Small Business Success Stories

By CBJ Staff

Small and medium-sized business enterprises are at the very heart of what helps drive the Canadian economy, but often there is confusion as to what constitutes a small business. According to Industry Canada, employing one to four people is what’s known as a micro-enterprise; five to 100 employees is a small business and 101 to 499 workers is a medium-sized business. Any company with 500 or more employees is defined as a large business. The total number of registered employer businesses in Canada is about 1.2 million. Of that, about 1.1 million are defined as small businesses, or about 98 per cent of all employer business ventures in the country. Small business is responsible for generating about 42 per cent of all private sector GDP.

It’s estimated that about 5.2 million Canadians work for small businesses, or about 48 per cent of the entire national workforce. About 42 per cent of employed Canadians work for enterprises with fewer than 20 employees. About 2.8 million Canadians are listed as being self employed. Not surprisingly, the biggest obstacle to success is most often cash flow.

Two successful entrepreneurs shared their stories about becoming a successful entrepreneur at the Toronto Board of Trade: Peter Oliver, who is one half of Oliver & Bonacini Restaurants, and Rick Segal, founder and CEO of Fixmo. 

Peter Oliver

Oliver & Bonacini Restaurants is the brainchild of business partners Peter Oliver and Michael Bonacini, whose venture together in 1993 resulted in the unveiling of Jump on Bay St. in Toronto.

During the past two decades, Oliver & Bonacini’s restaurants have sprouted up in growing numbers, each exhibiting the success of the chain. Included are such well-defined establishments as Canoe, one of Canada’s most celebrated dining experiences in downtown Toronto, Auberge du Pommier, serving impeccable French cuisine for over 22 years, Biff’s Bistro, a modern Parisian eatery, and Oliver & Bonacini Café Grill, with locations in Bayview Village, Blue Mountain, Oakville and Waterloo, Ont. The successful partners also backed their long-time pastry chef David Castellan in his dream of opening SOMA Chocolatemaker in Toronto’s Historic Distillery District.

In 2008 Oliver & Bonacini became the exclusive service provider at the Toronto Board of Trade, First Canadian Place, bringing over 30,000 sq. ft. of newly renovated event space into the company’s portfolio. With further expansion ahead, Oliver & Bonacini standards of food and service excellence remain the main focus of the company’s vision. 

Peter Oliver was born and raised in Cape Town, South Africa, moving to Canada in 1967 to attend Montreal’s McGill University. He had a successful career in stock brokerage and commercial real estate sales before opening his first restaurant in 1978. In addition to running Oliver & Bonacini Restaurants, Oliver is the founder and chief fundraiser of The Stephen Leacock Foundation, a successful children’s charity which has raised more than $4 million over the past 10 years for underprivileged children in South Africa.

Born and raised in South Wales, Bonacini attended chef school in Britain, apprenticing under Anton Mosimann at the Dorchester Hotel before moving to North America. He began in the U.S., travelling extensively to promote “cuisine naturelle”. In 1985, he moved to Toronto as Executive Chef at the Windsor Arms Hotel. He was Executive Chef of Toronto’s top restaurant, Centro, when he met Peter Oliver in 1993, and their partnership has continued since then.

At O&B, Bonacini directs all creative and culinary operations, and oversees all new restaurant expansion projects.

Oliver says his company has a basic set of values that are always adhered to by everyone within the business.  They include: inspired quality; intelligent, enthusiastic and emotional service; effective management; operational excellence; superior training and development; continuous improvement and the combination of momentum, mental energy, discipline and hard work.

“What is important is that you have the discipline to make sure that what you say, you actually do,” Oliver says. “There’s no magic bullet out there. Let’s just do what we say we’re going to do.”

“I say to our managers if we can score a 9 or a 9.5 out of 10 on each one of these values, we will be successful,” he continues. “The only way to do that is through employee engagement.”

When Oliver & Bonacini hires new employees to its current roster of 1,200, Oliver meets with them in groups of eight to 12 for five hours as part of an orientation session.

“There must be a genuine commitment to employee development so that the employees feel you are on their side. Our biggest strength is the extent to which our employees are engaged in making the company successful. I call that enlightened management.”

Oliver admits that this approach is something he had to learn over time.

“When I first started I had a real reputation for being a tough SOB,” Oliver frankly states. “I had  very little patience.”

