five years,” he adds, “which is why we see a very bright future.” Hardy never set out to be an entrepreneur. After studying political science at university, he left Ontario to ski Whistler and surf the Baja. Settling in Vancouver, he joined the Loomis organization, first as local account manager, learning transportation and logistics, then managing large national accounts. While working in regional sales for a big, U.S.-based ¬contact lens manufacturer, he spotted an opportunity to go it alone. In 1999, he and Coastal Contacts ¬ president Bill Wrixon launched a new ¬company selling contact lenses online and hit $1 million in sales before selling out nine months later to More.com. When More.com went under during the tech crash, Hardy ¬immediately bought the company back, for less than he had sold it for. “At this point I had ¬experienced the excitement of selling a successful company and was more convinced than ever it was the right business to be in.” By the end of 2003, 90 per cent of Coastal Contacts’ business was generated in the U.S. In 2004, it acquired Stockholm-based Lensway AB, Europe’s largest online distributor of contact lenses, which today serves as the company’s European hub. With sales now evenly split ¬between Europe and North America, the company is honing in on Asia, particularly Japan. Coastal’s main customer base is women aged 17 to 30. Placing an order is designed to be a simple three-click process taking four ¬minutes or less. In a twist on more traditional e-commerce transactions, Coastal customers don’t have to provide personal profiles or ¬credit card details. Instead, they can choose the ¬“invoice me later” (IML) option. Hardy admits that the whole ¬notion of shipping goods without cash up front strikes terror in the hearts of some investors. “Yes, it was a calculated risk, and we had a steep learning curve in which we ¬reduced our IML losses from six to two per cent, but we’ve had to be innovative. IML puts us streets ahead of the competition.” Since their company went public, Hardy and Wrixon have raised an impressive $42 million from the investment community, chiefly to fund expansion. “Sometimes when we go into a meeting and start talking about contact lenses, we see people glazing over; it just isn’t considered a sexy business,” says Hardy. “But when we put up our charts, suddenly it’s ‘You have how many customers? You made how many sales last year?’ Our growth potential ¬always makes people sit up and take notice.”