Sam started stocking shelves and now owns his own business

Meet Sam:

  • Mid 50’s

  • Born in East Africa and immigrated to Canada in his teens

  • Rents an apartment with his wife. Has one daughter and 2 grandchildren

  • Has retirement savings invested the stock market

  • Independently employed and so pension will be limited to Old Age Security and Canadian Pension Plan

  • His wife will have a pension as she works in the public service

In all honesty, I have never met anyone like Sam before.  He is a hard work hustling grandfather entrepreneur who has done it all, loves yoga and is still dancing up a storm in Zumba.  Sam is a locksmith who saved me from the $300 key copying fee the Subaru dealership wanted to charge me. 

Sam immigrated to Canada in 1980 from East Africa.  He had just finished high school and his brother sponsored both him and his mother to come over.  Sam thought he was coming to Canada to go to school but living with his brother didn’t work out so Sam became responsible for supporting both himself and his mother. 

With no education, limited English and no Canadian experience, Sam got a full time job working at the Grand & Toy warehouse and a part time job working as an usher. Sam knew the drill and that he was not going to be able to live better at these wages so he was continuously looking for ways to get ahead.  He always dreamed of working for himself. 

He tried to find places where he could be more valued and earn more with his limited skill set. He decided to get his truck-driving license and used that to get a job driving Grand & Toy trucks.  This provided a bit of a small salary bump.

Around this time, Sam met a Lindsay – a beautiful young girl who was here from the UK as a nanny.  The next thing you know they got pregnant – damn how did that happen asks Sam?  Sam and Lindsay got married, got their own apartment and got through a tough first few years.  Sam was still earning little and was now supporting a new baby as well as giving his mother money to help support her. 

He thought being a mechanic would increase his prospects so he moved in that direction but the compensation was still so far from being what he wanted.  In 1990, in his late 20’s Sam got his cab driving license.  He continued to work full time as a mechanic but would drive cab 24 hours through the weekend.  He was making more money on the weekends than in the entire week as a mechanic. 

Weren’t you frustrated – I asked?  That’s life, said Sam. 

Sam went on to have 3 cabs.  He hired a manager to organize all the cabs and manage the administration.  Unfortunately she stole from him, he lost all the money he made and had to sell the two cabs.  He went back to just driving cab for himself. 

From here Sam went on to try his hand at a breadth of other areas from trying to get a job in an office to owning a balloon company, import / export business and then 3 hot dog stands in the Toronto area.  All this time Sam was busting his butt with 16-hour days.  He was making good money but the hours were crazy.

One day one of Sam’s employees was complaining about how he had to pay $300 for a locksmith to spend 30 minutes and let him into his house.  Sam thought – now there's a business model.

So Sam set off to learn more about the industry and opportunities within it.  Deciding that this might be a good fit, he started taking some courses– he did this while keeping the hot dog stands.  He found a job with a locksmith who was an expert and was willing to teach him.  It was poorly paid, probably just above minimum wage but Sam knew that if he learned the trade he could build a viable business.

Sam's mobile workshop

Sam's mobile workshop

Close to two decades later and Sam has built a nice business for himself.  He finally gets to have a good lifestyle.  He gets up, does yoga, and starts his workday. He enjoys the work and connecting with people he meets along the way.  He loves the flexibility and the control and he finally makes good money.

Sam comes home at normal hours and gets to Zumba in the evening.  He does not own a house because his wife never wanted to buy one but he does have a reserve of funds stashed away for retirement and his wife is in the public sector so will have a pension.   He is not worried about retirement and feels that everything will work out. 

In talking to Sam, I can immediately see 3 things that have made him successful:

  • Attitude; Sam has an attitude that is all about moving ahead. His thinking is really focused on “you are where you are and you have to figure out the best way to move forward”. There is no doubt that it sucked to not have an education and was extremely difficult to support his mother and soon after a wife and baby. It was frustrating and depressing to have his employee steal from him. And he was very pissed when he lost a chunk of stocks to the Nortel collapse. But through all this, Sam's attitude and focus was to keep going, to look for something that would get him to the next step, something he would like and that would value his time and effort

  • Openness; Sam probably sampled close to 15 different careers before hitting on locksmithing. Although, he was very challenged by entry barriers, he continuously engaged and learned from people from all walks of life. He was open to new ideas and opportunities. He researched and used common sense to evaluate opportunities

  • Commitment to learning; Sam has an unbelievable commitment to learning. He takes a piece of learning out of each experience. When he was at Grand & Toy, there was profit sharing in the warehouse and he realized the incentive it had on him. Learning from this, he was probably one of the only hot dog stand owners to allocate a percentage of profits to his workers and to invest in providing a breadth of different employee benefits. His commitment to learning means that he was never too proud to start at the bottom. His focus is always on moving forward

When I think about Sam’s experience, I can’t help but admire Sam's resilience.  I think about how Sam's learning and risks were all at his own expense.  He spent decades independently figuring out how to increase his success with very limited opportunities and examples of success.  This was costly, forcing him to lose his money and have to restart more than once. 

Most importantly, I think about how much more our society would have benefited from his intellect, commitment and entrepreneurial spirit if we had managed to leverage his skills earlier. I can easily envision how many jobs he would have created and how much others would have learned from him had he not been stuck working 16 hour days just to make ends meet. 

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