It was about 12 years ago when Oliver completely changed his managing style and he says it was one of the most poignant moments of his business life. An employee suggested he enroll in a course put on by a non-profit organization called the National Training Laboratory.

“My particular course was Human Interaction Laboratory,” Oliver reveals. “It was an intense one week course and I had never learned so much about myself and other people. It changed my life.”

Oliver took much of that emotional one-week course with him and came to realize that each one of his 1,200 employees had their own individual story and is capable of doing more with the company and their lives. It’s all a matter of applying oneself. In business, he says the main task for managers is to create momentum and ensure each employee is engaged in the process. Do that and you’re going to see a successful enterprise.

Rick Segal

Fixmo is a risk management company that helps organizations identify, mitigate and manage the risks associated with mobile devices in the workplace. Prior to launching Fixmo, CEO Rick Segal was a partner at JLA Ventures, a large Canadian Venture Capital fund. He was also president and CEO of Microforum, a leader in providing integrated e-business solutions in a wide array of industry verticals. From 1992 to 1996 he worked as director of technical services for the Internet Customer Unit at Microsoft in Redmond, Wash. Segal has authored of four books on network management and Windows software development.
“I moved to Canada in 1999 and can tell you it’s the best place in the world to do business without exception,” Segal says. “The support you get from the Canadian government, provincial governments and things like the Board of Trade – it is phenomenal.”

It was in 2009 when Segal began working on a business plan for what amounted to be Norton Utilities for Mobile. He got his inspiration after coming in contact with a hysterical woman in a coffee shop, who was upset because she had accidentally deleted photos of her grandfather from her RIM BlackBerry who had just recently passed away.

“There’s no trash can on the BlackBerry; there’s no undelete,” Segal notes. “So I wrote a utility for the device that watches your calendar, so 30 seconds before a meeting starts your phone will go into silent mode and 30 seconds after the meeting is over it will go back. Why? Because every single time I would go somewhere people’s phones would go off. If it’s your wife it can override it – I’ve been married 30 years, I know how to write software,” Segal laughs.
Segal put together about 25 utilities and used

“We launched the product and had 150,000 beta customers,” Segal reveals. The customer service department consisted of Segal and another worker, answering queries 24/7.

“We then made an insightful decision – people will pay for this software; and we found out people won’t. For most people, the threshold for an app on a mobile device is about $2; $4.99 if it’s enterprise software.”

Segal says it was Canada that made his company successful, and was willing to offer proof.

“Canada hosts and sponsors trade shows,” he says. “They had technical shows and we went to all four of them and it cost me a grand total of $5,000. We met members of the NSA (National Security Agency) and since then have signed agreements and shipped software to The White House, the American Secret Service, the folks in Ottawa and No. 10 Downing Street (home of the British Prime Minister). All of that I could not have afforded but Canada did that for us.”

Segal also says Canada took the initiative to contact every single embassy to inform them of this great Canadian company with excellent mobile security software. The advice was to get military attaches to speak with government officials and meet with Fixmo.

“All of the embassies did this and they sent us an email of all the trade ministers and military attaches for every embassy in Canada,” Segal states. “We’ve been doing sales directly on that list for two years.”

In a very short period of time Fixmo has raised $37 million in capital. Motorola has become a strategic partner with Motorola Solutions. We have former NSA officer who are now on our board.”

Segal says there are some very basic rules to follow when starting up a business and a lot of it has to do with checking your own ego at the door.  His first rule is that you should always hire people smarter than you and then get out of the way. Otherwise your corporate ceiling ends with the limitations of your own knowledge base.

“The number one fatal mistake every single entrepreneur I’ve ever met who’s failed is they hired dumber people than them because they didn’t want another person to outshine them,” Segal says. “It’s also known as ego. Big, big mistake.”

The main job of an entrepreneur is to open a path and let the smart, creative people move as far and as fast as they can, unfettered, with the obvious assumption of responsible planning and execution. Segal says it’s also important to allow employees to make mistakes. He also believes that people should be defined by who they are, not what letters come after their name.

“Without trying to piss off most business people, I’m not a big fan of guys that come in and tell me about Wharton, Harvard and all the MBA nonsense,” Segal candidly says. “It overshadows the core of who the person is. You’re not defined by your education. You’re defined by who you are. The best hires I’ve ever gotten come from Craigslist.”

Segal’s message is he doesn’t care about whether an individual has a degree or what the person allegedly can do. He wants to see what a person can do. If you can do it – you’ll be hired.