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Leaders of successful companies lead others to opportunity

Jim Estill of Danby and Rick Jamieson of ABS Friction have business opportunities to share

Jim Estill is the renowned Guelph-based entrepreneur who started a computer distribution business out of the trunk of his car and turned into a $300 million company. He was also an early investor in Blackberry when it was Research in Motion.

He publicly admitted on Thursday to being the entrepreneur who also turned down an opportunity to invest in PayPal at the start-up phase. He just didn't believe it could work. You catch some, and you miss a few.

Estill, CEO and president of household appliance maker Danby, teamed up with his good friend and fellow successful entrepreneur Rick Jamieson, CEO and president of ABS Friction, for an intense entrepreneurial session at Innovation Guelph.

Both men shared a few business secrets and stories, but they were there for business interests of their own. Danby and ABS Friction have business opportunities, and the facilities and working capital to foster them. What they need are good entrepreneurs who can take those opportunities and run with them.

The two businessmen and their company associates spent a few hours with about 50 eager entrepreneurs, engaging them in quick-burst Dragon’s Den-like pitches. Only this was different from the popular television program's approach.

The event was a “reverse collision” type deal. Entrepreneurs weren’t pitching their own brilliant or not so brilliant business ideas. Instead, Danby and ABS Friction shared the business spin-off opportunities they have with the participants, looking for those who had brilliant entrepreneurial approaches that would give those opportunities wings.

In their opening remarks, Estill and Jamieson spoke like men accustomed to sharing a lot of information at a breakneck pace. Stopping short of divulging proprietary secrets, they were direct and open about the challenges they face, the niches they would like to fill, and the types of business minds they want to partner with.

Estill said 50 per cent of Guelph-based Danby’s business is in the United States, and with talk about protectionist trade measures, and NAFTA renegotiations on the horizon, the uncertainty of the market south of the border can keep him up at night. Alternative markets would be nice, and any entrepreneur with good ideas about how to find those new markets would be an asset for Danby.

Estill said entrepreneurship is not necessarily about coming up with revolutionary ideas. It is just as much about seeing the business opportunities that accrue from existing businesses.

Danby is open to the idea of putting its name on a vacuum cleaner. It has the space and capital to invest in and market such a vacuum cleaner, it just needs someone to make it.

The company sells a lot of product within the hospitality sector. It is eager to hear about product ideas that serve that sector’s needs while enhancing Danby’s product line and market.

Estill said that in the kind of business he is in, as in most every business, there are three fundamental questions that need to be answered: Is the technology working? How are sales and marketing functioning? Can you make money? Answer those questions satisfactorily and you should have success.   

ABS Friction is an international player in the automotive brake industry. Jamieson said he could have moved the operation to just about anywhere else in the world, and reaped the business advantages of doing so. Guelph, he said, may be the most expensive place on the planet to make brake pads.

Describing himself as a bit of “hillbilly,” Jamieson said he stayed in Guelph because the factory is five minutes from his front door. Guelph is his home - always has been and always will be.

ABS Friction makes good products in Guelph, products that are leading edge when it comes to environmental standards and build quality, he indicated. What he needs is to grow his market. And that’s not easy when you’re competing with low-cost countries like China.

Jamieson is all ears to entrepreneurs that can help him grow. And he is all ears to all green solutions.

The world, Jamieson said, is at the tail-end of the gas-powered internal combustion engine. Where the horse and buggy was when the automobile was introduced, is where the fossil-fuel car is now in light of the introduction of the electric car.

“The electric car is going to change our lives forever,” he said, even going so far as to encourage those at the event to buy an electric vehicle now.

As revolutionary as the electric car is, it still needs brakes, he said. Making better brakes for electric vehicles, he said, is one of his challenges.

“Small players can be big players in their industry if they just focus,” Jamieson said.

Innovation Guelph executive director, Anne Toner Fung, said she hopes Thursday’s Reverse Collision Day will be the first of many.

Danby and ABS Friction each presented a few viable business opportunities to participants, and the companies have the capacity to accelerate those opportunities based on the working capital and assets they already have in place, she said.

“I would be very surprised if nothing came of it,” said Toner Fung, who was optimistic about the possibilities. 


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Rob O'Flanagan

About the Author: Rob O'Flanagan

Rob O’Flanagan has been a newspaper reporter, photojournalist and columnist for over twenty years. He has won numerous Ontario Newspaper Awards and a National Newspaper Award.
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